The End of the Irish Century

Author: Philip F. Lawler

Special Report

The End of the Irish Century

A death and a resignation mark the close of the long era of Catholic political dominance in Boston

Philip F. Lawler

On Tuesday morning, November 28, Cardinal Bernard Law celebrated a funeral Mass at Boston's Holy Cross Cathedral for the former city's former mayor, John F. Collins. That very afternoon, the president of the state senate, William Bulger, announced that he would leave his legislative post to become the president of the University of Massachusetts. Thus, two giants departed from Boston's political scene.

Collins and Bulger, two highly skillful and successful political campaigners, were radically different in their personal styles. But in one respect the two men were virtually identical: throughout their long political careers, each was fiercely loyal to his Irish heritage, his neighbors and friends, and above all to his Catholic faith.

For more than one hundred years, Boston's political life was dominated by such men: sturdy Irish-American Catholics with a strong commitment to family and faith. From the 1870s, when a potato famine in Ireland drove thousands of families across the Atlantic, the life of Irish immigrants in Boston revolved around two focal points: the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party. In 1884, Patrick Collins become the first Catholic Mayor of Boston. By the turn of the century, the Irish immigrants and their children had formed a powerful political machine, and wrested control of the city away from the old Yankee establishment.

Unfortunately, political control did not inevitably lead to economic prosperity. The old, moneyed class of "Boston Brahmins" still owned the factories where these Irish newcomers worked, and the Irish were not welcome in the city's exclusive clubs. The anti-immigrant "Know Nothing" Party had a strong following in Massachusetts, and promoted a virulent anti-Catholic bias. When crusty employers had openings for new workers, they would post advertisements that explicitly stated, "No Irish need apply."

The culmination of this ethnic conflict came with the political rise of James Michael Curley, who served several terms as mayor, governor, and congressman during a colorful political career that spanned forty years, from the 1910s to the 1950s. Curley was more than a politician; he was a sort of tribal chieftain--the standard-bearer for downtrodden Irish Catholics in their never-ending battles with the Yankee elite. Curley--who inspired Edwin O'Connor's memorable novel, --was an implacable warrior, who unabashedly used his political authority to reward his (Irish Catholic) friends and punish his (Yankee) enemies. Frustrated Republicans denounced him as a rascal; friendly Democrats mildly replied that he was rascal--and indeed Curley's last election as Mayor of Boston came his conviction on charges of vote fraud.

By the time Curley finally yielded the stage to younger men, the old Boston Brahmins had been routed. Many of the old Yankee families fled to the suburbs, while others retreated to enclaves on historic Beacon Hill; very few remained active in local politics. When Curley departed, he left Boston's political future in the hands of a solid corps of Irish Catholics, with names like Hynes and Powers, McDonough and Timilty, Craven and Doyle and Collins.


John Collins, who would emerge from that group as Boston's next outstanding political leader, was born in 1919 into a working-class family in Roxbury. Unable to afford college tuition, he instead made the jump directly from secondary school into law school, literally running back and forth across the city between law-school classes and his duties as an usher in a local movie theater. Like virtually every young man in his neighborhood, he joined the Army during World War II, and served in Europe. When he returned in 1946--again like many neighbors--he invested his accumulated military pay in his first political campaign.

Collins won that campaign, and became a member of the state legislature, by the simple expedient of working harder than his rivals. He knocked on every door in the district; when he noticed one of his rivals ringing doorbells, he knocked on the same doors again. After a two-year term in office, he used the same simple technique to win re-election, and two years later he moved up to run, again successfully, for a seat in the state senate.

By September 1955, Collins had built a promising political career. He was happily married, and the father of four bright young children. He had served two terms in each house of the state legislature; he had been nominated as the Democrat candidate for attorney general of Massachusetts, and lost a close race to a strong Republican contender. Now he had set his sights on a seat on Boston's city council.

Then tragedy struck. In 1955, the polio epidemic was roaring through Boston. Early in September, Collins carried his son John through the doors of the nearest hospital; the child was suffering from a raging fever. Two days later his other son, Thomas, followed suit. The elder John Collins and his wife Mary spent several sleepless nights, hoping and praying that the fever would break before the polio virus destroyed the children's nervous system, and that their two daughters would escape the ravages of the disease. Their prayers were answered. John and Thomas recovered fully; the girls were treated in the hospital and quickly released.

