One Story Draws Another: Irish American History in Boston


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These selections from the Irish American manuscript collections at the Burns Library are loosely bound together by common threads of shared affiliation with the University and with the City of Boston – its business and its politics. To each of us working on this section, the starting place for selecting Irish American related material was evident: Boston. Our initial choices included seemingly unrelated items from University Archives and alumni papers, Boston historical collections, political papers, and business records; however, as we talked, ideas came together and connections emerged.

Among the first Boston College students was James O’Brien, son of successful newspaper editor and Boston’s first Irish-born mayor, Hugh O’Brien. Here begins a tradition of Boston College alumni associations with local business and politics. Many Boston-area politicians were Boston College alums, including John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, John F. O’Connell, and Tip O’Neill, not to mention Boston College Law School faculty member Robert F. Drinan, SJ. Within our collections, political legacies are intertwined with social and commercial relationships. “Honey Fitz” was, of course, John F. Kennedy’s grandfather; the Kennedys vacationed with the Donnellys, another prominent Irish Catholic family whose sons attended Boston College.  Scion of the family Edward C. Donnelly, Jr. married infamous Boston mayor James Michael Curley’s daughter, Mary. The connections don’t end there! Musician P. S. Gilmore, Irish nationalist George D. Cahill, and author and editor John Boyle O’Reilly all fit into the tale of Irish American history in Boston.

The efforts of Boston’s Catholics were realized when the Commonwealth granted a charter to the Society of Jesus to operate a school for young men in its South End neighborhood in 1863. The College’s earliest students were sons of artisans, tradesmen, merchants, widows, and laborers. Newspaperman Hugh O’Brien, who would later become the city’s first Irish-born mayor, was one such parent.

As Boston continued to grow in the years following the Civil War, the influence of Irish Americans upon the life of the city also grew.  Bandleader P.S. Gilmore’s National and World Peace Jubilees were massive musical concerts in Copley Square that Bostonians of all walks of life enjoyed. On a smaller scale, Gilmore also provided entertainment for social events like Boston’s Fenian Brotherhood’s Annual Ball.

Irish immigrant George Cahill of Quincy was active in both local and Irish politics. His papers offer glimpses of the Boston area activities of the Irish National Land League, Irish National League of America, and Boston’s Fenian Brotherhood, and include communications with Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and John Boyle O’Reilly.

Convicted Fenian John Boyle O’Reilly came to Boston after escaping British prison in Fremantle Australia aboard a New Bedford whaler, the Gazelle. Poet, novelist, and editor of the Boston Pilot,  O’Reilly was one of the city’s most celebrated residents.

Political clout increased for Boston’s first generation Irish Americans.  Charismatic John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald and Joseph F. O’Connell both attended Boston College. Fitzgerald – who served as congressman, senator, and mayor – closely advised his grandson, John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president of the United States. Congressman O’Connell was a founder of the first Boston College football team and of a successful law practice.

Despite Tip O’Neill’s assertion that “all politics is local,” Boston’s Irish American political leaders have excelled on an international scale. Among the examples with ties to Boston College were repeated visitor John F. Kennedy, alumnus Tip O’Neill, and faculty
member Robert F. Drinan, SJ. Will Boston College alumnus Mayor of Boston Martin J. “Marty” Walsh continue this international trend?

The exhibit, One Story Draws Another: Staff Selections from the Irish Collections at the Burns Library, is on display at the Burns Library through June 8th, 2015 and is open during regular library hours.  The exhibit is divided into five sections:  Irish American History in Boston, Irish American Fine Press Books, Irish Traditional Music, Irish Literature, and  Researcher Stories.   To learn more about this exhibit, read the exhibit handout or view this slideshow.  If you have further questions, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or

  • Shelley Barber, Reference & Archives Specialist
  • Amy Braitsch, Head Archivist
  • Xaviera Flores, Archives Assistant
  • Adrienne Pruitt, Processing Archivist

Burns Library Archival Collections Consulted

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