Remembering what Barney did for Boston’s Irish

Barney McGinniskin was the first Irish cop in Boston. He arrived in Boston’s North End from County Galway in the 1840s, and found work as a laborer, until finally, on Nov. 4, 1851, he was hired by the city and he put on the blue waistcoat of a Boston police officer.

BIR contributing editor Peter Stevens told his story in these pages in 2008: “Boston had its first officially appointed Irish cop. Not surprisingly, his presence soon ignited a political, social and cultural furor in the land of ‘Yankee icicles.’

“ ‘This person woke up one morning and found himself famous, ’ noted the Irish newspaper The Boston Pilot. ‘He is the first Irishman that ever carried the stick of a policeman anywhere in this country, and meetings, even Faneuil Hall meetings, have been held to protect against the appointment.’

“The very notion of an Irish policeman enraged Brahmin and Yankee tradesmen alike in the Boston of 1851,” Stevens wrote. “Of the city’s population of nearly 140,000, 53,923 hailed from Ireland but on Boston’s eight-man Board of Aldermen, no Irishman represented the immigrants, and only one, Edward Hennessey of the West End, served on the 48-man Carmen Council. Alderman Able B. Monroe summed up the sentiments of many native-born Americans with his contention that appointing any Irishman to the police force would create “a dangerous precedent” because, in his opinion. “Irishmen commit most of the city’s crime and would receive special consideration from any of their own wearing the blue.”

Stevens wrote that in 1854, “A groundswell of anti-Irish rancor espoused by the so-called “Know-Nothing” American party shook Boston politics and bounced McGinniskin from the police ranks for good.” His years as a cop had lasted less than three years.

Barney McGinniskin passed away in March 1868, and was buried in a cemetery on what is now Dorchester Street in South Boston, next to the St. Augustine Chapel. His burial place is marked by an almost illegible stone, and now there’s a movement to restore his gravesite and give a heightened recognition to his place in history.

Several current Boston cops are joining with the Boston Emerald Society, the South Boston Citizens Association, and Southie’s Historical Society to honor the memory of McGinniskin. first with a reception on March 14 hosted at the South Boston branch office of Mt. Washington Bank, and later in the spring with a graveside event at St. Augustine Cemetery.

Emerald Society past president Sean McCarthy, a police office from West Roxbury, said the bank reception will feature a police honor guard and an information program telling McGinniskin’s story. He said there will be an unveiling of a memorial stone at the cemetery “coming in the spring, when the ground thaws. This is a guy who is a piece of our history, a piece of our Irish heritage, and a piece of Boston’s history. If you read about the struggles he went through to get appointed, how long he lasted on the job, and why he was relieved of his post, you’ll see some of the bigotry that persisted against Irish and Irish Americans back then. He cleared the way for other immigrants as well.”

“This isn’t a Boston Police Department event,” explained Jack Forbush, Mt. Washington Bank’s Community Affairs director. “The bank is the host [of the reception], and it is sponsored by the Emerald Society, the South Boston Historical Society, and the Citizens Association.”

“The bank over the years has tried to get involved in the St. Patrick’s festivities, and we traditionally try to host an event at one of our offices,” said Mt. Washington Bank president Ed Merritt. “Seeing the historical significance of the Irish in Boston, this really fits in and we’re happy to be able to do this.”

Forbush said there are plans to have a “commemorative challenge coin” available at the time of the reception. Others joining in the planning are Robert E. Anthony, chronologist of Boston Police Memorials in the commissioner’s office, and Detective Richard Devoe of the SB Historical Society.

The reception will be held on next Monday, March 14, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Mt. Washington Bank branch office, 708 East Broadway, South Boston.

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