Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"With Good Will Doing Service": The Charitable Irish Society of Boston (1737-1857) 1

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"With Good Will Doing Service": The Charitable Irish Society of Boston (1737-1857) 1

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Charitable Irish Society of Boston grew from a small group helping Irish immigrants gain a footing in colonial Boston to a larger, more significant presence in the city's social and political life. As it grew, the society found itself enmeshed in Boston's often severe sectarian conflicts, forcing the society to transform from a Protestant organization toward a more broadly inclusive group, taking Irish Catholics into its membership. Catherine Shannon, professor emerita of history at Westfield State University, proposes in this article that the Charitable Irish Society's strong philanthropic commitment enabled it to overcome sectarian tensions within the immigrant community as well as between immigrant and native Bostonians, going on to thrive as a 21st-century institution with a more inclusive definition of immigrants in need of assistance.

The Charitable Irish Society (CIS) is the oldest Irish organization in North America. It was established on March 17, 1737, by twenty-six men of Ulster, Ireland, birth or ancestry for the purpose of providing for "the relief of poor, aged and infirm persons, such as have been reduced by sickness, shipwreck and other Accidental misfortunes." The society also strove to cultivate a spirit of unity and harmony among all resident Irishmen and their descendants in the Massachusetts colony and "to advance socially and morally the interests of the Irish people."1 The motto attached to the founding articles was "With Good Will Doing Service," and for the past 278 years, with a few short hiatuses, the society has remained true to this motto of doing service to fellow Irishmen and -women, its ancestral land, and its American homeland.


The founders and the early members of the society were from a small segment of a larger migration of over 200,000 Ulster Presbyterians who fled from the north of Ireland to America between 1700 and 1776.2 During this era, New England was the destination of about 10 percent or about 20,000 immigrants from the north of Ireland.3 Ulstermen began arriving in Boston during the initial wave of Ulster migration that began in 1714 and lasted through the 1730s. They were escaping the discrimination that the English Penal Laws imposed upon Protestant dissenters (such as themselves) and Roman Catholics alike.4

They also fled the consequences of a succession of poor harvests, droughts, escalating rents, and the burdensome tithe payments demanded by the established Anglican Church in Ireland. Presbyterian ministers played an important role in promoting immigration, not only because they too were suffering economically but also because the Test Act of 1704 had eliminated their legal standing to perform marriages, officiate at funerals, and hold any civil offices. The British government's cancellation of the annual Regium Donum, paid to Presbyterian ministers, left many impoverished and searching for alternatives for themselves and their flocks.

It was in this context of poverty and political discrimination that two ministers, Thomas Craighead and William Homes, as well as Homes' son Robert, a sea captain on the Atlantic, came to New England in 1714. They subsequently sent letters to colleagues back in Ireland encouraging them to consider immigration to New England. In 1718, Reverend William Boyd arrived in Boston armed with a petition signed by a number of Ulster ministers and their followers requesting that Governor Samuel Shute allocate land in the New England colony for Ulster settlers. Shute and the General Court agreed to provide the Ulster petitioners with land grants. They believed that these settlements would reinforce the frontier against the Indians and buttress Massachusetts' claims to the then-disputed territory of Maine (which was claimed by both Massachusetts and New Hampshire).

Meanwhile, land speculator Captain Robert Temple, a former army officer who came to Boston in 1717 and had staked a claim along the Androscoggin River in Maine, also encouraged immigration from Ulster and eventually chartered five ships to bring Ulster immigrants to New England. …

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