It’s also, of course, “why so many Irish got into politics” in all the large 19th-century cities, says former Boston mayor Ray Flynn. “That hatred . . . had built up against them, and they saw that that was one way to be included, to be successful, to make it in America.”
“They always used to say, ‘Well, the Irish were schooled in politics by [19th century Parliamentarian] Daniel O’Connell’s move for Catholic emancipation,’ ” says Quinn. But he sees a simpler motivation. “There was nowhere else to go! They couldn’t go into banking; they couldn’t go into commerce. What they had were numbers.” Especially in Boston.
Building the promised land
If politics offered power and protection, the Church offered identity. “It was part of this process of reorganization,” says Quinn, “of saving themselves from collapse after the famine.” Today, the institution has been racked by scandal. But there were good parts. “It was the church that people needed at that time. It served its purpose.”
For Flynn, who spent four years as ambassador to the Vatican, the Church is central to who he is. “Sure, I’m a Democrat, and sure I’m proud of that,” he says. “But by the same token, my politics is rooted in my Catholic values: social and economic justice.”
Even 160 years after the famine, Flynn says he feels a “melancholy” cast to the Boston Irish character. “Boston is so unique,” he says. “There are so many people here from Galway, and Galway was the heaviest impacted by the potato famine.”
Others, though, sought to put the traumatic memories of the famine — representing, as Quinn puts it, a “massive humiliation” — firmly in the past. “When I was growing up [in the 1930s], there were two groups of Irish [in Boston],” says O’Connor. “There were the Irish who sort of never left Ireland; they still spoke with brogues, and would go back to Ireland regularly. They brought their children up with the songs, the stories, taught them to be step dancers and taught them all the songs and all the stories of British oppression and Black and Tans. Other families, including my own, said, ‘Look, that’s in the past; we’re in America now. You are what you make yourself to be. Were not ashamed to be Irish . . . but that’s in the background.”
ST. PATRICK’S DAY, CIRCA 1960: Marching for civil rights at the parade (top) and pols shamrocking at the legendary annual breakfast (bottom).
In recent years, Irish Boston’s cultural connection to the homeland has been pushed further into the background, as formerly robust immigration has waned. Thomas Keown, 28, came to Boston from Kilkeel, in County Down, just before September 11, 2001. As it turns out, he was lucky to get here when he did.
Keown works at the Irish Immigration Center in Dorchester. Hard and fast figures on how many Irish people are currently emigrating to Boston are not available, but Keown says there “is a general awareness that fewer people are coming here.” Why? “Boston is no longer the home away from home that it has been for so many years and decades for Irish folk.”