The Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) is hosting a unique exhibition throughout the summer, the likes of which we will not see again for a long time. It is entitled “The Irish Atlantic - A Story of Famine, Migration and Opportunity” and it presents a chance to explore 175 years of the Irish in Boston from the founding of the Charitable Irish Society in Boston in 1737, through the famine relief efforts led by Capt. Robert Bennet Forbes, to a mass migration movement, the progression of community, cultural, and institutional building, and a rise in political power.
The exhibition is co-sponsored by the MHS and the Forbes House Museum in Milton.
Every story has a beginning and this one starts with the arrival of the Ulster Presbyterian Irish in the early 1700s. Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States. In the 1840s, they made up nearly half of all immigrants to this nation. The Port of Boston was a major center of immigration during the Great Irish Famine (1845-1852). By 1850, the Irish were the largest ethnic group in Boston.
Without doubt, the centerpiece of the exhibition is the moving story of the Great Famine and the response of the Boston community to alleviate its suffering, if only temporarily. In 1846 and 1847, the newspapers arriving every two weeks on the regular packet ships sailing to Boston from Liverpool brought increasingly dire reports of the potato crop failure and the mass starvation that were quickly spreading throughout Ireland.
Prompted by Boston’s Archbishop John Fitzpatrick, an ecumenical movement of Protestants and Catholics, (a coalition unusual for the time), joined together to mount a relief effort. The United States Congress authorized the use of a US warship, The Jamestown, to deliver food supplies to Ireland, with the stipulation that it be crewed only by civilians. In March 1847, Captain Robert Bennet Forbes and his crew set sail from Boston aboard The Jamestown, arriving in Cork within two weeks, with over 800 tons of grain and other foodstuffs.
The exhibition does not overlook the dark periods that the Irish and other immigrants encountered in Boston, including the burning in 1834 of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown by a Protestant mob, and the later rise of the nativist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Catholic American political party – the “Know-Nothings” - in the 1850s.
There are also some very poignant and personal stories about new immigrants to Boston. For almost a decade in the early part of the 20th century, the Charitable Irish Society employed an immigration agent to assist arriving Irish immigrants on the docks, particularly young, unescorted women who were vulnerable to being preyed upon. In one monthly narrative report on display, the agent, Julia C. Hayes, describes meeting 35 ships disembarking its human cargo, including several young girls who needed temporary shelter, employment, or assistance in connecting with their friends or relatives. Very often, some young women were met by their betrothed and many a marriage was concluded within a day of arriving in Boston.
The arrival of the Irish transformed Boston from an Anglo-Saxon, Protestant city into one that has become progressively more diverse in the 21st century. Like all other ethnic groups, the Irish had their struggles after coming to America, but went on to become vibrant threads in the tapestry of immigration that makes this city what it is today.
Over a year in the planning, it took many hands to create this exhibition. In addition to the MHS, the Forbes House Museum, and the Sullivan Family Foundation, other contributors included William M. Fowler, noted author and professor of history at Northeastern University; Peter Drummey, librarian and archivist at the MHS; and Irish historian, Prof. Catherine B. Shannon. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Irish Consul General Fionnuala Quinlan also participated in the panel discussion at the opening of the exhibit in March.
For those of Irish heritage, your Boston-Irish story awaits you. I encourage all to set aside some time this summer to visit the Massachusetts Historical Society and bring the family! A preview of the exhibition is available on the MHS website: masshist.org/irish-atlantic.
The Irish Atlantic exhibition continues through September 22 at the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02215. Open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m, to 4 p.m. Admission is free.
John P. Rattigan submitted this article for the Irish Charitable Society.