BY PETER F. STEVENS
At the moment that Martin J. Walsh took his second oath of office as Boston’s mayor on New Year's Day, he further entrenches his status in the long line of Boston Irishman to hold the office. It was 115 years ago, Jan. 4, 1902, that Patrick Collins was sworn in as Boston’s first Irish mayor of the twentieth century. He had come a long way.
In the 1850s as a demented preacher dubbed “the Archangel Gabriel” led a Yankee mob through Irish Catholic Chelsea, the rioters ripped the cross from the roof of the parish church, shattered windows, and kicked down doors. The mob dragged Irishmen and boys into the street and bloodied them with fists, feet, and clubs. Covering himself up as best he could, young Patrick Collins endured his beating—and never forgot it.
On March 12, 1844, in County Cork, Patrick Collins was little more than two when the Great Famine began to ravage Ireland. His father succumbed to pneumonia before his son ever knew him, and the boy and his widowed mother boarded a “coffin ship” for Boston shortly afterward.
Mother and son settled for several years in Chelsea’s ramshackle, disease-riddled tenements where Collins learned to scrap against Yankee bullies and those of his own heritage alike. He also learned to read and write in a public school where he displayed a quick, facile intelligence.
With college out of the question for a poor immigrant youth, Collins worked as a farmhand and a coal miner in Ohio for two years before, in his teens, he returned with his mother to Boston and took a flat in South Boston. He spent his days learning the upholsterer’s trade and many of his night studying at the Boston Public Library.
Collins knew his Irish history and likened Yankee prejudice to the British tyranny of his birthplace. He was a perfect recruit for local immigrants dreaming of an uprising against the British once the Civil War ended when the Irish, wearing Union blue, could apply their bloody battlefield lessons against the British. Sometime in 1864, Collins strode into a meeting of the South Boston Fenian Circle and began to establish himself as “a man to watch” in the movement. Enflamed by the would-be rebels’ anti-British rhetoric, he became a Fenian recruiter. However, in the wake of their tragic-comic forays against British-held Canada after the Civil War, Collins became disillusioned with revolutionary violence, coming to believe that the only way to seize equality was through the ballot box.
In the fall of 1867, he walked into a different sort of meeting—South Boston’s Irish Democratic caucus where he was welcomed into the bruising world of Boston politics.
Collins started small by winning a slot as a delegate to the state Democratic convention, and in 1868, he rode a wave of Boston Irish votes to the state’s House of Representatives, where he quickly riled some Brahmins as a mouthpiece for “the ragged Irish.” Collins won reelection and also crashed through a Yankee bastion by earning a law degree from Harvard in 1871. So popular was Collins among the local Irish, and some Yankees who grudgingly admired his “up by the bootstraps” work ethic, that he was elected to Congress. He loathed Washington, however, always believing he could better serve Boston’s Irish in Boston. In the 1890s, he came back home for good.
Collins’s neatly combed and parted hair, bristling mustache, and intense eyes were a welcome sight back in the wards. In an 1884 speech, he urged that Irish Americans must never forget their roots, but that they must be assimilated into American life: “Those of us born in Ireland or who sprang from the Irish race are here to stay. We and our children and children’s children are here merged in this great, free, composite nationality, true and loyal citizens of the state and federal systems, sharing in the burdens and the blessings of the freest people on the earth.”
In 1899, the city’s ward leaders persuaded Collins to run for the office that many supporters felt was his destiny all along—mayor of Boston. After a clash with Ward Eight titan Martin Lomasney, “the Mahatma,” Collins lost narrowly to Republican Thomas N. Hart. Later, after negotiating a political truce with Lomasney and rival Democratic factions, Collins solidified support from Yankee businessmen and politicians who believed that he was conservative enough to be a “bottom-line” mayor.
On election night in November 1901, the Collins-Lomasney “machine” rolled to victory, crushing Hart by the largest margin in Boston’s mayoral annals. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., chief justice of the state Supreme Court, swore in Collins as Boston’s second Irish-born mayor (Hugh O’Brien, in the 1880s, was the first) on Jan. 4, 1902.
When it came to political hardball, the local press lauded Collins as “a strong man and the city’s defender against some of the most corrupt schemes that ever menaced it.” In 1903, he was swept back into office on the strength of his honesty and his pledge to usher in an “Era of Good Feeling” for immigrants and bluebloods alike.
His dream of peaceful coexistence between Boston’s Irish Democrats and Yankee Republicans was short-lived. The news that he had died suddenly on Sept.14, 1905, at the Hot Springs Resort, in Virginia, stunned the city.
The Boston Globe praised him as “a manly man among manly men, [who]…filled the public office to which he was called with high honor.” Another writer called him “the recognized leader of his race.” At Holy Cross Cathedral, Collins’s constituents gave him a hero’s send-off. Far from the soil of Cork, he was laid to rest near his mother, in Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline.
Today, a stately granite memorial graces the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Before Irish Americans hustle past the bust of Patrick Collins, they should stop for a moment and take a look at his determined visage— it’s that of a man who truly helped put the Irish on Boston’s political map in the twentieth century and paved the way, ultimately, for Mayor Walsh.
A plea to my fellow scribes
“Optics, Fraught, and Reboot” – these three words now make up the height of lazy, cliché-ridden journalistic jargon. Whether on cable or network news, in print, online, and everywhere else that the Punditocracy lurks, the “optics” of these words are dreadful. They are “fraught” with linguistic sloth. And a genuine “reboot” of the media’s political coverage appears nowhere in sight.
In particular, the denizens of FOX “News,” CNN, and MSNBC unleash this unholy verbal trinity round the clock, each term delivered with sonorous or frantic import. Actually, because “optics” and “fraught” sound “oh, so intellectual,” those uttering them want to remind you that they’re the smartest kids in class. Put simply, they’re the laziest.
To steal from the immortal Dr. Jonathan Swift, let’s suggest a “Modest Proposal”: For each time these words are voiced or written by journalists and pundits, $25 or more should be deducted from the speaker’s compensation. You might be pleasantly surprised at how fast people would start reaching for a thesaurus.
If those three words ever appear in this space, please tee off on this writer!