As St. Patrick’s Day comes around, we might think of our local Irish history, and Holliston has a strong one.
The advent of the Irish in Holliston, says Joanne Hulbert, of the Holliston Historical Society “is a classic immigration story about people coming to the United States, which is no different from what we are seeing today. There are so many parallels. You had a population that was dying at home and emigrated.”
These immigrants would find menial labor jobs, often taking the ones that didn’t pay well, she explains.
“The railroad project was probably the main impetus for (Irish settlers) coming here,” says Hulbert. “So many Irish were emigrating from the Potato Famine. Who would you hire for these jobs? A lot of cheap immigrants.”
According to a local book of Holliston, Irish immigrants began arriving in Holliston about 1845 as laborers on the Boston and Worcester railroad project.
Hulbert explains that 12 miles of the railroad experienced a delay at Phipps Hill.
“It slowed the work down just enough so that people decided to bring families out and settle,” she says. Many of them settled at Arch Street, moving onto new jobs in the boot and shoe industries, often “cottage work” that could be done at home, by all family members.
The historian notes that these early Irish settlers were very active politically, often banding together. Two important things to this community, she says, were education and politics.
“The Irish pushed to have the high school class placed in Schoolhouse #8,” she says. They lost this battle, and a local reporter made light of their valiant attempt to exercise their voting rights in a parody of a poem in which he talks of “Mudville.” The name stuck.
“The term (derived from) a British story used to describe a less-than-optimal place,” Hulbert explains. It referred, she says, to a “kind of ‘east Podunk’ place that was less than affluent and used as a term of derision against the Irish.
“Yes, (the Irish) were clustered in Mudville,” says Hulbert, with a few scattered around town. “But any immigrant population will come together. There’s a certain social safety net.”
The Irish, she says, were Democrats, and perhaps mirroring current politics, great division existed between Republicans and Democrats.
At the beginning of the Civil War, the Irish weren’t allowed to volunteer to enlist, not because they were Irish, but more, because they were Democrats, she says.
“In the beginning of the war, the local regiments were only signing up their best, brightest and Protestant. They were rejecting the Irish at first,” she says. “In three months’ time, things started to get desperate. They were signing up everyone at that point.”
Holliston’s Civil War memorial in front of Town Hall therefore lists a good number of Irish names.
“The Irish were very politically active, even at that time. They would get together and caucus and settle on their one Irish candidate, and they were able to get in at least one of their people,” says Hulbert. Those people would be there for their constituents, she says,
She tells the story of a local priest, Fr. Cuddahay, who had begun St. Mary’s in Milford and was was looking to build a Catholic Church in Holliston.
“When he was looking for land (in Holliston),” says Hulbert, “the powers in control would just as soon have had it out of sight, around the corner, down by Pleasant Street. The Father said, ‘no way.’ John Clancy happened to have purchased the old Universalist Church, which was sitting right up across from Town Hall. Clancy sold it to the dioscese. That is why St. Mary’s is right smack dab in the middle of Washington Street. He was not going to be pushed out of sight, out of mind.”
There was hostility, she says, “a clash of cultures.” Holliston’s population was no more than 4,000 by the mid-1890s, and there was an economic depression in the 1880’s, she says.
“The economy was extremely volatile,” she says, “and all were affected here. The Protestant vs. Catholic divide lasted longer here than in other parts.”
The Irish, she says, did not back down, however, “and that goes right into the 20th century,” especially from laws affected them disproportionately, working together to overturn them. One example is public baseball.
“In 1936, you could not play baseball in Goodwill Park on a Sunday. It was still prohibited, a clash between cultures. The park committee and Selectmen’s board was still dominated by WASPs. You could get arrested even tossing a ball,” say Hulbert. “Well, the Irish were very dominant in early baseball history, and the baseball team got all its forces together and went to town meeting to get that law changed. They pushed it through.”
Still no action was taken, until the sole Irishman on the Selectmen’s Board joined the team down in Goodwill Park on a Sunday and threw out the first ceremonial pitch himself.