The Eagle shown here adorns the opening page of the 1809 Constitution of the Charitable Irish Society,

which is preserved in the society archives at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The eagle, symbol

of the United States of America, is shown with a lyre or harp on its shield representing Ireland. A

French bonnet also appears, a nod to the affinity of the Society to the ideals of the French Revolution.



Second in a series about the Charitable Irish Society of Boston.


By Catherine B. Shannon


From the Famine Era to the Present-day


The first two decades after the famine were extremely difficult times for the new immigrants in Boston and indeed for those already residents in the city. The huge influx of 130,000 Irish immigrants in the years between l846 and 1853 provoked a resurgence of nativist hostility against Boston’s Irish population. The famine immigrants were poorer, less skilled, and often in poor health compared to earlier immigrants, and their presence caused resentment, not only among the Boston’s native working class, but also among the city’s governing elite, who attributed the rising rates of crime, disease, and poor-relief costs to the arrival of the Irish.                                                                                                       


It was in this context that the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish  Know-Nothing movement in the form of the American Party swept all the state electoral offices in l854. No public officials were invited to or attended the society’s annual dinners in the l850s and a few of its wealthier Protestant members left the organization. The society gained only 30 new members in this decade, reaching 130 by 1860. Most famine immigrants were struggling simply to survive the effects of miserable housing, disease, unemployment, and poverty, and few joined the organization.


Nonetheless, there were some notable members during this era, including the Boston Pilot editor Patrick Donahoe, the future first Catholic mayor of Boston, Hugh O’Brien, and the philanthropist Andrew Carney, whose generosity was crucial to the establishment of Carney Hospital, Boston College, and the construction of the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Harrison Avenue. Donahoe, a fierce critic of the Know-Nothing movement, served as society president in l851 and l854 while O’Brien led the organization in l860-61. Despite the hostile anti-Irish atmosphere and its small membership, the society continued its work and gave $766 in aid to approximately 660 people between l848 and 1854.


The Civil War was a turning point in the society’s history because many of its members proved beyond doubt that the Boston Irish could be patriotic Americans while simultaneously taking pride in their Irish roots. At the war’s outbreak in 1861, CIS President O’Brien, who had come to Boston as a child in l832, called on his fellow Irish Bostonians to support the Union cause, as did Patrick Donahoe, so the 9th Massachusetts Regiment was predominantly Irish. Indeed, Donahoe provided a good deal of the funds for this new force. Society member and native of Queen’s County Colonel Thomas Cass led the Massachusetts 9th until he was wounded fatally at the Battle of Malvern Hill in July 1862. Lieutenant Colonel Patrick R. Guiney, a Tipperary native and a CIS member, succeeded Cass and led the regiment in a number of other battles. Statues of Cass and Guiney today sit in the Boston Public Garden and on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. The society’s prestige and reputation rose considerably because of the heroism of the officers and enlisted men of the Massachusetts 9th.



Upward Mobility, 1870 to 1914


By l870, some upwardly mobile famine immigrants and many of their sons had joined the society. These included Cork native Patrick A. Collins, who came to Boston in l844, joined the society in l870, and served as its president in l876-77. He had a distinguished political career as a Massachusetts legislator, Congressman and, finally, as mayor of Boston from l902 to 1905. Former President Hugh O’Brien made history when he was elected as the first Catholic mayor of Boston in 1885 and served four consecutive terms through l888. O’Brien oversaw many important initiatives that improved the quality of life in the city, including sanitation and street widening projects, the building of the Boston Public Library at Copley Square, and the start of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, which has provided beautiful natural vistas and an oasis for Bostonians down to the present day.


Another distinguished Bostonian who joined the society at this time was John Boyle O’Reilly, who took over the editorship and ownership of the Pilot from Patrick Donahoe soon after his arrival in Boston. O’Reilly was an eloquent champion of the Irish community, constantly exposing instances of discrimination against the Irish in employment, in the public schools, and in public life. A believer in the equality of all men, O’Reilly used his writing talents to expose racial and economic injustice wherever he saw it, whether in the post-bellum South or in the urban factories of the Northeast. A gifted orator, O’Reilly was the keynote speaker at the Charitable Irish Society’s 150th Anniversary Dinner in 1887 and he composed a poem for the occasion. It is to O’Reilly’s wife that the society owes the custom of having bowls of shamrocks on the tables at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Dinner. In l889, in his book on the Boston Irish, Bernard Cullen showed that among its increased membership of Irish birth or ancestry, the Charitable Irish Society included fifteen prominent lawyers, twenty-seven politicians and public servants, six physicians, and five journalists.