Two weeks later, during a routine political gathering, John Collins complained of a headache severe enough to send him home early. By the next morning he was walking through the hospital doors himself, with a temperature that quickly shot up to 105 degrees. Unable to control the fever, doctors gently suggested to Mary Collins that she should arrange to spend the next day or two with her husband. The implication of their message was clear: they did not expect him to survive.

Instead of calling an undertaker, Mary Collins called a friendly priest, who administered the last rites, gave the delirious Collins a final blessing, and touched his body with a relic of St. Pius X. That night the fever broke.


Although he survived, Collins would spend most of the next forty years in a wheelchair. He faced countless hours of grueling physical therapy before he regained control of his arms. Ten years would pass before he would walk again--unsteadily, with the help of two metal crutches.

Against all odds, Mary Collins--with her four small children still recovering from polio--managed a successful city-council campaign for her bed-ridden husband. In September Collins was expected to die; in November he won an election; in January 1956 he was wheeled into city-council chambers to attend his first formal meeting as a member.

By 1959, the ambitious Collins--who had left the city council after a single term to take a new position in country government--was looking for new opportunities. During his long convalescence from polio, he had voraciously read textbooks about city planning; he felt certain that he could bring new life to Boston's economy. So when Mayor John Hynes announced his retirement, Collins joined a crowded field of candidates hoping to succeed him.

In that crowded field, one name stood out. John Powers, president of the state senate, had won support from labor unions, corporate leaders, newspaper editors, and a host of local ward bosses. With an enormous campaign war chest at his disposal, Powers was regarded as a shoo-in for election. But once again, Collins beat the odds.

Forced to campaign on a shoestring budget, Collins adopted a quiet, no-nonsense approach. In television commercials, he patiently explained to voters his plans to revive the city. Meanwhile his supporters asked voters to reject the politics-as-usual approach; they festooned the city with placards that read: "Stop Power Politics." That slogan reaped dividends when several associates of Powers were arrested for participating in an illegal gambling operation; Boston voters began to wonder whether the front- running mayoral candidate might have some more unsavory associates.

Still, even on election day, Powers was confidently predicting victory, and most reporters were inclined to believe him. The political pundits were shocked when Collins captured the election, rolling in a comfortable 54 percent of the votes in what remains one of the most stunning upsets in Boston's political history.


When he took office in January 1960, Collins faced a daunting challenge. During the Curley era, profligate government spending had pushed the city to the brink of bankruptcy. The city's housing stock was deteriorating; old buildings were crumbling, while no new developments were planned. Corporations were leaving the urban area, setting up new shops in the sprawling suburbs.

With characteristic energy, Collins plunged into his plan for Boston's revival. He slashed property taxes, encouraging new investment in housing. He balanced the city budget, and cut down the public debt. Working closely with corporate leaders, he brought new industries into the downtown area, sparking new opportunities for employment. He put more police officers on the streets to curb a growing crime rate, and pushed the state legislature to adopt a more generous welfare program to relieve poverty.

Above all, Collins carefully planned, financed, and carried out an ambitious building program. During his two mayoral terms, Boston saw an unprecedented burst of new developments. The honky-tonk bars of Scollay Square were replaced by an imposing new Government Center. The towering Prudential building transformed the urban skyline. New housing projects sprang up near the ghettos of Roxbury, while banks built handsome new headquarters in the city's financial district.

In 1966, the mayor saw one more opportunity to step up the political ladder, and he launched a campaign for an open seat in the US Senate. But this time his ambitions were thwarted at the Democratic nominating convention, when his party's leaders chose a former governor, Endicott Peabody. Collins saw his defeat as the revenge of an old political rival. Playing a trope on a passage from the Book of Genesis, he told the press: "The voice was the voice of Endicott Peabody, but the hand was the hand of John Powers."

