While walking the Freedom Trail, if you know where to look, you will see many of Boston's Irish sites. Boston's history is a green one that started even before 100,000 Irish immigrants came to Boston, fleeing the horrible conditions of the Irish Famine. As you walk the Freedom Trail, there are many overlooked sites which document Irish contributions to the history of Boston and the United States.
You can also take our Kennedy and Boston Irish guided walking tour!
Irish History in Boston
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Across from the Massachusetts State House is the statue of Robert Gould Shaw who in 1863 volunteered to lead the 54th regiment of the Union Army. The 54th regiment was the first volunteer African American unit in the US Army. Formed during the Civil War, the 54th's first battle was on July 18, 1863 at Ft. Wagner when the 54th attacked Ft. Wagner, a Confederate Fort in South Carolina. During the battle, the 54th at first hesitated in the fierce fire that was being thrown at them from the fort. Shaw was reported to yell, "Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward!" As the 54th advanced, Shaw was shot through the heart, killing him within minutes of the charge. Shaw's body was buried in a mass grave with other members of the 54th by victorious Confederates, an act they intended as an insult. Following the battle, Confederate General Johnson Hagood, returned the bodies of the other Union officers who had died, but left Shaw's where it was saying "had he been in command of white troops, I should have given him an honorable burial; as it is, I shall bury him in the common trench". Gould's father considered it an honor that his son was buried with his men.
The 54th regiment was known for their bravery and tenacity on the battle field and proved they could fight as well or better than their white counterparts. The sculpture was created by an Irish artist know as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who sculpted many statues of the Civil War including the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Illinois. The Shaw memorial is sometimes called Saint-Gaudens’ best work and is a true masterpiece. Shaw was memorialized in the film Glory, with Matthew Broderick playing Colonel Shaw.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy Statue sits on the Massachusetts State House Lawn and shows the 35th president exiting from the building. There is also a Kennedy booth inside the Union Oyster House on Union Street dedicated to him after he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. The Union Oyster House was one of Kennedy's favorite dining spots and the booth he sat in most of the time is dedicated in his memory.
Granary Burial Ground is the third oldest burial ground in Boston (1660) and boasts three signers of the Declaration of Independence who are buried there. Two of them are of Irish descent, Robert Treat Paine and the Great John Hancock. Robert Treat Paine was Massachusetts' first Attorney General and was the prosecuting attorney for the 9 British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. He would lose that case to his buddy John Adams who represented the 9 soldiers and got 7 of the 9 acquitted.
- John Hancock, Massachusetts first elected Governor and the richest man in Boston at the time. He funded the revolution with his own money and was the first and the largest signature on the Declaration of Independence. Very Irish.
- Buried next to Samuel Adams (he is not Irish, but the third signer of the Declaration of Independence who lays at rest in the Granary) is Patrick Carr an Irish immigrant and one of the five people killed in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770.
Heading down School Street you will find Old City Hall where many of Boston's Irish Mayors held court including one of Boston's favorite James Michael Curley. The building was opened in 1865 and for 104 years it was the City Hall for Boston.
The Irish Famine Memorial is important for Boston, because as a result of the Irish Famine which started in 1845 with a fungus on the potato, the staple food for many of Ireland's poor, created a horrible famine that killed over 1 million people in the country. During that time, another 1 million fled those conditions, on what was known as Coffin Ships. The name Coffin Ships was given because of the overcrowded, and deplorable conditions - many Irish died on the trip over. One of the most popular destinations for these ships was Boston, where over 100,000 Irish immigrants arrived in the five years between 1845 and 1850. This changed the culture of Boston in two ways. For one: it brought about the Irish traditions that are alive in Boston today. And two: many of the Irish brought with them their religion: Roman Catholicism. Prior to the arrival of the Irish in Boston, there were not so many Catholics in Boston. Today, due to the Irish influence and on their heels in the 1880s the arrival of Italian immigrants (also mostly Roman Catholic), Boston is a huge Catholic city. And on St. Patrick’s Day it is an Irish Catholic city. We have the Boston Celtics here for Petes sake.
Mayor Kevin White Statue is located outside of Faneuil Hall. Kevin White, Mayor of Boston from 1968 to 1984, who came to national prominence for shepherding the city through years of racial violence, school desegregation and economic stagnation. In 1972, he had the Rolling Stones released from his custody after an arrest in RI, so they could keep their schedule concert at the Boston Garden.
James Michael Curley Statue is located just off the Freedom Trail (look left when on Union St.) near the entrance to the Holocaust Memorial, you will see James standing in front of himself sitting on a bench. JM Curley is the only man with two statues of himself in one place. His political career spread from 1911 to 1950 when he served one term as Governor, three terms as US Representative, four terms as Mayor, and two terms in Federal Prison. In 1950, he was pardoned for both of his convictions (1904 and 1947) by President Harry Truman. The man was so great, he was at two places at the same time. Truly a great Irish politician who took care of his own, when most of Boston's Irish Immigrants were discriminated against. When you are celebrating St. Patrick's Day, raise your glass at least once for the man. As one of his famous campaign slogan says, "vote early and often for James Michael Curley".
The Rose Kennedy Greenway is a 1.5 mile system of public parks that was created after the huge construction project in Boston known as the Big Dig. The Big Dig was a $16 billion construction project that sunk the highway running through Boston underground, and created the green space known as the Rose Kennedy Greenway. You will cross over a section of it on the Freedom Trail just outside the Northend neighborhood. Rose Kennedy, the Matriarch of the Kennedy Clan and mother to John, Bobby and Teddy, was also born in the Northend neighborhood in 1890, when it was still an Irish slum. You can see her birthplace at 4 Garden Court St. Don't forget to check out St. Stephen's Church, across the street from the Paul Revere Prado, where the baby Rose was baptized. (Or take our Kennedy and Irish Tour of Boston)
Goodwife Ann Glover. Just at the entrance of the Northend/Little Italy neighborhood is a pub known as Goody Glovers. It is named after Goodwife Ann Glover who was the last witch hanged in Boston. Born in Ireland, a Catholic, Ann Glover and over other 50,000 Irish citizens were forced to leave the country by Oliver Cromwell, and sold to plantations in Barbados as indentured laborers. In 1680, Ann and her daughter were living in Boston, where she worked as a housekeeper/nanny for John Goodwin. In 1688, four of the five daughters became ill after one of them had an argument with Ann's daughter. The doctor who examined the children, declared it was witchcraft. Ann was arrested for Witchcraft and during the trial, when she was asked to recite the Lord's Prayer (it was believed that a witch will never recite the Lord's Prayer), Glover, who knew very little English recited in Gaelic and broken Latin. Proof that she was a witch. She was hanged on the Boston Common on Nov. 16, 1688.