By the century’s end, other influential politicians and businessmen had been enrolled in the society, including Patrick J. Kennedy and John F. “Honey” Fitzgerald. In the next dozen years, Cardinal William O’Connell was among those who joined. By 1912, the society had grown so dramatically that it capped its membership at 1,200. The 175th anniversary dinner that year was addressed by President William Howard Taft and attended by 1000 people. From the l890s to the l930s, the society’s charitable giving consisted of annual donations to organizations like the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Home for Destitute Catholic Children, whose boards and staff included various society members. It did not ignore the plight of newly arrived immigrants, however, and between 1890 and l930 the society paid for an agent at the docks to assist Irish immigrants, especially women, in finding their relatives or suitable housing and employment.


Ireland’s National Struggle 1870 - 1998


Given the bitter memories held by famine immigrants and their children, it is not surprising that the society gave consistent support to Irish nationalist movements down to 1921. In 1880, when a potato crop failure in the west of Ireland raised the specter of another famine, the society followed the precedent of l847 by canceling its annual March dinner and donating $1,000 to the Irish Land League, which was then led by Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell. It gave vocal support for Home Rule in l886, and when, after the defeat of the first Home Rule Bill, Parnell’s enemies tried to implicate him in the infamous Phoenix Park murders of l882, the society contributed $209 to the Parnell Defense Fund. Parnell was made an honorary member of the society on St. Patrick’s Day, 1889.


In l887, the society refused to send a message of congratulations to Queen Victoria on the occasion of her Jubilee because it “… saw no action of Queen Victoria affecting the Irish people, which can be commended, and many that were inimical to them.”    

Because of the suspension of the implementation of the Home Rule Act during World War I, the society petitioned President Woodrow Wilson in l9l8 to push the cause of Irish self-determination at the upcoming Paris Peace Conference. Many society members were at Fenway Park when Irish Republican leader Eamon de Valera, then on the run from British authorities, spoke there on June 29, 1919 during the Irish War of Independence.


Given its early history and the inclusive nature of its membership, many Charitable Irish Society members took a keen interest in the developments associated with the outbreak of the Northern Irish troubles. In the l970s the society funded summer visits to Cape Cod by both Catholic and Protestant children from the north. During the l980s and l990s, the society provided a local platform at its annual dinners for northern politicians dedicated to resolving the Northern Irish conflict through dialogue and constitutional means. Nobel Peace Laureate John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labor Party and Monica McWilliams, a founder and leader of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, were among those northern politicians who addressed the membership. Between l982 and l985 the society also made financial contributions to support three conferences held in Boston and Virginia, where representatives of the various northern and southern parties (with the exception of Sinn Fein) and Irish and British government officials explored possible peaceful ways forward prior to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985. The society also supported the l994 Reaching Common Ground Conference at Boston University, where Catholic and Protestant women from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland gathered to discuss their political roles and aspirations in relation to the emerging Irish peace process.


Twentieth Century Highlights


Irish immigration decreased significantly in the middle decades of the twentieth century, leading the society to focus more on social and cultural endeavors that spread awareness of Irish history and culture. One of the most significant developments was the contribution of $41,000 to endow a chair of Celtic Studies at Harvard University, an amount equivalent to about $1.25 million today. Henry L. Shattuck, a society member with a distinguished Brahmin pedigree, anonymously provided these funds after meeting Irish President Douglas Hyde and discussing with him the need to spread knowledge of Gaelic art, literature, and culture in the United States. Graduates of this program now teach in Irish studies programs throughout the United States. In more recent decades, the society made a major contribution to enable the Burns Library at Boston College to purchase one of a few facsimile copies of the Book of Kells and gave a significant contribution toward the cost of the Irish Famine Memorial on School Street in Boston.


