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The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine, Migration, & Opportunity Open at the Massachusetts Historical Society

Explore the impact of generations of Irish in Boston from famine relief efforts to a mass migration movement, community and institutional building, and a rise in political power.

The Irish AtlanticThe Irish have long been an important presence in Boston. The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine, Migration, & Opportunity, co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Forbes House Museum in Milton, Mass., explores the Irish in Boston from famine relief efforts to a mass migration movement, decades of community and institutional building, and a rise in political power. The exhibition opens on March 10, 2017 and is on display at the Society through September 22, Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

The Irish began arriving in Boston during the 18th century and were mostly Presbyterians fleeing the harsh economic realities of the north of Ireland. The community grew despite Boston’s unwelcoming puritan traditions. In 1737, the Charitable Irish Society was formed to assist the poorer members of the Irish community.  By the early 19th century, descendants of Boston’s Irish Protestants had become an important part of the fabric of the town. 

By the end of 1846, news of the severity of the Potato Famine arrived in Boston.  Old ties to Ireland—and a deep sense of charity—inspired Bostonians to organize a relief mission. Aboard the U.S.S. Jamestown, Robert Bennet Forbes and others carried food to a starving Ireland. Visitors are greeted at the start of the exhibition with the wheel from the Jamestown. Paintings of the Jamestown, Robert Bennet Forbes, and John Murray Forbes along with letters, a narrative of the voyage, and other manuscript pages provide context for the mission. Also on display is a harp-framed testimonial to Captain Forbes from the inhabitants of the county and city of Cork given in gratitude for his relief efforts.

As the famine wrought devastation across Ireland, thousands of impoverished Irish sought to escape misery, starvation, and death by braving the harsh and dangerous Atlantic crossing. Many arrived in Boston. By 1850, the Irish were the largest immigrant group in the city. Poor, unskilled, and desperate, they crowded into the city’s North End, South Cove, and Fort Hill neighborhoods, places rife with deplorable living conditions.

The unprecedented surge of Irish into Boston alarmed nativist elements, who feared that the city was becoming a dumping ground for undesirables who threatened to undermine and destroy traditional American values. In reaction, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant "Know Nothing" Party arose, calling for "Temperance, Liberty and Protestantism." The party swept into office in Massachusetts and took control of the legislature, passing laws to restrict voting while sending special committees to investigate "certain practices" alleged to be taking place in Catholic schools. Visitors can view pages from the records of the East Boston Chapter of the American Party along with the Constitution of the State Council of the American Party of Massachusetts that was adopted on August 7, 1855.

Although Boston’s Irish were sympathetic to the South and were supporters of the Democratic Party, the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter convinced them to stand by the Union and the Constitution. To demonstrate loyalty to the Union, and with the support of Gov. John A. Andrew, Col. Thomas Cass, an Irish immigrant, formed the 9th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Made up primarily of Irishmen, the "Fighting Ninth" distinguished itself in the war. Irish support for the Union helped to soften nativist sentiment against them while the war itself provided new opportunities for economic and social advancement. Broadsides, including a recruiting poster for the “Glorious 9th” Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment and a poster for the 28th Infantry, the second Irish regiment raised, that includes the Irish battle cry "Fág an Bealach." 

The Civil War left the Republicans in the ascendency and the Democrats in disarray. By their sheer numbers, and united by a vibrant network of family, church, business, and politics, the Irish emerged as a potent force in Boston. Imbued by the drive for Home Rule back in Ireland with a rising spirit of Irish pride, new leaders, including Patrick A. Collins and Patrick Maguire, took control of the Democratic Party and got out the vote. Their efforts prevailed, and in 1884 Boston elected its first Irish-born Roman Catholic mayor, Hugh O’Brien. 

Anxious to preserve their rich culture, Irish immigrants brought to Boston a fondness for literature, poetry, and song. Taken from Ireland and reshaped in America, these remembrances were often published in the Boston Pilot, America’s first Catholic newspaper. John Boyle O’Reilly joined the Pilot as a reporter, was appointed editor in 1871, emerged as a popular writer and frequent lecturer and became the co-owner in 1876. His strong American patriotism, conciliatory stance in politics, and advocacy for social reform gained him acceptance among Boston’s elite. 

In 1895, the number of immigrants born in Ireland and living in Boston reached its peak with 72,000 out of a total population of nearly a half million. While recent arrivals continued to settle in the older crowded neighborhoods of the city, the 20th century offered new opportunities. Second and third generation families, having achieved some economic and social success, relocated to more pleasant surroundings in other parts of Boston, including Charlestown, Dorchester, and South Boston. Some families left entirely, moving to the suburbs. In 1905, John F. Fitzgerald was elected Boston’s first American-born Irish Catholic mayor, and in 1911 Archbishop William O’Connell was elevated to cardinal. In 1912, Pres. William Howard Taft, addressed the Charitable Irish Society in Boston, celebrating the “Irish race.” It may not have been "rags to riches," but since the days of the Jamestown’s voyage, Boston’s Irish had come from "rags to respectability."

The exhibition is supplemented with touch screen displays featuring interviews with Mayor Martin Walsh; Consul General of Ireland Fionnuala Quinlan; former mayor and ambassador Ray Flynn; guest curator and Northeastern University professor William Fowler, Jr.; Stephen T. Riley Librarian at the MHS Peter Drummey; attorney and author Christian Samito; Boston College professor James O'Toole; and guest historian Catherine Shannon. Additional online content is available at

Published: Friday, 10 March, 2017, 12:00 AM