Collins chose to contest the Party leaders' decision, and he ran a spirited campaign against Peabody in the Democratic primary election. But once again he was defeated. In fact, despite his popularity, the mayor failed to carry a majority among the voters in Boston. That loss was hard to swallow. Although most observers agree that he could easily have won re-election as mayor, Collins chose to retire from active political life when his term expired in 1968.


Collins presided over Boston at a time when American political debates were refreshingly free of ideological overtones. Democrats and Republicans battled gamely over issues such as taxation, and in cities like Boston ethnic grudges were never far from the surface of any political contest. But the centrifugal pressures of the late 1960s and early 1970s--the sexual revolution, the campus unrest, the anti-war protests--had not yet become manifest. Looking back on the his administration from the vantage point of 1995, it is difficult to categorize Collins as a "liberal" or "conservative" mayor; he was simply successful.

Soon after Collins left office, however, American cities were raked by a cyclone of social change. Racial tensions erupted into full-scale urban riots in dozens of cities during the "long, hot summer" of 1968. In Boston, those racial tensions continued to simmer until 1974, when they exploded anew. That was the year when a federal judge, W. Arthur Garrity, decreed that Boston's public schools were racially segregated, and prescribed a broad program in which students were bused from one neighborhood to another to achieve racial balance.

Busing programs had proven highly controversial in several other American cities, but nowhere was the controversy more bitter than in Boston. In some of the city's tight-knit ethnic enclaves--such as Charlestown, Dorchester, and East Boston--families had sent their youngsters to the same familiar public schools for several generations; the schools had woven into the fabric of the community. The notion that children would now be forcibly transported to another, unfamiliar neighborhood--and that the children of strangers would enter their own communities--was utterly unacceptable. (Later in life, John Collins insisted that if he had still been mayor when Judge Garrity issued his decree, he would have flatly refused to authorize the busing program--even if that stance had cost him a term in prison.)

That strong sense of neighborhood identity was reinforced by racial tensions; parents in relatively safe white neighborhoods were frightened by the prospect that their children would be traveling into the black ghettos, where crime was rampant. Black leaders--rightly or wrongly--saw that fear as evidence of racism. Judge Garrity fanned the flames by insisting that in the first round of busing, children from Roxbury--the most impoverished black neighborhood, where crime rates were highest--would change places with youngsters from South Boston--the blue-collar Irish neighborhood, where ethnic and neighborhood loyalties were most pronounced.

That mixture proved combustible, and the residents of South Boston took to the streets to protest. They blocked the roads, refusing to allow schoolbuses to pass. They pulled their children out of public schools. They organized political rallies, protest meetings, and prayer services. Some of them spat and pelted rocks at the hated yellow buses. They stood on the sidewalks outside South Boston High School, scowling in defiance at the riot-equipped police who confronted them, chanting, "Southie won't go!"

In the end, of course, Southie go; the people could not indefinitely resist the police. But before the first ugly year of busing was over, the political climate of South Boston had been profoundly changed. The people of that community felt that they had been betrayed--by a judge (an Irish Catholic!) who had violated the parents' power over their own children's education; by the political leaders who had done nothing to stop the busing; by the Catholic priests who had urged them to accept the busing program. A community that was already prone to view the world as a struggle between "us" and "them" became confirmed in its view that outsiders would never treat South Boston fairly. At the same time, the community developed extraordinarily strong bonds of loyalty to the few politicians who had stood by them in their darkest hours. One of those politicians was a rising young state senator named William Bulger.


Born in the housing projects of South Boston, Bill Bulger was educated by Jesuits at Boston College High School, Boston College, and Boston College Law School. That educational history left him with an identity as a "Triple Eagle" (a reference to the mascot which the three schools share), and a keen taste for classical languages. To this day, Bulger's favorite forms of relaxation are listening to the Boston Symphony, walking along the shores of South Boston, and sitting at home with a volume of Thucydides in the original Greek.

While those forms of recreation might seem best suited to a reclusive aesthete, Bulger is actually the opposite: a born politician, with a unquenchable zest for political combat and a keen appreciation for the needs of ordinary voters in South Boston. With his polished oratorical skills, his political identity as head of Southie's Irish-Catholic clan, and his impish propensity for tweaking the noses of the Yankee establishment, Bulger is clearly the spiritual heir of James Michael Curley. Recalling Curley's exhortation that his followers should "vote early and vote often," Bulger delights in claiming that an election in South Boston is never over "until the returns have come in from St. Augustine's cemetery."

