Fanfare to Boston Common Man – Frank McNally on the first martyrs of the American Revolution

An Irishman’s Diary

The Granary Burying Ground in Boston is so named for a building that used to stand alongside it, long since replaced by a church.

But the name is accidentally apt, because some of the cemetery’s best-known occupants could be said, by their deaths, to have sown the seeds of American independence.

Commemorating a later (and related) conflict, on the other side of the Atlantic, Seamus Heaney evoked the image of United Irishmen who, while on the run in 1798, stuffed coat pockets with barley to stave off hunger. After their defeat at Vinegar Hill, the poem concludes: "They buried us without shroud or coffin/And in August . . . the barley grew up out of our grave."

The dead of the 1770 Boston Massacre, initially dismissed as a rabble, did not lend themselves to so poignant a metaphor. They did, however, become part of the moral foundation for the American War of Independence.

As the Meath-born Bostonian John Boyle O'Reilly wrote a century later: "They were lawless hinds to the lackeys, but martyrs to Paul Revere/And Otis and Hancock and Warren/Read [their] spirit and meaning clear."

Among the establishment figures who had poured scorn on the 1770 protests was a future president, John Adams, then a lawyer defending the British soldiers who fired on a crowd of several hundred, killing five.

Claiming to speak in “plain English”, he characterised the protestors as “a mob . . . a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs”.

That also served as a crude summary of those who died. The first victim – of both the massacre and, as is now said, of the revolution generally – was Crispus Attucks, a man of African and native American ancestry, making him variously a “negro” and “molattoe” in the terminology of the time, which would now be seen as grossly offensive terms.

The others included a 17-year-old ship's mate – a "jack tar" – and a similarly aged Samuel Maverick (well named for Adams's prejudices): a "saucy boy", no doubt.

As for Irish Teagues, those were represented by Patrick Carr, a leather worker who before going to investigate the street disturbances that night, was persuaded to leave his sword behind.

Shot in the stomach, Carr was the last of the five to die and so played a crucial role in the trials, for which Adams might have been more grateful. According to the doctor who treated Carr in his final agonies, he exonerated the soldiers of firing recklessly, agreeing they had reason to fear for their lives.

So doing, and forgiving his killers, he paid the British army a backhanded compliment. The troops in Boston had shown much greater restraint than their comrades in Ireland ever did, he said.

In the two-and-a-half centuries since, the victims’ “motley” qualities, as derided by Adams, have only contributed to their immortalisation. The Boston Massacre Monument, a granite obelisk listing the five names, now occupies a prominent place on Boston Common, the local St Stephen’s Green.

And it was for the multiracial triumph of the common man that Boyle O’Reilly praised his adopted country thus: “Where the masses honor straightforward strength/And know, when veins are bled,/That the bluest blood is putrid blood/- that the people’s blood is red!”

Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock are also now among the celebrity dead in the Granary. The remarkable Boyle O'Reilly is not.

A former Fenian who escaped penal servitude in Australia on a whaling ship before launching a new career as a campaigning journalist in Boston, he lived almost in parallel (1844-1890) with Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) and after his premature demise was buried under a similarly monolithic monument, in his case at Holyhood Cemetery.

Boston commemorates the dead in surprising ways, some of them both literal and literary. I mentioned here recently that the city hosts an annual 10km road race called the James Joyce Ramble, on which the route is lined by actors in period dress reading extracts from the writer's work.

Joyce’s books feature in reverse chronological order, starting with Finnegans Wake and progressing through Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist, Exiles, and finally Dubliners.

In the last mile of the race, therefore, competitors are treated to Joyce’s most famous short story, including its celebrated closing passage about snow falling on “all the living and the dead”.

Snow is not expected in Boston this weekend, when the 2022 race happens. It is hoped there will no other falls either.

But staying with Joyce’s theme, and returning to the Granary Burying Ground, they discovered a new crypt there a few years ago when a tourist slipped through a brittle slate covering. Happily, the visitor fell only as far as a subterranean stairway. The living emerged unharmed and the dead were not disturbed.