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Portland City Hall

Portland City Hall
Jul 19, 2017

The Irish have been involved in city politics since at least 1860 and over the years many events of Irish and Irish-American importance were held in City Hall. Also, many city councilmen, aldermen, and mayors have been Irish since that time. Ensconced in the Democratic Party since at least 1856, some local Irish also later joined the Republican Party.

The first Irish person on the city council was Thomas Parker, born in St. John of Irish parents. He was a grocer and a relative-by-marriage to the infamous McGlinchy brothers, notorious local bootleggers. Parker, a Democrat, served on the council in 1860-1861 and was followed in local politics by his son Richard. None other than James McGlinchy, brewery owner, grocer, bootlegger, who died in 1880 as the wealthiest Irishman in southern Maine, followed him, in 1862-63. Parker and McGlinchy represented Ward 4, enclave of the Irish.

In 1868, Ward 2 and 4 Democrat politicos Michael Lynch, a contractor, and Charles McCarthy, Jr., a clothier, were elected to the council. Lynch, an Irish emigrant, was the father of Gen. John J. Lynch, a noted soldier and athlete. Galway native James Quinn, a successful boilermaker, served on the council in 1869.

Charles McCarthy, Jr. served again in 1869 and was the first Irish alderman in 1870-1872. He was a native of County Cork and died in 1921, aged 92, as one of the wealthiest Irishmen and Catholics in Maine, leaving behind many public bequests in his will. He was a Democratic candidate for mayor in 1887.

Prominent Irishmen James Cunningham, a contractor, and William McAleney, a harness maker, served on the council in the early 1870s. Cunningham, a native of County Leitrim, went on to become quite active in local Democratic circles, Irish and Irish-American organizations, and was one of the most successful local Irishmen throughout the rest of the century. McAleney also was in the forefront of Irish and American causes until his death in 1913.

From the mid-1870s on, we find countless Irish members of city council and the board of aldermen. Between 1874-1884, local prominent Irishmen William McAleney, Augustus J. McMahon, David D. Hannegan, James Cunningham, William Melaugh, Dennis Tobin, Thomas H. Gately, John G. Fitzgerald, Thomas Hassett, Daniel M. Mannix, Edward Duddy, John W. Sullivan, John J. Lappin, James Connellan, John A. Gallagher, James Quinn, Michael E. Carney, Thomas McMahon, and Patrick O’Neil all served in the city government. From 1885 on, we usually find six Irishmen as members of the city council and aldermen each year. In 1892, Joseph A. McGowan became the first person of Irish blood to serve as President of the Common Council, followed by attorney John T. Fagan a few years later.

Many a famous Irish or Irish-American visited Portland City Hall over the years, in behalf of local Irish organizations, to solicit support for the latest Irish nationalist cause or some other such endeavor. After 1912, they came to the building you now see. Before that date, on this site, they would have spoken at two previous city halls, both destroyed by fire, one in the Great Fire of 1866, and the other in 1908.

On February 6, 1880, a large gathering met at City Hall to contribute money to send to Ireland, which was suffering from yet another famine. Many prominent Yankee Protestants and Irish Catholics were among the crowd. An executive committee, which included nineteen local Irishmen, was formed that night. The committee also included Mayor George Walker, as well as Darius H. Ingraham, George P. Wescott, and William Widgery Thomas, Jr.

In 1886, another large gathering met at City Hall to voice their support for Irish Home Rule and British Prime Minister William Gladstone, a Home Rule advocate. Besides the usual crowd of Irish people, James P. Baxter, the Governor of Maine, and the Mayor were present, as was famed attorney and orator John E. Fitzgerald of Boston.

From the late 1880s until the 1920s, many famous Irishmen visited the city hall, included John Boyle O’Reilly, Lord Mayor of Dublin T. D. Sullivan, John Redmond, Judge Daniel F. Cohalan, and Lord Mayor of Cork Donal O’Callaghan.

One of the first people of Irish blood to become city clerk was Florence F. Driscoll, elected in 1912. He was born here in 1864, the son of Irish emigrants, and was a member of the Common Council in 1899. Many Irish people followed in his footsteps.

A dark day fell over Portland on September 7,1923, when the Ku Klux Klan rallied at City Hall with 6,000 in attendance. On September 10, Portland residents were to vote on changing the structure of the city government of mayor, councilmen, and aldermen. The KKK was strongly opposed to the city’s Catholics and Jews. Maine’s leader of the KKK, F. Eugene Farnsworth, supported the proposed new council-manager form of local government. The KKK figured they could gain control this way and the Catholics and Jews feared they would lose control. “If this plan goes through, every man of Irish descent may as well pack up his trunk and leave the city as far as representation on the city government is concerned,” charged prominent Jewish attorney Israel Bernstein, a member of the school committee.

A group called “The Committee of 100” supported the new proposal of eliminating the 18-member common council, the nine-member board of alderman, and elected mayor. They wanted a city government administered by a business (city) manager and presided over by a five-person City Council. In 1923, there were two aldermen of Irish extraction and four councilors, as well as many city officers, including Katherine L. Foley, Cecelia A. Flaherty, city treasurer and collector John R. Gilmartin, police captains Hugh McDonough and Stephen Cady, assistant city assessors Dennis A. Madigan, Mary J. Flaherty, Louis McGowan, and Overseers of the Poor Robert L. Meehan, Mary E. Mannix, Mary J. Doyle, Amy R. Dillon, and Rev. James A. Carey (chaplain).

The new city government proposal passed with the election of September 10, 1923 and by December the Committee of 100 had sworn they had no connection to the KKK. Whether the Klan was instrumental in any way is questionable, but eventually the new form of government proved successful. In 1924, many Irish held on to their city positions, although in that year there were no Irish councilmen. The Board of Health and the Overseers of the Poor were abolished that year and the five-member council took over their work.

There have been many prominent Irishwomen in the City Government. Katherine L. Quinn, a graduate of St. Elizabeth’s Academy, Portland, and a New York nursing school, became Portland’s first Public Health Supervisor of Nurses in 1918. In 1923, she was listed as a city officer and superintendent of public health nurses. Helen C. Ward (1898-1990) was employed for 49 years by the city’s Treasurer’s and Assessor’s Department, retiring in 1967. A 1917 graduate of St. Joseph’s Academy, she was a sister to the popular Monsignor Edward F. Ward. Helen was a member of the Portland Players, the Rossini Club, and the Polyphonic Singing Group, among other groups. Cecelia A. Flaherty, a Portland native, and daughter of emigrants Matthew J. and Mary, was a city clerk from 1918 until the early 1960s. Katherine L. Foley was the city’s stenographer from about 1918 until her retirement in the late 1940s. Lillian R. O’Donahue operated the Portland Milk Station beginning about 1911, which dispensed “certified” (clean) milk to poor, often emigrant families. Her father Andrew was a local detective. Lillian moved to Chicago in 1917.

Other interesting local Irish politicos, among so many, included Cornelius A. Mannix, a prosperous marble and stone mason, John Butterfield Kehoe, city counselor in early 1900s, William J. Ward, and Bart Sullivan. Ward started out as a plasterer with his father Andrew and was later a call man and district fire chief. He entered city politics and was known as a “non-conformist.” According to his obituary, he “never hesitated to wield a big stick against issues with which he disagreed. During the depression years of the early 30s Mr. Ward at one time threatened to quit city government if it didn’t slash the salaries of all municipal employees, including the councilors” (12 Nov 1956, Evening Express). Bart Sullivan was a longtime advocate for Munjoy Hill and a political leader (1930-60). Fairfield Street was changed to Sullivan Street in 1961 to commemorate him.

Two other prominent local politicians included Edward W. Murphy (1858-1925) and William H. O’Brion. Murphy was a city councilor, alderman, state representative, state senator, and member of the Portland school board sixteen years. He was also a druggist, real estate operator, and owner of the Portland New England League baseball team and the “Murphy Balsams,” a widely popular baseball team. William H. O’Brion, father of fourteen children with wife Catherine McLear, was a longtime city councilor from Munjoy Hill. He was employed 43 years with the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service and died in 1960, aged 92. A part of Beckett Street, where the O’Brions resided, was split up and renamed O’Brion Street in October 1961.

Perhaps the most famous local Irish politician was Matthew I. Barron (1904-1980), born here the son of Martin J. Barron, an Irishman from Placentia, Newfoundland, and Catherine Collins. He was in local government for 50 years, serving as head of the City Hospital (1946-1974), member and later director of the welfare department, a city councilor, mayor (1977), and chairman of the Bruce Roberts-Santa Claus Fund. The City of Portland named the City Hospital (now the Barron Center) after him two weeks before he died. His sister was Mary A. “Mollie” Barron who when she died in 1972 was secretary-treasurer of the National Circle of the Daughters of Isabella (a Catholic women’s organization).

Right up to the present, there have been many popular members of the city government of Irish blood, including former Mayor Karen Geraghty, Peter O’Donnell, Kevin Donoghue, and former Mayor Philip J. “Jack” Dawson, who was instrumental in the erection of a monument to John Ford.

Author Matt Barker
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