No Tea Party – Frank McNally on Irish involvement in the Boston Massacre, a forerunner to US independence

   Five unarmed civilians died and several more were injured in an incident that a future US president called the ‘foundation of independence’

Five unarmed civilians died and several more were injured in an incident that a future US president called the ‘foundation of independence’

 

Two hundred and fifty years ago today, there occurred in Boston an incident that a future US president called the “foundation of independence”. It was a massacre perpetrated by British troops who had come under attack from protesters. Five unarmed civilians died and several more were injured.

If it didn’t happen on the Ides of March exactly, the event’s aftermath had echoes of ancient Rome. When delivering an oration on its fifth anniversary in 1775, the American patriot Joseph Warren is said to have worn a toga. He himself died three months later in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

But there were also at least two notable Irish contributions to the event, both influential in their very different ways. The first was by Patrick Carr, one of the unfortunates who died. He was a 30-year-old Catholic emigrant from Ireland, who worked in Boston’s leather industry and, hearing the disturbance on the night in question, had gone to investigate. Shot in the stomach, he was doomed to die. But unlike the other victims, he survived for several days, long enough to make a piece of legal history. 

At the trials of the soldiers, his doctor testified that Carr had exonerated the killers on the grounds that they had been severely provoked and were themselves in danger. In similarly generous spirit, he died forgiving the man who had shot him.

Such evidence would usually be disqualified, since Carr had not given it under oath. But in the first American use of the “dying declaration” exception, his reported words were shared with the jury, which was invited to decide “whether a man just stepping into eternity is not to be believed, especially in favour of a set of men by whom he had lost his life”.

Carr was buried on St Patrick’s Day 1770, in the same plot as the others at the historic Granary Burial Ground, now a stop on the Boston Freedom Trail.

Among several ironies of his death was that he had contrasted the troops’ behaviour favourably with what their colleagues did in Ireland. Soldiers would never have been so restrained at home, he suggested, a backhanded compliment that was nevertheless useful to the defence.

Another irony was the soldiers’ chief lawyer: John Adams, the future president who would see in the massacre the foundations of independence. He had referred contemptuously to those attacking the troops as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jacktars”.

But in the short term, he was grateful for at least one Irish teague. Other future revolutionaries where less welcoming. Carr’s evidence was denounced by Samuel Adams, cousin of the lawyer and another founding father.

The second Irishman to play a part in the events, non-fatal in his case, was Charles Lucas.   He by contrast was a Protestant and well-to-do, with a home in Dublin’s Henry Street and an apothecary shop nearby. But he was also a political radical, who had had to flee Ireland in 1749 for his criticisms of government before returning in 1761 to become an MP.

Ten years later, he was famous enough in America to be hailed at a Boston town hall meeting of March 1771 as “that celebrated patriot, Dr Lucas of Ireland”. By then, he had been recruited to the propaganda war that followed the massacre, a conflict fought through pamphlets and letters. A letter from him was read at the town meeting and published on both sides of the Atlantic.

In its own way, it backed up Carr’s assertion that the behaviour of the army was worse in Ireland. “. . . Subjects have, almost everywhere, been murdered by the Soldiery, and that with Impunity,” wrote Lucas. “And we hardly ever see a military Man punished . . . ”

As he tacitly admits elsewhere, Protestant insecurity about the majority population had been complicit in Ireland’s military misrule. For perhaps similar reasons, he remained officially loyal to the crown.  

But his condemnation of a “base, perfidious, vindictive” government, guilty of “Rapine and Murder”, set the tone of Irish republicanism for 150 years to come. In the meantime, his letter to Boston can be read as a justification for revolution.

Lucas died soon after and is buried in another history cemetery, St Michan’s. He is a somewhat forgotten figure today.

I know of his letter only because Sean J Murphy of the Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies in Bray has just republished it for the milestone, with a commentary, and sent me a copy. 

Meanwhile, back in Boston, the 250th anniversary of the massacre is also being marked – a little late – this coming Saturday, with a day of re-enactments.

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