Thursday, June 05, 2008


We got a new book in at Borders last week for my "All
Things Local" section and the minute I saw it I knew I'd be
buying a copy. It's Peter F. Stevens' "Hidden History of the
Boston Irish" (trade paperback, $19.99 from History Press)
and a quick scan of the back made me grin. There was a
reference to Barney McGinniskin, who in 1851 became the
first Irishman on the Boston Police force. Barney announced
his arrival with: "Barney McGinniskin from the bogs of

I could picture him roaring that out, an "in your face"
declaration of his presence despite the opposition to his hiring
that Stevens details. Many of the objections against him were
all too familiar to the Irish immigrants of the early 19th
century: he was taking work away from native born
Americans, American culture was threatened by the influx
of low born, poorly educated foreigners, and worst of all,
they were Catholic!

Barney lost his place on the force three years later during the
era of the aptly named "Know Nothing" Party's reign of anti-
Catholic terrorism, but the Irish kept coming, carving out
lives for themselves and their families in New England.

"No Irish Need Apply?' Fine, some of them started their own
businesses while others took on menial jobs that put roofs
over their heads and money in the bank. If they had to work
as maids or ditch diggers, they did; their children would have
the chance for better jobs as clerks or teachers. Bit by bit
they worked their way to their dreams. Among them were
my Mom's grandparents.

One of her grandfathers, John McFarland, started out as a
laborer in 1880 and was working for the Boston City Street
department by the 1910 census and as a gardener for the
City in 1920. At the time of his death he owned two houses.
By 1940, his sons were employed by shoe factories, a bottler,
and a diamond cutting company and each of them owned
their own homes. His grandchildren include three Boston
firemen. It's an American success story that's repeated in
many other families whose ancestors arrived here with very
little and achieved so very much through hard work and

I recently heard a conservative declare we make too much
of being "hyphenated" Americans, of being Irish-American,
or Italian-American or Polish-American. If he had his way,
there'd be no celebration of Columbus Day or St. Patrick's
Day or any other ethnic group festivities.

I was astonished as a historian, as a genealogist, as well as,
yes, an Irish-American. We should be proud of being
Americans but we should also be proud of where our
families came from and the contributions their cultures have
made to American culture as a whole. When I hear the debate
raging over immigration today I hear some of the same
arguments used against the immigrants of other times,
including my Irish ancestors. If those arguments had
prevailed then, what a much poorer country America would
be today!

And as a historian I am proud of the contribution Ireland itself
has made to music and literature, and in its role the Irish
monasteries played in preserving much of the Greek and
Roman literature duringthe Middle Ages.

So that's what I feel about being Irish and Irish-American:
pride in my ancestors for what they overcame, and grateful
to them for what they have given back to America in return!

Written for the 6th edition of The Carnival of Irish Heritage
and Culture at the Small-Leaved Shamrock.


Lisa said...

This is a great post, Bill. I found myself wanting to give you (and our Irish immigrant forebears) a standing ovation after I read it.

Thanks for sharing your comments. I, too, have heard the same echoes in the current discussion on immigration.

I look forward to reading the book you recommended, and continuing to learn more about our shared Boston Irish heritage.

Small-leaved Shamrock
A light that shines again
100 Years in America

footnoteMaven said...

I'm on the Amen row!

English-Scottish-Irish(?)-German-American that I am.


barbara said...

Hi Bill,
Excellent post.

I'am more than sure that you are proud of your family. That is quite a success story !

Have a great day ;)

Janice said...


I was glad to see you comparing today's controversy over immigration with that of "yesterdays." Overcoming a prejudice and fear of newcomers apparently is one lesson we have not learned.

I enjoyed your article very much!