A Story of the Irish and of Boston and of Labor

(Header image, courtesy of Boston Discovery Guide, is of the Boston Irish Famine Memorial. The two statues in the memorial, designed by Robert Shure, tell the story of the starved and destitute of the Irish famine, and of Irish immigrants who are settled in America and have found comfort and prosperity.)

Willwork, Inc. Exhibit & Event Services is a leading national exhibition services and event management company.

We were founded 32 years ago as an enterprise which provided one service exclusively: exhibit installation & dismantle (I&D). 

In 2019, Willwork offers the full roster of exhibition services and event management: general contracting, exhibit I&D, audio-visual design and production, graphics, logistics, wireless lead retrieval and sales management technology … and more.

Yet, still, so much of what constitutes Willwork Global Event Services, is that of a labor company.

When Willwork started, when we offered that one service, exhibit I & D, we did so in only one rather small geographic are:  Boston and the surrounding suburbs.

Today, Willwork works internationally, and operates offices in major metropolitan areas throughout the United States.

Yet, still, so much of our story … our lineage … is one of Boston.

There exists a deep and rich synthesis … one that is self-nurturing and self-sustaining … of Boston and labor.

Integrated deeply, and tightly entwined with, Boston and labor is the legacy and culture of the Irish.

Boston is the most Irish of American cities.

That Hibernian influence reaches powerfully and with wide expanse into the Boston suburbs.

Then, again, outside of Ireland the most Irish nation is the United States.  

A little more than 10 percent of all Americans hold Irish ancestry.

In the Boston area that figure is a slightly above 25 percent. 

What state has the highest percentage of those who are Irish?  Massachusetts of course.

We mean, really, our professional basketball team is named the Celtics.

Wholly appropriate, with St. Patrick’s Day  on Sunday, to comment and reflect on the connect between the Irish and labor and Boston.

The origin of St. Patrick’s Day is in the early 17th century when the Catholic Church decreed March 17 to be a feast day in observance of the estimated day of the year in 461 (also estimated) that Saint Patrick (born circa: 385) died.

St. Patrick is the primary patron saint of Ireland and is credited for bringing Christianity to the nation.

Over the years, St. Patrick’s Day became as much a cultural event – a celebration of Irish ancestry and customs – as a religious one.  What also developed is that holiday was celebrated with more pageantry and enthusiasm among the communities of the Irish outside of Ireland than in Ireland itself.

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Irish were already well established in America even prior to the colonies winning their independence.

Indeed, a good quarter of General Washington’s troops had Irish heritage, with credible estimates placing at 50 percent the number of men with Irish lineage serving in Continental Army regiments from Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Indeed, on March 17, 1780, at the Continental Army encampment at Morristown, NJ, General Washington used the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day to commend to his troops a measure of happiness and celebration. The soldiers needed a pick-me-up for they had endured a brutal winter of arctic cold and mini-mountains of snow at the camp in Morristown.

Please click here to be taken to a story, “George Washington’s Revolutionary St. Patrick’s Day: When General George Washington needed to boost sagging patriot morale, he enlisted a rarely celebrated holiday—St. Patrick’s Day—to the cause,” written by Christopher Klein and published on the History website on March 15, 2013.

Yes, the Irish had already done their part to found and establish our republic when, starting in 1820 – with the U.S. needing workers for labor intensive industries and for the construction of massive public works projects, among them the Erie Canal – Irish immigration to America ramped up and the Irish crossed the ocean and gratefully accepted hard, difficult, and often dangerous jobs.

Natural and man-made disaster in Ireland, which commenced in 1845, precipitated a massive increase and flow of the Irish to the New World.

As reported at Wikipedia: “From 1820 to 1860, 1,956,557 Irish arrived, 75% of these after the Great Irish Famine … of 1845–1852, struck.” 

The famine was caused by a fungus-like organism that wreaked destruction on the growth of the potato, which was far and away the primary source of nutrition for the Irish.

Making the famine worse … much worse … was that the Irish were still under English rule, and Britain did next to nothing to help their subjects. What is more, the English exported grains such as wheat, oats, and barley from a starving Ireland back to the mother country.

Before the potato started growing again in 1852, the famine had killed a million Irish through starvation or disease. During the famine years another, close to another 1.5 million left Ireland, with most of those who survived the voyage across the Atlantic arriving in Boston.

Many did not survive the passage in the disease-ridden coffin ships.  In 1847, 85,000 Irish embarked on the 3,000 mile trip to America. Of that number, nearly 25 percent died and were buried at sea.

And for those Irish who made it to the U.S., a rotten existence continued. Not as bad as in the famine ravaged homeland, but surely not a happy life.

What underwrote and fueled much of the unhappiness was that, unlike the Scotch-Irish, mostly Protestant, who came to America in the previous century to a country that was solidly Protestant, these Irish were Catholic, and the Catholics met with high-level distrust and prejudice from the ruling Anglo-Saxon elite.