In reality, Bulger has never needed extra electoral help, from the graveyards or anywhere else. For years, his loyal South Boston electorate has handed him resounding victories in every campaign. First as a state representative, and later as a state senator, Bulger has easily brushed off all political opponents. In 1978, recognizing his leadership ability, his colleagues elected him as Senate President, and in each successive meeting of the legislature, he has readily won re-election to that post as well. When he finally resigned, Bulger had served as Senate President for seventeen years-- longer than any other official in the history of this, the oldest legislative body in North America.

As president of the state senate, Bulger has exercised enormous political clout for the better part of two decades; every significant piece of legislation flows through his office, and few of them emerge intact without blessing. Like Curley, Bulger makes no effort to hide the fact that he rewards friends and punishes enemies, and he has accumulated a formidable number of bitter foes. But on at least one day each year, everyone claims to be the Senate President's friend. Each St. Patrick's Day, Bulger plays host to a unique party at South Boston's Bayside Club, at which he spends hours singing Irish songs, telling old political stories, and swapping barbs with a series of celebrity guests. As the loyal sons of Southie crowd in the front doors, aspiring politicians clamber up the rickety steps in the back of the building, hoping for a chance to share the limelight at Billy Bulger's Bash.

As he stepped down from the legislature, Bulger could take justifiable pride in having been an efficient public servant, who passed budgets, sponsored programs, and helped to make the machinery of government work smoothly. Like Collins, he was not a ideologue. But until the former mayor, he served in public office at a time when controversial social issues often commanded the top place on the political agenda. Time and again, the Catholic Church looked to Bulger to lead the battle against abortion, or homosexuality, or the distribution of condoms. Almost invariably, the Senate President was equal to the task; even when the votes were arrayed against him, he often managed to stall an issue, or adjourn a session, or wield his gavel quickly enough to stave off disaster. When he resigned from the legislature, his greatest regret was his failure, despite persistent efforts, to amend the state's constitution, to abolish the notorious "Know-Nothing Amendment"--an unholy relic of 19th-century anti-Catholicism, which prohibits any form of public assistance for students in parochial schools.


While Bulger fought his legislative battles, John Collins was enjoying an extremely unquiet political retirement. Eschewing the role of the quiet "senior statesman," the former mayor plunged into the political battles anew in the 1980s. In speaking engagements and in a regular weekly appearance as a television analyst, Collins decried the decay of American moral principles, and berated his fellow Catholics for their failure to stop the social decay. Rather than basking in the memory of his old triumphs, he set out on a new uphill battle, becoming one of Boston's most outspoken critics of abortion.

When Collins embarked on his political career, nearly every significant figure within the Democratic Party would have shared his views on abortion--and on homosexuality, condoms, sex education, and feminism as well. But by the time of his death he had become a lonely voice, isolated from his old political colleagues. Although he insisted that he had never left the Democratic Party ("The leaders of the party left ," he said, "with their extreme views on abortion and social engineering."), Collins worked for the presidential campaign of the Republican Richard Nixon in 1972; in each subsequent presidential election he endorsed the Republican candidate.

In the early years of the 20th century, Boston was a bastion of conservative social thought. With Catholics comprising the clear majority of voters, few politicians dared to challenge the power of the Church. Faced with a controversial proposal, nervous legislators would ask each other, "What will they think on Lake Street"--a reference to the address of the archdiocesan chancery and the archbishop's residence. In one famous episode, Cardinal William O'Connell single-handedly stopped a proposal to allow legalized gambling, by issuing a directive that no Catholic legislator could vote for the bill. No one dared to question his authority.


The prestige of the Catholic Church was battered--in Boston as in so many other cities-- by the confusion that followed the Second Vatican Council. Mass attendance dropped, catechetical programs became more diffuse, and theological dissent sapped the religious vitality of Catholic schools. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts political life, the role of the Church was irretrievably changed by extraordinary impact of the Kennedy family.

