St. Patrick’s Day is an auspicious time to recall that before the North End was Italian it was Irish, inhabited by refugees trying to escape the terrible famines of the 1840’s. When they arrived here the Irish met an unyielding wall of prejudice and enmity. The original settlers of Boston, mostly Swamp Yankees, used to joke that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland all the way to the United States. Political cartoonists like Thomas Nast characterized the Irish as being savages and drunkards and many jobs were closed to these new immigrants.
Unlike other ethnic groups the Irish came from a country that had a Parliament and the rule of law was both sacred and brutally enforced. The laws were made in London for the benefit of the English and were used to subjugate and impoverish the Irish. It’s said that even in the depths of the great Irish famine when thousands of poor people were starving to death grain was still being exported from Ireland to England to pay taxes and rents.
The Irish learned that laws made by men could be changed if people banded together and learned to work within the system. Education and political action were the keys to success for the Irish and no one exemplified this better than that great North Ender, John F. Fitzgerald.
Born in 1863, John F. lived in Acton for a while but moved to the North End where rents were cheaper and his father had a small grocery store on North Street. He had several nicknames, Fitzie, Honey Fitz and Fitzblarney were some, but my father in law, who knew the man, always referred to him simply as John F. to distinguish him from John I. Fitzgerald a West End political operative.
When his father died at an early age, young Fitzie aligned himself with the North End ward boss Matthew Keaney and he quickly honed his skills in the bare knuckled world of Boston politics. He was a little Leprechaun of a man but smart as a room full of monkeys. After Keaney’s untimely death John F. became the ward boss and his political career was launched. In 1891 he was elected to the Boston Common Council followed by a stint in the State Senate. In 1896 he became a Congressman from the eighth district, the same district from which his grandson, John F. Kennedy, won his congressional seat.
The highlight of his congressional career was when he convinced President Grover Cleveland to veto a bill which would have restricted immigration. The bill was sponsored by the junior senator from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge. When John F. met Senator Lodge in the hall of the Capitol Lodge admonished him saying, “Impudent young man. Do you really want this country over run with Jews and Italians?” To which Fitzgerald replied, “The only difference between them and you is your people arrived a few boats earlier.”
John F. became mayor of Boston in 1906 the job he loved best. He was a fiery political orator and loved torch light parades and marching bands. At political rallies in places like Rogan’s Hall in City Square he would sing Sweet Adeline and work the crowd into a frenzy. By the end of the rally they would all be standing on their feet singing The Wearing of the Green. The Republicans accused him of “irregularities” and outright fraud in the voting process but Fitzie would have none of it.
Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, can you imagine what those blood sucking Republicans are saying? They’re accusing me of resurrecting the dead to vote, as if I was responsible for Seamus Connolly dying the week before the primaries. We all knew who Seamus was going to vote for. Didn’t I get him and his brother Jocko jobs at the DPW? We were just carrying out the poor man’s last wishes. It was an act of charity.
And didn’t those coupon clipping, cousin marrying Republicans ever hear of the Communion of Saints? Our dearly departed pray for us here on Earth and we cast their votes the way they intended. It’s God’s will. Who are they to criticize the Irish what with their poll taxes and literacy tests all designed to deny the poor Irishman his God given right to vote the Democratic ticket.
Fitzie sure had the gift of gab. Words flowed from his mouth like honey from a hive.
When I began researching this article I had thought there might have been some tension between John F. and the newly arrived Italians who didn’t speak English and were suspicious of governments and their laws. I was so wrong. I came across a document describing a charitable organization called the Societa di San Rafaele. This society started in New York City to help the Italian immigrants get settled in their new country. They opened a branch in Boston affiliated with the Sacred Heart Church and were active for several years. When I looked at the roster of society officers I found that the vice president was none other than the honorable John F. Fitzgerald. In 1905 a new Italian consul, Count Gustavo Tosti, arrived in Boston. A grand dinner was held in his honor at the Hotel Quincy sponsored by the San Rafaele Society and who do you think was the toastmaster? None other than Fitzie himself. The man was a master politician.
So, on this St. Patrick’s Day let’s raise a pint of the finest to our old ward boss, a loyal son of Ireland, a man who loved his dear old North End, a fearless fighter for the rights of the poor and down trodden, a great friend of all immigrants no matter what their race or ethnicity.
Here’s to you, Fitzie.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.