The Last Of The Bosses

For the first half of this century and beyond, James Michael Curley was the most flamboyant and durable figure on Boston’s political scene. Mayor off and on for a total of sixteen years, he spent four terms in Congress and two in jail, and for two depression years he was governor of Massachusetts. At his death he lay in state for two days in the State House Hall of Flags, the fourth person in the history of the Commonwealth to be so honored. His seventeen-room neo-Georgian mansion on Jamaicaway with shamrocks cut in its shutters was both a landmark of the rise of the immigrant Irish and a nose-thumbing in the direction of Yankee Beacon Hill. He has been hated by Proper Bostonians with a proper and ultimate hatred and held in mindless affection by the slums. Alternately his Irish-American political associates embraced and knifed him. Counted out a score of times, he always bounced back. On several occasions, and long before his death, he received the last rites of the Catholic Church.

His political career began midway between the famine in Ireland and the present. In 1847, the annus mirabilis, came the first wave of mass immigration to America. Because the Cunard Line terminus was then at Boston, the wretched Irish landed there. Illiterate, sunk in their defeat, they came like cattle. Five percent of them died on the “coffin ships” on the way over. Transported from their primitive earthbound existence, they were forced to take whatever work they could find at hand, usually in a glutted market—or else starve. Sometimes they did starve in their reeking Paddyvilles and Mick Alleys, where they lived packed closely together in the first urban mass slums of America.

They were the butt of the social pyramid, the unfailing source of exploitable labor: ditchdiggers, stevedores, hod carriers, stableboys. Boston was the center of cheap labor for the country. Construction bosses all over America sent there for fresh supplies of Irish workers. The Paddies went as contract laborers in coaches with sealed doors, the curtains nailed across the windows. Along the Erie Canal and the new railroad lines they died like flies. Jeremiah O’Donovan-Rossa wrote of “the wreck and ruin that came upon the Irish race in this foreign land.”

These unassimilable foreigners with their uncouth solidarity more than doubled the population of static Boston, turning it from a coherent and comprehensive town to an incoherent and incomprehensible metropolis. Dismayed, the Old Yankees retreated into themselves, originating the so-called Boston Brahminism as a kind of defense. The term Brahmin, which Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes had given them quite by accident, they took for self-assurance, and the name stuck, coming to mean not Dr. Holmes’s disinterested bread-and-water asceticism of the mind but a class-conscious membership in the Yankee State Street financial oligarchy. The Irish were untouchables. Mayor Theodore Lyman called them “a race that will never be infused with our own, but on the contrary will always remain distinct and hostile.”

Somewhat, over a hundred years later we find Senator John Kennedy—indistinguishable in manner and appearance from his Yankee counterparts, author of Profiles in Courage, Pulitzer Prize winner, a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers—a possible presidential candidate. It is interesting sociologically that this upright young man is the grandson of Curley’s predecessor as mayor, John F. Fitzgerald—known as “Honey Fitz” for his rendering of “Sweet Adeline” at political rallies.

James M. Curley was a transition figure, a symbol of the emergence of the famine Irish from their proletarian status to political dominance. It is the recurring phenomenon of one class replacing another. In 1776 the Boston merchant oligarchy succeeded the Tory squirearchy by revolution. It in turn, if more slowly and by attrition, was superseded by the Celts. Curley’s career is a symbol of this process.

His father, Michael, came to Boston from Galway in 1865 at the age of fourteen. Sarah Clancy, his mother, arrived that same year—a meager-boned Connemara girl of the type Dr. Gogarty called Firbolg. She was twelve years old and worked first as a maid” on Beacon Hill. Michael Curley became a hod carrier at ten cents an hour by the grace of Patrick “Pea-Jacket” Maguire, boss of Ward 17, where Galway men clustered. Michael Curley was good-looking in a stumpy, plodding, impassive way, strong, and as he grew older, bearded. At 21 he married Sarah and took her to a tiny flat in one of the rotting three-deckers off Northampton Street. Along Roxbury Neck there were hundreds of those fetid wooden tenements that had been run up by jerry-builders for the shanty Irish. Beyond Northampton Street lay the North Bay, and at low tide the marsh gas sifting in across the mud mixed with the sour permanent stench of the Southampton Street dump. It was said that in Ward 17 children came into the world with clenched fists. In that Roxbury flat James Michael Curley, the second son, was born in 1874.