Some 20 years ago, not long after Bruce Bolling became the first black president of the Boston City Council, he used his office and power to punish a political rival, maintaining a tradition that stretched back nearly a century, when Irish ward bosses used their clout to exact revenge against anyone who challenged the machine.
Not long after, I sidled up to Bolling during a reception at the Parkman House, the mayor’s official residence at the top of Beacon Hill. "Jesus, Bruce," I said, draping my arm around his shoulder, "a brother finally becomes president, and what’s the first thing you do: whack somebody like you’re an Irish pol."
Bolling, betraying a hint of a smile, cocked his head toward me and replied, "Kevin, in this town, we’re all Irish by osmosis."
No truer words were ever spoken, certainly in the Parkman House. Like all great American cities, Boston is a city of immigrants. But no ethnic group has had a bigger impact on Boston over the last century and a half than the Irish.
Ireland’s potato blight in the late 1840’s killed one million people and sent two million others scurrying for the immigrant ships that would take them away to a new land, especially to places such as Boston. In one generation, Boston was transformed from an overwhelmingly Protestant city where most of the inhabitants traced their ancestry to England, to an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic city where most had roots in Ireland.
During the next 150 years, the Irish would come to dominate Boston, first its politics, then its commerce, like no other ethnic group, putting their stamp on a place that is universally regarded as the most Irish city in America. Even today, census figures show that nearly a third of the people who live in Boston and its suburbs are of Irish ancestry, by far the biggest percentage of any metropolitan area in the United States.
But like all things familiar and plentiful, the Boston Irish are taken for granted. One day, as we sat around his office kicking around ideas, I casually mentioned to Mark Morrow, the projects editor at The Boston Globe, that things had gotten so tough for immigrants that even the Irish were going home.
Morrow sat up in his chair. "Really?" he asked.
Well, this was just something I was hearing in the ubiquitous Irish pubs of Boston, down at the fields in Canton where Gaelic games are played, and from the myriad Irish people who I talk to regularly in covering Ireland, north and south. But at the Globe we had been trying to figure out a way to approach the immigration story, which is really a story about Mexicans, which is really a story about the impact on the economy and social services of the border states, which is really a national and international story. But as Tip O’Neill, that great Cantabrigian and former speaker of the House of Representatives, put it, all politics is local, and so is all journalism.
In a reversal of the city’s immigrant history, the Irish are going back to Ireland and fewer are replacing them. Ireland’s booming economy, the most robust in Europe for more than a decade, has transformed what was Western Europe’s poorest country into its richest in just a generation. Many of the young Irish who had to leave home to find work no longer have to. But even those who hail from the more rural parts of Ireland where the storied Celtic Tiger economy has not roared have found Boston less hospitable than it was for their parents’ and grandparents’ generation.
Especially since 9/11, it has been much harder for the young Irish to come here and stay longer than allowed by a visitor’s visa and search for work. Those who manage to stay here without the proper documentation have found it virtually impossible since 9/11 to get the Social Security numbers they need to get a driver’s license. That means that some of the jobs Irish immigrants have traditionally done, such as child and elder care, are going to others. The house painting business in the Boston area, once dominated by the Irish, is increasingly the domain of Brazilians.
In Boston, the Irish used to get the benefit of the doubt, especially compared with other undocumented immigrants. Before 9/11, if an Irish kid, his arms and clothes splashed with paint, ran a red light or had a punch-up in a pub, he’d get a lecture, or maybe even a cuff in the back of the head, from a Boston cop, who more often than not resembled his uncle. Now, they get deported.
What we are now exploring is what this demographic change means in a city and a region where the Irish have cast the longest shadow, influencing the way politics, business and religion get done like no other group. What happens when a constantly replenishing immigrant group slows down dramatically or simply stops coming? Could it be, from a cultural standpoint, like removing a species from an ecosystem, altering it forever?
The Irish experience also puts the plight of other immigrant groups in sharper focus. If it’s this bad for the Irish — white, English speakers who have a well-established community here, who have a long history of assimilation — what must it be like for non-English speaking immigrants of color who have far less clout and come from cultures where assimilation is much harder?
Morrow told me to go out and talk to people and to report back. "I’m going to have to spend a lot of time in pubs," I warned him. "On company time."
Morrow rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. "Do what you have to do," he sighed. And people wonder why this is such a great job?
But stereotypes aside, I found myself as often in coffee shops, in church halls, at kitchen tables. I went to New York to contrast what was going on in that storied Irish community with Boston. I traveled to Ireland, where people who had comfortable lives in America had returned, reluctantly, some of whom were legally entitled to stay in the United States but were deeply disturbed by what they saw as an increasingly hostile environment for immigrants in a nation that bills itself as a nation of immigrants.
The anecdotal evidence for this societal and cultural shift was compelling, but the absence of empirical evidence was frustrating. The Irish government has no data to show how many Irish citizens have returned from the United States, whether legal or not. Documenting this trend was sort of like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity: I’d know it when I saw it. (During my Nieman year, I took Larry Tribe’s constitutional law class in which he confided that when he was clerking for Stewart he’d asked him if he’d ever really seen it: Yes, Stewart replied, once, when he was in the U.S. Navy. Stewart left it at that.)
The inability of the Irish, like other immigrant groups, to make themselves legal residents has created a lot of heartache and Hobson’s choices. Young people talk of being unable to return to Ireland to visit sick or dying relatives, to attend births or weddings or funerals. Most often, their families tell them to stay put. Reverend John McCarthy, a priest from Limerick, holds memorial Masses for the dead at St. Columbkille’s in Brighton, and St. Mark’s in Dorchester, and St. Ann’s in Quincy. One night, I sat in St. Columbkille’s with young Irish people mourning a friend who returned home to Donegal, only to commit suicide. They were beside themselves with anguish and guilt that they could not return home to pay their respects to their friend and to his family.
It reminded me of the stories my Galway-born grandmother, Brigid Flaherty, used to tell me when I was a boy, of how the Irish who stayed behind longed for those who made the trip to Boston, a place the Irish called "the next parish over." My grandmother’s mother remained in the squalor of Carraroe, the impoverished village my grandmother walked away from when she was a teenager to work as a chambermaid on Beacon Hill, scrubbing floors not far from the house where council president Bruce Bolling told me that everyone in Boston was Irish by osmosis. My great-grandmother used to cry herself to sleep in Carraroe, pining for her daughter in Boston.
Carraroe, a barren, moon-like landscape that shed most of its people in the generations after the potato blight, is now a favored vacation spot of rich Dubliners, who have in the last generation built sprawling second homes on the peat bogs where my grandparents and their neighbors lived in stone hovels. The locals have dubbed this sudden, ostentatious manifestation of Irish wealth "bungalow blitz."
In the 19th century, the people in the west of Ireland held "wakes" for those taking the boat to Boston, drink-fuelled celebrations sobered by the knowledge it was most likely the last time everyone would see the person sailing for America. Now, in the working-class pubs of Dorchester and Quincy, they bid farewell to those moving back to Ireland, probably for good.
In Ireland, it was long said that there was no future, only history repeating itself. In Boston, history is reversing itself.
Kevin Cullen, a 2003 Nieman Fellow, is a projects reporter for The Boston Globe and the Globe’s former Dublin bureau chief.