Abel Bowen's 1838 Map of Boston

Credit: Boston City Archives

Turning Boston Irish Was A Fight—Literally

June 10, 2016

Something was bound to happen. Especially here. Especially then. Boston in the 1830s was a town being changed by immigration, much to the chagrin of the famed Boston Brahmin elite.  

"America was reserved for them and they were now having to defend themselves against the foreign papists, the Catholic hordes as they called them, coming from Europe," said Peter F. Stevens, journalist and author of "Hidden History of the Boston Irish."

Stevens pointed out that, crucially, Boston’s Yankee upper classes were still deeply rooted in the Bay State’s puritan beginning.   

"The Puritans really had it in for the Catholics and this built-in antipathy, it was still there in a very large degree at that point," he said.

The Catholics coming to Boston then were largely Irish. They arrived poor, with their own built-in antipathy for an Anglo-Protestant ruling class. 

"For the Irish it was a rude awakening in Boston when they came here," said Stevens. "A lot of them did come with hopes of a better life immediately, and what they found was some of the same entrenched prejudice that they thought that they were leaving behind."

By 1837, as many as 20,000 Irish immigrants were living in Boston—most in dreadful conditions along the waterfront from the North End to where South Station stands today.

"It was very very tense," said Stevens. "They didn’t want the Irish there and the Irish certainly knew it. It was just always waiting, in some respects, for a match to be lit."

On the morning of June 11, a group of Boston firefighters—then a Protestant-only profession—had put out a fire in Roxbury and, as was the custom, imbibed at a local watering hole. On their way back to the station, they came across an Irish funeral procession near Broad Street.

"The Irish felt that basically the firefighters intentionally veered one of the horse drawn fire vehicles into the procession," Stevens said.

One of the firefighters, 19-year old George Fay, then approached the mourners. Here's what happened next, Stevens said, according to The Boston Courier, a newspaper of the day: 

He had lingered longer than his comrades over his cup, a cigar dangling from his lips, he either shoved several of the Irishmen or insulted them.

The match had been lit. The Irish, some likely also brave with the drink, took action.

"Fay and one of his comrades were severely beaten by the Irish," Stevens said. "They ran to the fire station, alerted the rest of their comrades. The fire bell starts ringing and all the other fire stations start converging on the scene."

And just like that, years of built up tension erupted.

"It was a huge, huge brawl," Stevens said. "This was fists, this was bricks; clothing was torn to shreds; clubs come out, knives, you name it; furniture and household goods thrown into the streets; hundreds of people exchanging blows, but there were at least several thousand people in the streets. Just absolute bedlam."

For four straight hours. It took 10 companies of infantry and cavalry, called in by the mayor, to quell the riot. Miraculously, there was not a single fatality. Fourteen Irishmen and four protestants were arrested. All faced trial. Three were convicted and served time—all of them Irish.   

"Two sets of justice is the way it seemed to the Irish in Boston at that point," Stevens said.

The events of that day would only presage decades of violence as the Irish sought to establish a foothold in Boston. And even as they did, new waves of immigrants—from Germans to Italians to Eastern Europeans would face a similar uphill climb.

"There’s always this undercurrent of fear of the outsider, fear of the foreigner, that seems to linger over the ages and it passes from one group to another," Stevens said.

Given the current political climate, it’s hard not to see some parallels between then and now, but Stevens says comparing eras so different can be tricky. It’s not apples to apples. And yet ...

"It just shows human nature being human nature," Stevens said. "These kind of issues are something that are always going to be present and hopefully we’ve learned to deal with them better, I do believe, but it doesn’t mean that things have changed entirely either."

The Broad Street Riot: When thousands erupted in violence—Catholics and Protestants, citizens and immigrants, the financially secure and the dirt poor—in the streets of a transforming Boston, 179 years ago this week.

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