- Historic Sites
John F. Fitzgerald put his seal on his city, his times, and a political tribe that still increases. To foes he was “Fitxblarney” but friends called him
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
The three-act play runs a century: sixty years from the Great Hunger in Ireland to the election of John Francis Fitzgerald—“Honey Fit” to Massachusetts—as mayor of Boston; forty more years to see his namesake-grandson, the twenty-nine-year-old John Fitzgerald Kennedy, elected to Congress from Honey Fitz’s old district as the first planned step to the Presidency. Those three dates, cut so deep in Boston’s history, mark the beginning, middle, and end of a phenomenon as old as history itself—the superseding of one class by another.
Seventy years before the Potato Famine, the seaport peninsula had seen the same thing happen: on a blustery March day in 1776, General William Howc cmbarked the Boston garrison, and the provincial aristocracy sailed away with the redcoats into exile. Those proudly armigerous Brattles and Vassalls and Dudleys and Hutchinsons abandoned the town to the nonarmigerous class below them.
As Boston resumed its pace after the Revolution, the old mansions had new laces in them; sober, hard-faced merchants, men who came to adopt the behavior pattern of their predecessors.
It takes about three generations for a new class to consolidate itself, and it took the grandsons of the Federalist merchants to give Boston its literary flowering and its label of the Athens of America. That flowering came to an end with the waves of Irish immigrants fleeing the Famine.
They were the first mass immigrants to the United States. They arrived in Boston because it was the Cunard terminus, the cheapest distance from Ireland to North America. Their memory of that flight and that passage and the desolation of their arrival remained green and bitter for generations. Over half the immigrants were illiterate; three-quarters had no trade. Five per cent died on the voyage over, wedged in the holds of the stinking “coffin ships.” An able-bodied Irish Ia- borer in the city could not in the 1850’s earn enough by himself to keep his family, in the depression during the first year of the Civil War, the newcomers starved.
In the harsh atmosphere of Boston, excluded from the common life of the community by both their background and their religion, the Irish formed a society within a society, an emerging Catholic political bloc of their own against the Protestant Yankee oligarchs. During the seventies and eighties the Irish controlled the politics of their street and block, gradually spreading out, precinct by precinct, ward by ward, until it was clear that in a matter of time they would capture the city. Politics came naturally to the Celtic temperament, particularly when all other avenues of mobility were barred to them.
Following the pattern of almost all ethnic groups, the transplanted Irish began by electing their best. Hugh O’Brien was the first Irish immigrant to become mayor of Boston. Hc was elected in 1884 with the support of dissident Yankee Democrats (for the first of four one-year terms). Not until 1901 did Boston elect its second Irish-born mayor, Patrick Collins. Both O’Brien and Collins were outstanding men, the type one might expect to find as lord mayor of Dublin or Cork or Limerick. Collins, who at twenty-seven won a degree from the Harvard Law School, was elected to Congress in 1882 and served three terms. In the second Cleveland administration the President appointed him consul general in London.
Like his poet-friend JoIm Boyle O’Reilly, Collins tried to pretend away the caste barriers erected against the proletarian Irish. He denied that there was any such thing as an Irish vote, and declaimed passionately: “Americans we are; Americans we will remain.” Reelected in 1903, he died in office in 1905. President Cleveland wrote of him: “In public life he was strictly honest and sincerely devoted to the responsibilities involved.” With one almost accidental exception, he was the last mayor of Boston for half a century of whom this could be said.
After him, the practical men took over. The IrishAmerican politicians, more and more of them now second generation, felt no obligation to observe rules made by the Back Bay ascendancy that had exploited them. The way was open. In the autumn of 1905 John F. Fitzgerald was elected mayor of Boston.
“Honey Fitz” he was called, for his mellifluous rendering of “Sweet Adeline” on the hustings and on all possible social occasions except funerals. The song became his trademark. The taking over of City Hall by this dynamic little political buccaneer was as decisive a date in the history of Boston as General Howe’s evacuation of the town. Honey Fitz was the politician who put his seal on his time and his city.
John Francis Fitzgerald’s father, Thomas, had come from Wcxford, and like most immigrant Irishmen had worked first as a laborer, but by the time his third son, Johnny, came into the world in 1863—four more sons were to follow—he had become the proprietor of a North End grocery and liquor store. The Fitzgeralds lived in a four-story, eight-family red-brick tenement near the Old North Church. Their flat had no bath and no modern gas lighting, but no other family shared the few rooms, and there was always food on the table. By the standards of the Irish North End the Fitzgeralds were well off, nor did the boys think otherwise. Young Johnny came to love the narrow streets and never developed the bitter sense of alienation of his more savage rival, James M. Curley.