Green, White, and Black – Frank McNally on the cross-ethnic coalition that helped turn Boston Irish

“A Grand Concert for Ireland’s Cause” in March 1886 in aid of the Parnell Parliamentary Fund

“A Grand Concert for Ireland’s Cause” in March 1886 in aid of the Parnell Parliamentary Fund

 

Among the results of the Boston Massacre, the 250th anniversary of which fell this week (An Irishman’s Diary, March 5th), is a monument in one of the city’s parks. It’s a minor thing compared with other offshoots of the massacre, which arguably include American independence.

But it took more that a century to be erected, and it was the product of a remarkable period of the city’s history, when two despised minorities – African Americans and Irish Catholics – joined forces to rise together.

The coalition was unwittingly foreshadowed at the trials of British soldiers involved in the 1770 shootings, when defence counsel John Adams (soon to be a US president) spoke contemptuously of the “motley rabble” of […] negroes and mollattoes [and] Irish teagues […]” that provoked the troops.

Those teagues had inadvertently included poor Patrick Carr, a 30-year-old emigrant caught up in the riot, whose forgiving words as he died slowly over several days helped Adams to exonerate the soldiers.

But Crispus Attucks, the first of the five to be killed, was a mixture of African and Native American ancestry, and so was considered a mulatto (to use the standard spelling) in Boston racial terms. He was at any rate a “person of colour”. 

Attucks was also unusual among the victims because, in the words of one of those who campaigned for the monument, “he himself was not in possession of the rights for which he gave his life”. 

In the century after the massacre, the idea of commemorating him as the first to die in the American revolution became a cause célèbre. And because of that, even though it honours all the victims, the sculpture erected in 1888 is popularly known as the Crispus Attucks Monument.

The story of how it came to be, despite continued misgivings among the Boston establishment, was told in a 2018 book, Race Over Party, by historian Millington Bergeson-Lockwood.

In a chapter titled “For Ireland’s Cause”, Bergeson-Lockwood describes how, throughout the 1880s, Boston’s African Americans combined with their fellow outsiders then, the Catholic Irish, to advance their common interests. 

Those interests were not confined to the US. Recognising that the historic oppression of Ireland by Britain had parallels with their own struggle, black America supported the fight for home rule, as a matter of principle.

Some remembered Daniel O’Connell’s campaigns against slavery. For others, it was just the right thing to do.In any case, it led to such events as “A Grand Concert for Ireland’s Cause” in March 1886, “given by The Young Colored Citizens of Boston” in aid of the Parnell Parliamentary Fund.

At this, black sopranos sang songs including Kathleen Mavourneen and Come Back to Erin, alongside arias from Verdi. Guests paid between 50 cents and 75 cents and $125 was presented the Parnell Fund.

The coalition extended to the local press, where the leading black newspapers supported Ireland’s struggles and the Irish papers reciprocated.

A key figure was poet and journalist John Boyle O’Reilly, one of six Fenian prisoners who had made an extraordinary escape from Australia in 1876. In the struggle against injustice, Boyle O’Reilly wrote, “there are no races or classes”.

But the coalition was above all political. African Americans helped elect Boston’s first Irish-born mayor, Hugh O’Brien, who earned their trust partly in the time-honoured fashion – including them in the share-out of city jobs. And it was with O’Brien’s blessing that the monument was finally erected in November 1888. 

A representative of Louisiana who was there for the unveiling marvelled at Boston’s “perfect equality of the races”, wishing be could take it home, (although he missed a beat when describing the city’s white leadership, O’Brien included, as “Anglo-Saxons”).

Alas, as Bergeson-Lockwood writes, this enlightened cross-ethnic partnership did not outlast the decade.

First the actual Anglo-Saxons of Boston – or the traditional establishment anyway – found a rallying point around opposition to Catholic-run schools. O’Brien was not re-elected.

Then Boyle O’Reilly died, suddenly, at 46. And so, soon afterwards in Ireland, did Charles Stewart Parnell, whose tragic downfall paralysed Irish politics for a generation. Boston must have experienced its own version of Ivy Day in the Committee Room.

The burgeoning Irish Catholic presence soon took power on its own terms, anyway, banishing the innocent idealism of the 1880s. The next century of Boston politics would be summed up, brutally, in the opening voiceover of Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film The Departed.

“Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a job [here], we had the presidency,” boasts mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). “If I got one thing against the black chaps it’s this. No one gives it to you. You have to take it.”

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