By the 1960s and l970s, the second and third generation descendants of the 19th and early 20th century immigrants were moving into positions of power and influence in the city’s business, legal, and educational sectors. However, this upward mobility and assimilation into American suburban life was not without its cost in terms of a diminished sense of Irish identity and an informed awareness of the political and economic conditions in their ancestral homeland.                                                                                                                                                                

In that vein, the society took on a rather “cut-glass Irish” character, focusing more on social events than on its traditional humanitarian mission. Meanwhile, this distancing from Ireland was exacerbated as Irish immigration to Massachusetts virtually ceased by the early 1970's.

The society’s 250th anniversary celebration in l987 was a gala affair that filled the ballroom of the Park Plaza Hotel. The program centered on honoring individuals who had made major contributions to Irish culture in Ireland and the United States. Honorees included Irish dramatist Brian Friel, Northern Irish poet Michael Longley, Professors John V. Kelleher of Harvard University and Eoin McKiernan of the Irish American Cultural Institute. This decade also witnessed the opening up of full membership to women with the result that women now constitute almost half of the board of directors. Catherine B. Shannon became the first woman President in 1990 and has been followed in that position by A. Maureen Murphy, Paula Carroll, and Kelly A. Kassa.


Renewing Our Tradition


The renewal of large-scale immigration of young Irish people to Boston in the mid-1980s caught the Boston Irish establishment unawares. Many of these immigrants had no close relatives in the area to provide help or advice on housing and employment. As many were “undocumented,” they were reluctant to reach out to the older established Irish community and remained isolated in poor sections of the city. After newspaper accounts detailed exploitation of these young Irish by employers and their difficulties in securing adequate housing and health care, in l989 a small group of Charitable Irish Society members, inspired by the society’s past record of assistance and their own family experience of immigration, determined it was time to reaffirm the society’s original mission. A program of in-kind assistance and advice was developed in consultation with the Irish Pastoral Centre. A series of workshops were held where the young new Irish were provided with information on how to access housing, education and health care, and most importantly how to apply for the newly announced Donnelly visas. Over 1,000 attended these workshops in l989 and this helped to re-establish a bond between society members and new arrivals that had been waning. The society also began to make annual donations to the Irish Pastoral Center as well as to the Irish Immigration Center. In September 1992, the society held a large reception honoring Congressmen Brian Donnelly and the $12,000 it raised was divided between the Irish Pastoral Centre and the Irish Immigration Center. Meanwhile, individual society members remained active in assisting recent immigrants to navigate the complicated citizen application process. On March l7, 1997, one hundred of these young people were sworn in as United States citizens in historic Faneuil Hall, where 150 years earlier the Jamestown rescue was launched by Captain Robert Bennet Forbes and his colleagues on the New England Relief Committee with significant support from CIS members.


In 1997, the society instituted the Annual Silver Key Award as a way to demonstrate and institutionalize its historic mission to help Irish immigrants. Honorees are typically high profile members of the business and professional community noted for their generosity to Irish immigrants as well as the unsung individuals who work quietly at the grass-roots level to provide needed services to the immigrant community. The Silver Key reception, which is usually held in the autumn, is the society’s main annual fund-raiser and typically yields between $7,000 and $10,000. These funds are used exclusively to provide timely assistance to individual immigrants referred by the Irish and British consulates as well as by the Irish Pastoral Centre and the Irish International Immigrant Center. Thus, the society provides a virtual safety net for Irish immigrants as often their requests are of an emergency nature and cannot be fulfilled by these other organizations. Using Silver Key funds, we have assisted families made homeless by fires and personal financial crisis. We have paid airfares, enabling immigrants to return to Ireland when relatives there were seriously ill or had passed away. We have helped numerous Irish immigrants through the naturalization and citizenship process by paying the fees associated with their applications.

As the society enters its 275th year, it remains firmly committed to its core missions: to help immigrants, to nurture unity and harmony among all Irish people, and to advance their social, moral, and civic interests on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Catherine B. Shannon is a professor emerita of history at Westfield State University. She was the first woman president of the Charitable Irish Society, serving in 1990 and 1991.

Watch a brief video of Dr. Shannon giving an overview of the Society's history:

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