Young Patrick A. Collins and Boston Politics after the Civil War

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Abstract: This article focuses on the involvement of the Irish in Boston politics during the first decades after the Civil War, a period when the Irish first began to organize and exert some political influence in the city. Irish community leaders cooperated with the Yankee leadership of the Democratic Party during these decades, receiving a certain amount of patronage in return and the nomination of several "respectable" Irishmen for political office. Although it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century, after service in the U.S. Congress and diplomatic corps, that Patrick Andrew Collins was elected mayor (1902-05), his political significance dates back to the 1860s and 1870s. The article considers the nature of his leadership in that era.

It was the Irish, notably ambitious young men like Patrick Collins, who made the two-party system viable in Massachusetts during the era of Reconstruction. As a young man, Collins joined the Fenian movement (founded to overthrow British rule in Ireland). This work led him into politics. He was quickly elected a state representative and then a state senator.

As a legislator, Collins worked to ease restrictions on the practice of religion for Catholics in state institutions and to earn public money for Catholic charitable institutions. With the rapidly increasing number of Irish voters in Boston in the 1870s, their vocal assertion of their rights, and strong political organization, the Irish were beginning to be recognized as a power to be reckoned with. Collins was central to these developments.

Editor's Introduction: The Irish have played a defining role in Massachusetts history. According to the 2000 census, nearly 35 million Americans claimed Irish ancestry, almost nine times the population of Ireland itself. Nearly 25% of Massachusetts residents make this claim, the highest of any state and double the national average.

Why Boston? Historian James M. Bergquist writes, "If Baltimore was seen as a city dominated by Germans, Boston was clearly in the hands of the Irish. By 1855 about 30% of Boston's population was Irish-born, and only 1% German-born." In the early nineteenth century Boston had not been a prominent port of entry for European immigrants. However:

The famine years in the late 1 840s brought large numbers of the most impoverished Irish to New England. Many of them had come by way of the Canadian maritime provinces or by way of New York. During the famine immigration, the poorest and most desperate Irish migrants came in the lumber ships to Saint John, New Brunswick, and then traveled down the coast to Boston and other cities. The lowly state of the Irish by the 1 850s made them the special targets of nativist [anti-foreigner] attacks. The city served as a point of distribution for Irish immigrants going into interior New England, especially those who were becoming the workforce of the textile mills . . . But the lack of easy connections to the West (in comparison with other port cities) left many Irish stranded in Boston. The arrival of so many at mid-century crowded them into tenements, concentrated in the city's North End, with poor health conditions and high infant mortality.1

During the first decades after the Civil War, Irish voters played an increasingly important role in the local politics of Boston. Though they continued to experience poverty and discrimination, they began to establish themselves socially and economically. Not all Boston immigrants were poor and not all were Catholic or Irish; but in the middle of the nineteenth century, a huge gap existed between two identifiable groups that were competing in Boston politics: the native-born Americans and the mass of Irish immigrants. There were differences within each group, but there was a fundamental social, economic, religious, and political gap between the two populations.

Hostility towards those lumped together as "the Irish" was real. There were those, such as John Fitzpatrick, the Roman Catholic bishop of Boston during the Civil War, who attempted to ameliorate the conditions of the immigrant Irish community. …