James Michael Curley - four times mayor of Boston, twice elected to the House of Representatives, one term as Governor of Massachusetts, and two terms in jail, was the son of County Galway parents who emigrated as children to the US in the 1860s. The stories told about Curley are proverbially legion. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter rarely let an Irish politician go without asking if they had any stories about James Michael Curley. (The one president who shunned anything to do with Curley, was president John F Kennedy. But more about that in a moment ).
Through chicanery, charm, bullying, and barroom brawls, with unashamed bribery and corruption, laced with brilliant and passionate oratory in a fine clear voice, James Michael Curley brought Tammany Hall politics to an art form. In the early decades of the 20th century, he mobilised his Irish Catholic constituents by doing what the best machine bosses do well: He gave them all municipal jobs, good, fat municipal contracts, and created a network of favours, which he called in on election day.
At the height of his power the old tag ‘Irish Need Not Apply’ took on a different meaning. The McDonoughs, O’Learys, Flannagans, and O’Malleys were on the ascendancy, and James Michael Curley was their man.
The old blue-blooded families like the Adamses, Cabots, Quincys, Winthorps, Eliots and Emersons hated Curley, and his shenanigans with a vengeance. The feelings were mutual. By encroaching on their beautiful red brick-homes on Beacon Hill with public housing schemes, schools, and noisy children’s playgrounds, Curley succeeded in pushing them out into the suburbs.
The two postmen
People lined up outside city hall or in front of his home - the ostentatious Jamaicaway house with its shamrock painted shutters - (built free of charge in return for juicy municipal contracts ) - looking for work or a favour. In October 1902, when Curley was an alderman on the city council, two men came looking for help. One was James Hughes from County Meath, and the other Bartholomew Fahey from Galway. They wanted jobs as postmen, but the post office insisted that all its employees must be able to read and write. Hughes and Fahey were illiterate, but could Curley help them all the same? Of course he could. Retelling the story many times later, Curley remarked that although they couldn’t spell Constantinople, ‘they still had wonderful feet for carrying letters.’
Curley and his brother Tom sat the exam pretending they were Hughes and Fahey, and passed with flying colours. Hughes and Fahey got the jobs (though I wonder if anyone got their mail? ). But someone smelt a rat. Curley and Tom were arrested, and put on trial. Their hearts must have sunk to their knees when they entered the court room, as sitting on the bench was Judge Francis Cabot Lowel, who openly detested Curley and his ilk. In the event the brothers got off lightly. Two months in jail.
The Boston plague
I was prompted to look again at the colourful life of Curley following the news that Marty Walsh was elected mayor of Boston two weeks ago. There is no similarity whatsoever between Mayor Walsh and Curley, other than both are the sons of Galway immigrants. Walsh’s mum, Mary, is a native of Ros Cide, Rosmuc, while his late father John hailed from Callowfeenish, in Carna.*
There are those that believe that the mayorship of Boston is an Irishman’s job. The first Irish Catholic mayor of Boston was Hugh O’Brien, elected in 1884. Then came Patrick Collins, elected in 1902. These were real straight-off-the-boat Irish emigrants. The first Boston-born Irish mayor was John Francis ‘Honey Fitz’ Fitzgerald, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s grandfather. ‘Honey-Fitz’ was renowned for his singing voice and amiable personality; with the enviable political skill of being able ‘to shake someone’s hand while talking to another, and winking fondly at a third’.
However, there was no love lost between the Kennedys and Curley. There may have been a whiff of scandal about ‘Honey Fitz’ which Curley knew about; but the real reason why the Kennedys gave Curley a wide berth was that the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, Joe Sr, had ambitious political plans for his sons. It was gong to be difficult to sell a Catholic candidate for the presidency in a Protestant country; but one tainted by Tammany Hall would make that ambition impossible.
Curley must have resented the Kennedys in any case. His father had died when he was 10 years of age. Curley worked 14 hours a day delivering groceries, and watched his mother on her knees scrubbing hospital floors. The Kennedys with their wealth, education, and easy charm, were worlds apart.
It was as if there were three distinct divisions in the social world of Boston: The rough and tumble Curley, both saint and sinner to his people; the wealthy, and privileged Catholic élite like the Kennedys; and the blue-blooded Protestant families of Beacon Hill. Each avoided the other like the plague.
‘Hail to the Chief’
On the occasion when Curley and his brother were sentenced to two months in prison for impersonation, Judge Cabot Lowell did them a favour. The night before they went to jail, their Tammany Hall buddies gave them a riotous send off, and while in jail Curley was resoundingly re-elected to the council.
But his second prison sentence in June 1947 was no laughing matter. This time Curley was in his seventies, suffering from diabetes and heart trouble, and a succession of family tragedies. He had foolishly allowed his name to head up an insurance scam, which collapsed leaving Curly facing serious fraud charges. He was sentenced to 16 months in prison which he found difficult. But once again the Curley machine kicked into action. Over 100,000 Bostonians signed a petition asking President Truman to grant ‘executive clemency’. On his 73rd birthday, having served five months, Curley was released. (Later the president gave him a full pardon, and for his original 1902 offence ).
Curley returned in triumph. A brass band played ‘Hail to the Chief’, and an immense crowd conducted him to city hall. On his desk was a pile of contracts, orders, bye-laws and correspondence awaiting his signature. He signed the lot with a flourish. Boasting to journalists and photographers watching him: “ I have accomplished more in one hour than has been done in my five month absence.’
His staff resented that remark. Anyway Curley had lost a lot of his energy and drive. The era of the Boston city boss was drawing to an end. It was generally agreed that when James Michael Curley died on November 12 1958, his funeral was by far the largest ever seen in Boston. His death and funeral held the headlines for four days. Only the Kennedy assassination, barely five Novembers later, would surpass that record.
More about Curley next week: His tragic personal life, his visit to Galway, and the making of the film The Last Hurrah.
NOTES: * Curley’s mother was Sarah Clancy from Canrower (behind the old Oughterard convent school ), and his father Michael Curley from Porridgetown, Collinamuck. Both parents met and married in Boston. I am very indebted to the late Nora Walsh, of Main St., Oughterard, for her James Michael Curley stories. Nora had gone to Curley looking for a job when she emigrated in the 1940s. He loved the fact that she came from his mother’s place. She worked in his Jamaciaway home, and afterwards, Curley got her a very senior post in a major city hotel. Nora enjoyed a busy and successful working life, coming home in her retirement to live where she was born. She loved Curley, and spoke warmly about his kindness.