Cambridge Eyes Were Smiling

If you pick up a copy of S.B. Sutton's Cambridge Reconsideredand look up "Irish," you will find an unusual reference: "pgs. 55-59, 94-96 and here and there throughout the book." There is perhaps on more fitting testimony to the history of the Cambridge Irish; from the 1830's, when they began landing at Boston Harbor and trickling into East Cambridge over Craigie's Bridge, they made part of the city their own.

Cambridge's first Irish immigrants were poor and pious, displaced from their farms or starved out by the potato rot which struck in 1845. With neither the money nor the supplies to follow the Germans and the Swedes inland, they found jobs in the city's new factories and settled in tenements along the river.

They were not welcomed. Bostonians--who enjoyed a high standard of living--were generally smug about living in the country's religious and cultural center. "The morality of Boston is more pure than that of any city in America," Bronson Alcott wrote in 1828, and the citizens of Cambridge extended his judgement to themselves.

Cantabrigians, almost uniformly English Protestant until the Irish influx, mistrusted and resented the destitute and poorly-educated newcomers. They Yankees were shocked by the "dissolutness" of the foreigners--who frequented local taverns--and afraid of the Roman Catholic's allegiance to the Pope. Early one morning, after a band of Protestants burned the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, an auctioneer from the Old Village hurried from door to door rallying citizens to guard Harvard, for fear the Catholics would burn the College in retaliation.

They need not have worried--the Irish remained peaceful, and unlike other cities, there were no violent anti-Irish demonstrations. The groups appeared to cooperate--the old-timers provided schools and charity and the Irish supported the city's growing industry.

But under the quiescent surface, the city remained rigidly divided. The Cambridge Chronicleused jokes about "Paddy" as space fillers; the Yankees used the Irish as domestics and washerwomen; and as the Irish population in East Cambridge swelled and inched westward, the Yankees living on Putnam Hill moved.

In 1855, the tension between the East Cantabrigians and the old guard around Harvard College erupted. Triggered by a proposition to move the town hall to Norfolk St., a group of oldtimers petitioned to divide the city, while some East Cantabrigians followed suit.

The debate was so hot that the Chroniclerefused to print it, reasoning: "the importance of cultivationg and cherishing the most friendly relations between the different sections of the city is far greater than the pleasure which we could give by the statement of evidence, or argument of counsel, which, to say the least, would tend to widen the unfortunate differences which seems to exist among us."

Along in an unfamiliar country and spurned by their fellow citizens, the Irish turned to the Church. The first immigrants attended Mass in Boston or Charlestown, but within ten years enough Irish lived in Cambridge to support a parish. In 1841, St. John's, the first Roman Catholic church in the city, was dedicated.

The growth in the Irish population in Cambridge is reflected by the increase of churches. In December 1848 the first service at St. Peter's Church was held; in 1866 St. Mary's Church was built; and in 1883 the Church of the Sacred Heart was dedicated. Today there are six Catholic churches in Cambridge.

The churches became the focus of Irish social and cultural events in the city--helping people find jobs, sponsoring charity, publishing newspapers and organizing debates, concert plays. In 1854, Father Lawrence Carroll, pastor of St. John's started the "St. John's Literary Institute" in a loft above a butcher shop on Bridge St. While the scholars at Harvard debated Plato and Locke at one end of town, grown men learned the fundamentals of spelling and arithmetic at the other. Members of the Institute helped found a library, for many years the only one in East Cambridge.

As the city's ethnic population skyrocketed and members of the second generation became voters, the Irish emerged as a voting bloc that Cambridge's Yankee inhabitants could no longerignore. The Civil War gave the Irish the opportunity they needed to shed their stigma, for though many were not enthusiastic abolitionists, they enlisted readily.

By 1860, when other groups had followed the Irish into Cambridge, the Irish were being absorbed into the community. The Chroniclereplaced its "Paddy" jokes with wisecracks about the Jews and Blacks; Irish moved out of the tenements on the east side of town; and in 1861 Harvard gave an honorary degree to Bishop J. Fitzpatrick, the first priest so honored. the desegregation was not quite complete, however. In 1880, Cambridge still had parallel horsecar lines--one which took the Irish laborers to work, and one for "proper gentlemen."

At the turn of the century, however, the Irish began four decaded of control over the city. John H. McNamee, Cambridge's first Irish mayor, was elected in 1901, and, like all mayors of the day, brought cohorts with him to city hall. Untill World War II, if the mayor was not an Irishman, a majority of the City Council was.

Thomas P. O'Neill St. was a classic Irish politician. Originally a bricklayer in North Cambridge, O'Neill rose through his labor uhion to become a city councilor, and superintendent of sewers. Known as "the governor" in North Cambridge, he controlled much of the city's Irish machine.

In 1941, with the adoption of a Plan E government, the Irish were finally forced to share their power. Although they lost some of their control, their impact. remains. A significant number of Cantabrigins today still trace their roots to the Irish--and Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. is Speaker of the House of Representatives.