But the Irish would not be cowed and would not be destroyed. In Boston, in New York, in Philadelphia, in Chicago, in Providence … and other urban areas … they crammed into unhealthy tenements, endured sickness that killed high percentages of their populations, and took on the most back-breaking, dirtiest, and exhausting work, often for low pay.

The Irish went to work.  They worked hard.

Irish legacies commenced and took root in America.

They took root in Boston.

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Willwork cites two distinguished Americans whose story in this nation begins within the mid-19th century mass arrival of the Irish in Boston.

It was in 1848 that a Patrick Kennedy, from Dunganston in Wexford, Ireland, immigrated to the U.S., arriving in Boston. It was the launch of an extraordinary family legacy in America.

On January 20, 1961, the great-grandson of Patrick Kennedy – John F. Kennedy – was sworn in as president of the U.S.

(JFK is one of several U.S. presidents with Irish lineage, starting with Andrew Jackson and going right on up to Barack Obama.  If you click here you will be taken to a place at the website of DoChara: An Insider’s Guide to Ireland where you find a history of U.S. presidents who certainly had Irish ancestry, and a few whose family tree might have branches in Ireland.)

Around the same time – 1848 – that Patrick Kennedy became an American, an Irishman named John Brady came to Boston and went to work – as a laborer.  In Boston, he met Bridget Bailey, who had also fled Ireland.  John and Bridget were both 22 years old when they married and started a family … in Boston.  

And so it began, in Boston, the Brady experience in America. This experience takes us today and the great-great grandson of John and Bridget Brady. His name is Tom Brady, and he is professional football quarterback of some renown.   

Willwork recommends a Boston Globe story, “Tom Brady’s roots run deep into 19th-century Boston: Little did John and Bridge Brady know that their marriage would one day lead to the birth of one of New England’s most revered sports figures,” written by Bob Hohler and published on March 4, 2017.

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Like almost all those who comprised the early Irish diaspora in America, the going was difficult and hard and tough.  As we already stated, the Irish took on the toughest and most difficult of jobs.

And they went at it hard and with determination.

Digging.  Raking. Mining. Sledgehammering. Washing. Rowing, Scrubbing. Welding. Driving. Paddling. Hoisting. Pulling. Planting. Hoeing. Shouldering. Cooking. Chopping. Painting. Lifting.

In this way, and through their labor – their sacred labor – the Irish helped build and reinforce the structures and physical underpinnings and foundation of nation.

Heavy in representation were the numbers of Irish who built our canals, our railroads, our buildings, our streets, our houses.

In Boston, as the Irish continued to make a way and a living through manual labor, they also started to acquire areas of power – areas they would expand upon and use to achieve and rise in other sectors.

Politics, the Irish found, was one particularly agreeable pursuit.  They excelled at building societies of political and voting influence.  They formed political machines.  Charismatic and dogged Irish “ward bosses” cobbled together loyal constituencies.

It all made sense – for the votes were there. Influence just needed to be harnessed.

In 1885, 40 percent of Boston citizens were Irish. 

On January 8, 1885, Boston swore in its first Irish-born mayor: Hugh O’Brien

Following is commentary on the significance of this transitional event excerpt from an article published at Mass Moments:

When Hugh O’Brien was sworn in as Boston’s first Irish-born mayor in 1885, it marked the beginning of a new era in Boston politics. The city had long been controlled by native-born Protestants—generally called “Yankees”—most of whom had a stereotypical view of Irish immigrants as poor, ignorant, undisciplined, and under the thumb of the Catholic Church. But the Irish-born population of Boston was exploding, growing from 2,000 in 1820 to 7,000 by 1830. By 1855, it was 44,000; 25 years later, more than 70,000 Irish lived in Boston. By 1885, the Irish were over 40% of the city’s population. They were the largest group of foreign-born residents and outnumbered the native-born Yankees.

Please click here to be taken to the full article.

The Irish held on to power.

Another significant date in that legacy of Irish influence took place on March 4, 1895 when John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald was sworn in to a two-year term as mayor of Boston. 

Honey Fitz and his wife, Josie, had four children, among them Rose Elizabeth.

A political dynasty was nascent, then fully emerging, when, on October 7, 1914, Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald married Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.

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Today the Boston Irish are still making a living as laborers, including being strongly represented in the skilled trades and in the meetings and conventions industry.

They are also leaders and influencers across all sectors of society: … in meetings and conventions … and in education, banking, medicine, coaching, the arts, sports, the clergy, construction, agriculture, media … and … yes politics.

The current mayor of Boston, the 54th in the history of the city, is Martin J. “Marty” Walsh

Mayor Walsh was born in Boston, and is the son of John and Mary (O’Malley) Walsh, both Irish immigrants.

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