Peter Mehegan’s Keynote Address for the South Shore Irish Heritage Launch Ceremony was abbreviated due to the strong and bright sun beating down on our guests. It is printed in its entirety here:
Distinguished guests. Ladies and Gentlemen:
(I thought I’d left Florida in the rear view mirror. You will not be unhappy I suspect if I keep this brief)
There’s an old Irish joke about a priest driving a bit erratically on a country road in Cork when he gets pulled over by a policeman who notices a half empty wine bottle on the front seat.
“Have you been drinking, Father, the officer inquires”?
“Just water,” says the priest.
“ Then why do I smell wine,’the policeman asks.
The priest looks at the bottle and says..
“Good Lord; he’s done it again.”
Speaking of miracles…it was nothing short of miraculous that something as ambitious as a South Shore Irish Heritage Trail was created by a group of amateur’s—I include myself—in a few months time.
That miracle could not have occurred without the generosity of the Irish government, our friends in the state legislature and town governments, and the invaluable assistance of local historians.
Our group, the Scituate West Cork Sister City Committee, was compelled by the Covid outbreak to look homeward for projects. Our plans for ambitious student exchanges between Scituate and Ireland would have to wait.
Under the determined leadership of our president, Brenda O’Connor,
we determined first that the Trail would run along the coast—-often known as the Irish Riviera—-from Weymouth to Plymouth, an area as you well know with the largest concentration of Irish Americans in the United States.
But what to include in the Trail? That was the challenge.
Fortunately for us, there turned out to be ample evidence of the impact Irish immigrants had on the South Shore.
We set about identifying sites with links to these early immigrants…a relative few came at first…. It turned into a flood during the horrors of the Great Famine of the late 1840’s.
In addition to the physical sites…there were the stories passed on to the descendants of these early immigrants…some reflecting the universal anger they felt at the nightmare they had experienced in Ireland under British rule…an exploitive system that deprived them of basic freedoms and property rights…a callous indifference to the mass starvation that gripped Ireland when the potato crop, their main source of food and income, was destroyed by blight in successive years.
That anger would smolder and eventually boil over in the event marked by this monument, the Easter Rising of 1916, the start of a War of Independence that, after much blood and many tears, would lead to establishment of a free and independent Irish state.
The monument is one of many landmarks we included from all nine towns that will make up the South Shore Irish Heritage Trail.
To name a few others…there is the home of Irish patriot John Boyle O’Reilly, now the Hull public library. His story reads like fiction. a soldier in the British army, court -martialed for his secret efforts to aid Irish freedom, shipped off to a distant prison in Australia…a daring escape on an American ship…and his settlement in Boston and Hull where he won fame as a writer and poet.
In the Cohasset village cemetery, the final resting place of some of the 99 Irish immigrants who perished when the brig St John was blown onto the rocks near Minot’s Light. We have a vivid eyewitness account of that great tragedy from Henry David Thoreau in his book on Cape Cod travels.
One of my personal favorites..for my name is scrawled on the wall of the Scituate Irish Mossing Museum… which tells the story of a thriving industry begun by Irish immigrants who recognized Irish moss, or Carageen in the Irish language, as the same plant they harvested in their homeland. Every Scituate kid who raked moss from dories as I once did, for the lavish price of two cents a pound wet, was invited to inscribe their name on the museum wall.
In Marshfield, there’s the home of statesman and U.S Senator Daniel Webster who helped dispatch over a hundred ships loaded with food to Ireland during the Great Famine…..
In Kingston… there’s the grave of one of three O’Brien brothers who along with their Irish born father enlisted in the Union army during our Civil War. Two of the brothers died in the conflict, a third was wounded but survived.
Kingston too sent famine aid to Ireland on a ship built on the Jones River. Irish immigrants, like the O’Briens, found work in local factories, shipyards and homes. An early Kingston history reveals that, within a few short years of their arrival, Irish immigrants had bought property and were paying taxes.
Imagine…a people dispossessed for centuries…their own country taken from them by force…forced to rent it back for a few potatoes to sustain life….able to own land in America!!
My own great great grandfather, Phillip McManus fled the Famine in County Fermanagh, came to Boston and obtained a 100 acre land grant in New Brunswick. One Irish man, 100 acres for himself! He farmed the land..built a stage coach way station..and became the postmaster in Chambers Settlement.
His daughter Rose , would immigrate to Boston and marry my great grandfather, John Mehegan, from Innishannon, in Cork.
There are many such stories and sites that visitors will encounter as they navigate the South Shore Irish Heritage Trail with the aid of an impressive website and brochures tailored to each community.
The idea, as Brenda O’Connor often says, is to celebrate and educate through the Trail the achievements and stories of those Irish who helped build these coastal communities.
Another purpose is to help boost the economies of the nine communities through tourism. These trails work… as we know from their successes elsewhere, from the Great Atlantic Way in Ireland to one of my delicious favorites, the Maine Oyster Trail.
As for the Irish immigrants, we honor their memories and still marvel at the courage it took to leave their beloved homes and families, not by choice and make their way in a foreign land.
In the years after the great Irish wave….millions of immigrants from other countries and traditions would sail by the Statue of Liberty with its inspiring inscription from Emma Lazarus:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
Despite these sentiments….immigration was always controversial, then and now.
One could argue some of the opposition was understandable with many of the starving Irish, for example, also afflicted with contagious diseases like typhus.
But much of it, as in Ireland, was grounded in outright bigotry…the burning of the Catholic Ursuline convent in Boston…and later the signs in business windows with the letters, N-I-N-A—-No Irish need apply.
We got our revenge. The next Irish generation could buy some of these businesses. Here in Scituate, the club where I play golf was founded by Boston Brahmins. No Irish need apply.
Joseph P Kennedy , the father of President John Kennedy, summering in Hull, was blackballed by a neighboring golf club.
In 1929, the Brahmins lost most of their Scituate summer mansions in the Wall Street crash.
They were scooped up again by the descendants of Irish immigrants who had found success in business and the professions.
The Brahmin golf clubs became mostly Irish clubs…the blackballs were no more….all were welcome.
The immigrant spirit we honor in the South Shore Irish Heritage Trail still burns brightly. May it always be so.