Maine Irish Heritage Trail
South Portland Site Number 3
by Matthew Jude Barker
South Portland Post Office
South Portland, Maine
The South Portland Post Office is only indirectly related to the Irish community. Of course, many generations of Irish and Irish-Americans have been employed at the South Portland and Portland Post Offices. In the early days employees would often exchange places between the main post office (Portland) and the Knightville substation.
Inside the lobby of the post office is a painting of the wreck of the R.M.S. Bohemian, which sank off Cape Elizabeth on February 22, 1864. The piece, although not historically accurate, was created by Maine painter Alzira Boehm Peirce, originally a sculptor in New York City. She was the third wife of noted Bangor-born artist Waldo Peirce (1884-1970), a friend of Ernest Hemingway who hobnobbed with such luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce in 1920s Paris. Alzira gave birth to twin boys in Paris in 1930 and the family removed to Bangor in 1931. Her painting of the shipwreck is one of only two known representations of the sinking of the locally famous ship. It was among the hundreds of artwork commissioned by the Works Progress Administration in Maine, part of President Roosevelt's New Deal.
The wreck of the Bohemian is, to this day, one of the worst marine disasters in Maine history. The vessel, under Capt. Robert Borland, carried 218 passengers, 99 crew members, and an assortment of cargo when it left Liverpool, England on February 4. It was five days overdue when it struck Alden's Rock, three miles off Cape Elizabeth, on Tarbucket Night (George Washington's Birthday). Although Borland had plied vessels into Portland Harbor for nine years, he apparently became confused when he encountered a "peculiar haze" in the harbor. After he hit the rock, the ship managed to continue until it came to ground at Trundy's Reef (Staples Cove). Borland made the call to abandon ship and in the confusion to escape 42 lives were lost, including 16 in one lifeboat alone which had been swamped. Of those who drowned, almost all of them were Irish immigrants, steerage passengers mostly from County Galway. At least twelve of these were interred in Calvary Cemetery in South Portland. Bodies and cargo washed up on the shore for weeks afterward.
Across the street from the post office, at 112 Ocean Street, stood the pharmacy of Thomas F. Devine (1885-1936) from 1907 until the mid-1930s. He was a member of a prominent Portland Irish family that also included three brothers, Edward J. (who worked for his brother at the drug store in the 1910s); Bernard, an artist and New York City art critic; and John J. Devine, an alderman and lawyer who moved to Hillside Avenue in South Portland in 1926. The latter was the father of retired Chief Justice Bernard M. Devine of Falmouth.
RELATED SITES: Calvary Cemetery, Portland Head Light
Acknowledgements by Matthew Jude Barker
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