In 1960, when John F. Kennedy told a Houston audience of fundamentalist Protestant ministers that he would not allow his Catholic beliefs to influence his political decisions, that speech quickly assumed the role of dogma among many of Boston's young Catholic politicians. The prominent role of the Kennedy family in Boston society, the charismatic successes of the Kennedy campaigns, and the conspicuous friendship lavished on the Kennedys by Cardinal Richard Cushing all helped to underline the impact of that Houston speech. A rising generation of Irish-Catholic politicians consciously modeled themselves after President Kennedy, and his devout secularism was an integral part of the style that they cultivated.

When the social upheaval of the 1970s brought issues such as abortion to the forefront, that commitment to secularism in politics became all the more pronounced. While the old guard of the Democratic Party quickly enlisted in the pro-life cause, younger politicians kept their distance.

By 1980, the political power of the Catholic Church had deteriorated so badly that when Cardinal Humberto Medeiros cautioned his flock against voting for candidates who would support legal abortion, the unleashed a vicious assault, charging that the cardinal had overstepped the bounds of propriety by invoking religious considerations in a secular political contest. (No such complaints had been aired by Cardinal Medeiros endorsed the busing of Boston's public-school students.) Obviously shocked by the vituperative response, the prelate retreated into silence.

Catholic political influence reached its nadir in 1996. In that year's November elections, the voters of Massachusetts faced two referendum questions: one would have cut public funding for abortions, while the other would have repealed the infamous "Know-Nothing Amendment." Although Catholics form an absolute majority of voters in the Commonwealth, both proposals were roundly defeated. Exit polls confirmed that even among voters who identified themselves as Roman Catholics, a clear majority voted the Church position.

As 1995 came to a close, Catholic politicians retained their dominance over the state's political system. The Lieutenant Governor, the Senate President, the Speaker of the House, the Mayor of Boston, the State Treasurer, the two US Senators--all were raised as Roman Catholics. But with the single exception of Bill Bulger, every one of those politicians has expressed strong public support for legal abortion.

Now the departure of the Senate President leaves "pro-choice Catholics" with a stranglehold on the Massachusetts political system. Bill Bulger will doubtless maintain a strong influence in public life (he jokes: "I've left instructions that I want to be buried in St. Augustine's cemetery, because I want to stay politically active"), but he can no longer hold his finger in the legislative dike. John Collins will no longer appear on television to denounce the treason of secularized Catholics. The rout of the old Catholic loyalists is complete.


In the heyday of James Michael Curley, Irish-Catholic politicians saw themselves as crusaders, fighting to overcome the Yankee establishment. In Boston today, Irish Catholics the establishment. Earlier in the century, Irish workers earned their wages at mills owned by Boston's old elite. Today the heads of major local banks and corporations are disproportionately Irish--the products of parochial schools and Jesuit colleges rather than the Ivy League. But as they have climbed up the socio-economic ladder, Boston's Irish Catholics have cast off a great deal of their religious heritage. Irish Catholics have won acceptance--with the important proviso that they must not like Irish Catholics.

Theoretically, conservative Catholics could find refuge in the Republican Party, and many have explored that route. But even today, faithful Catholics are not entirely welcome in Republican circles. In the strange political traditions of Massachusetts, Republicans often challenge Democrats by adopting liberal views on social issues. The current governor, William Weld, is a devoted champion of homosexual rights and unrestricted abortion; there are no pro-life activists among the local Republican leaders.

Years ago politicians would ask, "What will they think on Lake Street?" Today they ask, "What will they think on Morrissey Boulevard"--the home of the region's most powerful newspaper, the . Public officials treat Church officials with the elaborate courtesy reserved for ceremonial officials who have no practical power. The remnant of Irish-Americans who remain faithful to their religious beliefs find themselves thoroughly disenfranchised. In 1884, Patrick Collins disproved the notion that a Catholic could not win an election in Boston. Could a loyal Catholic--faithful to the teachings of the Church, and ready to advance them in public life--win an election today? The answer is not clear.

Philip F. Lawler is editor of .

This article appeared in the January 1996 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825-0061. Published monthly except bimonthly August/September at $39.95 per year.