On January 5, 1885 Hugh O’Brien became the first Irish immigrant and the first Irish Catholic to be inaugurated as the Mayor of Boston, paving the way for a powerful political force.
The 31st mayor of Boston, he served the city from 1884 to 1888 having immigrated from Ireland with his family at the age of five. Prior to his inauguration as the first citizen of the city O’Brien also served as a Boston alderman, from 1875 to 1883 and had a reputation for being straight-laced and wanting to improve how the city was run. O’Brien defied the prevailing stereotypes of Irishmen.
In 1885 when O’Brien was inaugurated, Boston had entered a new era. Roman Catholics outnumbered the native-born Protestants and accounted for 40 percent of the city's population.
At this point the Yankees were forced to recognize the political strength of Irish Catholics. During the middle decades of the 19th century the Irish foreign vote grew by 195 percent. The Irish were inevitably going to enter politics and O’Brien was the right man for the job.
O’Brien, a well-spoken, mild-mannered, businessman, succeeded in widening streets, planning the Emerald Necklace park system, and building the new Boston Public Library in Copley Square, all the while cutting taxes, during his four terms as mayor.
He was a popular mayor among both natives and Irish-born Bostonians and paved the way for better known Irish mayors of Boston such as “Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley.
Having moved to Boston at the age of five, in 1827, O’Brien had settled long before the million Irish fled the tragedies of the Great Hunger in Ireland. Young O’Brien spent seven years in the public schools of Boston and was apprenticed, at the age of 12, to a printer.
He worked first for the Boston Courier newspaper and then for a printer. He excelled in his profession and was raised to the position of foreman at the tender age of 15. He soon established his own publication, the Shipping and Commercial List, and became a member of the business elite in the city.
His success drew the attention of Patrick Maguire, publisher of The Republic newspaper and the unofficial head of Irish politics in Boston. It was Maguire who orchestrated the election of O'Brien to the city's Board of Aldermen. His seven years on the board were characterized by fiscal restraint, hard work, and respectability.
By 1883 Maguire had decided it was time that the city had its first Irish-born mayor. O'Brien was the public face of the campaign, a well-liked public official who pledged to reduce the tax rate without cutting city services. His message appealed to the natives and the Irish-born alike.
Behind the scenes, Maguire had Irish ward bosses visit every household in the neighborhood and to make sure that every eligible Irishman voted for O'Brien. The Irishman swept 15 of Boston's 25 wards.
In fact, O’Brien seemed so popular and the Irish were such a driving force in Boston that between his victory in December and his inauguration in January the former administration spent weeks working on legislation that would stop a wave of Irish appointments to key positions. Liquor licensing and oversight of the police department were also removed from the mayor's jurisdiction and were placed under the control of a special commission appointed by the governor.
However, O’Brien surprised the administration by governing Boston in a conservative manner and even drafted Yankee and Republican businessmen to serve on the committees overseeing these projects.
O’Brien was dedicated to meeting the day-to-day needs of his beleaguered constituents, however while he served as mayor, the Irish political machine matured. Over the next 50 years the Boston Irish became a political machine to be reckoned with. They turned out voters to support men who would provide jobs and protection for their Irish constituents. In turn these politicians could expect the loyalty of their fellow immigrants.
In 1908 John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald was elected mayor and he was followed by James Michael Curley, in 1914. However, their brash and confrontational style of politics was unrecognizable to that of O’Brien’s.
The Irish have continued to play a major role in Boston politics from the Kennedy dynasty right up to present day. The present mayor Marty Walsh is the son of Irish immigrants and proud of his Irish roots.
O’Brien died on August 1, 1895, at the age of 68. He is interred at Holyhood Cemetery, Brookline, MA.
Here you can read Hugh O’Brien’s inaugural address to Boston City Council: