The Portland Irish have had a long affiliation with Portland High School over the last one-hundred-forty years. As with many local institutions, we can only mention briefly some of the highlights and generally the earliest history.
Portland High School is said to be the second oldest public secondary school in the United States, with its beginnings in 1821. A new girls high school was opened at 20 Chestnut Street in January 1851. It was discontinued in 1863, when it merged with the “English High School” (boys high school) and became a new entity, Portland High School, built in 1864. About this time, many children of Irish emigrants had entered the high school. The Maine Historical Society has in their collections a book listing the names, ages, parents, residence, and dates of admission and discharge of students from PHS. There are several hundred students of Irish blood listed, although most did not graduate. For instance, in the 1890s, five sons of prominent contractor John Gulliver entered the high school, yet only one (USN Cmdr. Louis J.) graduated. One of the first Irish Catholics to graduate was John J. Lynch (1872), son of another prominent contractor, Michael Lynch.
Some of the earliest prominent Irishmen and women known to have graduated from PHS included William H. Looney, state representative, state senator and city solicitor (1880s). General John J. Lynch, local soldier and attorney, Katie A. Walsh and her sister Lizzie, two of the first Irish girls to teach in the public schools, John H. McDonough (1857-1893), an Boston attorney who spent five-terms in the Massachusetts legislature, Henry Cleaves Sullivan, PHS graduate of 1897 and of Harvard Law School (1904), Dr. William T. Rowe (1881-1955), attending physician at the birth of Edmund Muskie, Frank E. Curran, for 25 years sports writer for the Portland newspapers and a sports official (until his untimely death in 1949 at age 47), Raymond G. Carr, who was signed by the Red Sox and played here for the Portland Green Sox under Duffy Lewis (New England League), and James Flavin, class of 1923, and a veteran Hollywood character actor who died in 1976. He played 500 character roles in films all before the advent of TV. Flavin’s credits include everything from King Kong (1931) to “The Lucy Show.”
And of course one of the most famous students to graduate from Portland High School was the Hollywood director John Ford, who was active on the football team. So many Irish boys and girls have been outstanding athletes and students at PHS that it is far beyond the scope of this piece to name even a few.
County Limerick native Godfrey B. Massey (1827-1889) was employed as the janitor at the high school for nineteen years. “A genial, kind-hearted man,” he was a Naval veteran of the Civil War and the great-grandfather to historian-antiquarian book dealer Francis Massey O’Brien.
Miss Hannah R. Craven was one of the first teachers of Irish heritage to teach at Portland High School. She was appointed in 1905 and taught at the school until she resigned in 1914 upon her marriage to John F. Bennett. Hannah grew up in St. Dominic’s Parish, the daughter of Galway natives Patrick and Margaret Colleran Craven. Of course many teachers of Irish ancestry have followed in Craven’s footsteps.
Jimmy Fitzpatrick, a football hero at Boston College, spent 45 years at PHS as teacher, coach and athletic director. He retired in 1966 and Portland’s football stadium was named after him, as well as an annual football award.
Portland High School contains a library that houses many interesting photos and artifacts of the school’s history. Irish-American researcher and long-time faculty member Peter E. Gribbin has done exceptional work in regards to this collection.
The present high school was built for $1 million dollars in 1919, after a fire destroyed the old building May 17,1911. It was rebuilt once again after a New Year’s Day fire in 1920.
Related sites: North School, John Ford Boyhood Home