The Impact of 19th century Irish Immigration on Brighton

The following article appeared in the pages of the Allston-Brighton Tab about 15 years ago at a time when I was writing regular bi-weekly columns for that paper and for the Boston Tab on a broad range of historical topics. I’m posting it now as an adjunct to the article I posted a few days ago by journalist Michael Daly relating to 19th century ethnic prejudice. This article also appeared in my book Allston-Brighton in Transition: From Cattle Town to Streetcar Suburb (The History Press, 2007). WPM

Early Irish Immigration into Allston-Brighton

The appearance in the Allston-Brighton Tab of an article by David McLaughlin about recent Irish immigration into our community got me to thinking about the first great wave of Irish immigrants that came to Brighton in the mid-19th century, and the transforming impact they had upon the town’s social, economic and political life.

The Irish came to this country in huge numbers as a result of the Great Famine. The Potato Rot, a disease that destroyed the most important source of food for the Irish peasantry, first appeared in 1845, subjecting the ordinary people of that benighted land to a succession of miseries that has few parallels in modern history.

Ireland was a land of great estates, owned mostly by Protestant landlords. With the failure of the potato crop, Irish cottagers were unable to pay their rents, and were accordingly driven from their holdings. The suffering of the Irish people was particularly severe in the 1849 to 1851 period when some one million were displaced. They emigrated, when they could, to England, Canada, and the United States. The flow slowed somewhat by the late 1850s, only to revive in the early 1860s, following the reappearance of the dreaded Potato Rot. By 1865, some two and a half million Irish had fled their homeland, many of them coming to New England.

The impact of the influx of Irish immigrants upon Brighton, a town of about 2,000 residents, was enormous. In the first ten years of the phenomenon (between 1846 and 1855) the Irish Catholic population of the town rose from a mere 100 to more than 1,000—or from about 5 percent to nearly 40 percent. In subsequent decades the number continued rising until the Irish comprised a majority.

Brighton, it should be emphasized, was not unique in this respect. Boston and most nearby towns experienced an influx of immigrant Irish in the 1846 to 1870 period. Generally speaking, the more commercially-oriented a community, the more job-hungry Irish it attracted.

Not only were the Irish an extremely large group, they were also almost all Roman Catholics, members of a church that Protestants looked upon with deep suspicion. The Irish were also a relatively young group. Less than 2 percent of them were over fifty years old, while nearly 80 percent were under thirty. Also, almost half of the adult Irish were unmarried.

Most importantly, the great majority had no marketable skills. In 1855, sixty percent of Brighton’s Irish listed their occupation as “laborer” or “servant.” There were some skilled Irish in the town to be sure—7 blacksmiths, 3 butchers, 3 shoemakers, 3 gardeners, 2 stonemasons, 2 ropemakers, and 2 farmers—but the great majority had no skill for which a demand existed. That so few turned to farming may seem surprising, since most of the land surface of Brighton was then devoted to farming, but land was extremely expensive and the wages paid farm laborers among the lowest of the low.

Many Irish took jobs in domestic service. Some 30 percent of Irish workers in Brighton in 1855 were employed in the households of the town’s well-to-do residents, as maids, servants, gardeners and caretakers. This work force consisted mostly, of course, of women.

Job opportunities were relatively plentiful during the boom period of the late 1840s and early 1850s. Irish laborers were needed to build new streets, sewerage, lighting, and transit systems, and residential, commercial, and public structures. And while wages were low, working conditions often dangerous, and work days long, a frugal immigrant might, with a bit of luck, succeed in accumulating enough savings to buy a house, or perhaps even go into business for himself.

Where did Brighton’s Irish population reside in the early years? The largest concentration settled in North Brighton. Nearly half the total number of Irish families in the town in 1855 lived there, in the area north of the railroad tracks between Market and Franklin Streets. Another sizeable concentration lived on the south side of Brighton Center, principally along Winship, Shepard, and Eastburn Streets. The first Catholic mass in Brighton was celebrated in the mid-1840s in the home of Irish immigrant Thomas Corcoran on Eastburn Street. Another somewhat smaller concentration was to be found near Union Square. There were also many smaller clusters, usually situated adjacent to industrial and commercial establishments.

And what of the reaction of Brighton’s native-born element to these newcomers? The Yankees (i.e. Anglo-Saxon Protestants) feared and distrusted the Irish. These animosities were deeply rooted in Anglo-Irish history. David Nevins, a wealthy Yankee manufacturer who owned an estate that comprised the present St. Gabriel’s Monastery and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital sites, was so anti-Irish in attitude that he steadfastly refused to employ Irish servants or laborers. At one point, when the roof of his handsome mansion sprung a leak, and he was unable to find a Yankee workman to repair it, he allowed the rain to pour in rather than employ an Irishman to make the necessary repairs.

Brighton’s Protestants, it should be emphasized, were not unique in harboring strong anti-Irish sentiments. The political wing of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic or nativist movement—the so-called American or Know-Nothing Party—was extremely powerful throughout Massachusetts in the 1850s. In November 1854, the Know Nothings not only won control of the Massachusetts State Legislature, but managed to elect one of their own as Governor, a Boston dry goods merchant named Henry Gardner. Gardner, in fact, served three consecutive terms as Massachusetts’ Chief Executive. The avowed object of the Know-nothings was to deny voting and office-holding privileges to the foreign-born. Brighton gave Henry Gardner 60 percent of its votes in the 1854 election. Gardner also topped the ticket here in the 1855 and 1856 elections.

One of the most important early consequences of the coming of the Irish to Brighton was the establishment of a Catholic Church here, St. Columba’s (later renamed St. Columbkille’s), founded in 1855. The church was originally situated near the northeast corner of Bennett and Market Streets.

By 1872 St. Columbkille’s had outgrown its original wooden building, and began constructing a much larger stone edifice at the corner of Market and Arlington Streets, which was completed in 1880.

Another important consequence of the coming of the Irish was a gradual shift in the town’s political orientation toward the Democratic Party, which had been founded in the late 1820s by the followers of Andrew Jackson, but had never received much support here. As late as the 1848 to 1852 period, the opposition Whigs commanded between 61 and 67 percent of Brighton’s vote. By the end of that decade of the 1850s, however, the Democrats, who made a point of recruiting immigrant support, moved into a position of parity with the competition, the recently formed Republican Party. By the 1870s, Brighton was a Democratic stronghold, the only town in Middlesex County to regularly vote Democratic.

Politics was one of the avenues by which the most talented Irish immigrants and their sons achieved prominence in the early years. Significantly on the eve of Brighton’s 1874 annexation to Boston, several of the town’s most important officeholders were Irish—Patrick Moley sat on the three member Board of Selectmen and Harvard-educated attorney Michael Norton held the posts both of Town Clerk and Town Treasurer.

Equally significant were the successes of Irish businessmen in the early years, especially in the livestock and slaughtering trades, in hotel and saloon keeping, and as small-scale manufacturers. In the fullness of time, the Town of Brighton (present-day Allston-Brighton) turned out to be a rather good choice for the victims of Ireland’s Great Famine.

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