Hugh O’Brien is sworn in as Boston’s 31st mayor and first Irish mayor on January 5, 1885, marking the beginning of a new era in Boston politics.
Born in Ireland in 1827, O’Brien moves with his family to Boston when he is five years old, well before the potato famine sends waves of impoverished Irish men and women to Boston. He spends seven years in the Boston public schools and is apprenticed to a printer at the age of 12.
Working first for the newspaper Boston Courier and then for a Boston printer, O’Brien excels at the printing business, making foreman when he is only fifteen. He starts his own publication, Shipping and Commercial List, and is soon successful enough to become a respected member of the Boston business elite.
O’Brien’s business success draws the attention of Patrick Maguire, publisher of The Republic newspaper and the unofficial head of Irish politics in Boston. He orchestrates O’Brien’s election to the city’s Board of Alderman.
Boston has long been controlled by native-born Protestants, generally called “Yankees,” most of whom have a stereotypical view of Irish immigrants as poor, ignorant, undisciplined, and under the thumb of the Catholic Church. But the Irish-born population of Boston is exploding, making up over 40% of the city’s population by 1885.
By 1883, Maguire decides that the time has come for Boston to elect an Irish-born mayor. He devises a two-part strategy. O’Brien will be the public face of the campaign, an able public official who criticizes the previous administration for increasing taxes. O’Brien’s pledge to reduce the tax rate without cutting city services appeals to the Yankee tradition of frugality. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Maguire develops a system of Irish ward bosses who visit each household in the neighborhood and make sure that every eligible Irishman votes for O’Brien. O’Brien sweeps 15 of Boston’s 25 wards and, on December 10, 1884, becomes the first Irish Catholic to be elected Mayor of Boston.
O’Brien surprises the opposition by governing the city in a conservative and honest way during his four terms in office. He cuts tax rates as promised. He also widens streets, establishes the commission that hires Frederick Law Olmsted to design the Emerald Necklace park system, and builds the new Boston Public Library in Copley Square. He disarms his critics by enlisting Yankee and Republican businessmen to serve on the committees overseeing these projects.
Hugh O’Brien dies on August 1, 1895 and is buried at Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts.