Thomas O’Connor wrote the book(s) on Boston’s Irish, the city’s history
By Peter F. Stevens
The passing of Professor Thomas H. O’Connor last month marked the passing of a man and historian who was truly one of a kind. O’Connor’s work stood – and stands – as the bar for anyone who writes about history. He was that good. He also was generous with his time, his experience, and sage insights to this writer, and I’ve rarely enjoyed interviewing and simply conversing with someone more than with Professor O’Connor.
Although he will always be best-known around here for his splendid The Boston Irish: A Political History, in many ways the title of his book Boston A-Z is an apt one title for O’Connor’s career itself. Few historians anywhere have bridged the gulf that exists between professional historians and the general reader better than O’Connor, and when it comes to the history of the Boston Irish or the general city proper, he had no peers in these parts. He was named Professor Emeritus at Boston College in 1993 and held the title of University Historian at Boston College. For anyone with even a passing interest in Boston’s Irish heritage, O’Connor’s works hold a special place in bookcases, coffee tables, or any other site within easy reach. Equally important, copies of his books are likely to be “dog-eared” – the ultimate compliment to any author, as it means the pages are read and reread.
Three books that were published between 1995 and 1997 – The Boston Irish: A Political History, Civil War Boston: Home Front and Battlefield, and Boston Catholics: A History of the Church and Its People – stand as must reading for those seeking a sense of Boston’s past and present. So much of O’Connor’s writing did just that, connecting the threads of the past that color and shape the literal and figurative face of the city.
All his life, O’Connor was part of that city. He was born on Dec. 9, 1922, in South Boston. His father, John Francis O’Connor, was a mail carrier, and his mother, Marie A. (Meany) O’Connor, as with most of the mothers in the neighborhood, a home-maker. Then, in 1940, John O’Connor died. His wife was compelled to go back to work and eventually landed a post with the Social Security Administration.
As with so many local Irish kids, young Tom spent summers either swimming with his friends at the M Street beach or, on rainy days, entrenched in the South Boston branch of the Boston Public Library in the Municipal Building, where he was drawn to historical adventure books, especially those featuring the vivid illustrations of Andrew Wyeth. After attending the Gate of Heaven Grammar School, he went to the Boston Latin School. When the school day ended, he would head down Huntington Avenue to the Boston Public Library at Copley Square, where he earned thirty cents an hour shelving books. The money provided enough to cover the cost of his carfare and lunches.
His next stop was Boston College, but World War II erupted, and after his freshmen year, he spent three years with the US Army in the Chinese-Burma-India Theater, rising to the rank of staff sergeant. When his tour of duty ended, he came back to Boston College and received his AB degree in 1949 and MA degree in 1950; from there, he moved down the Comm. Ave. tracks to Boston University and in 1958 earned his PhD in American History.
Back in 1950, Dr. O’Connor had started teaching US history at BC; the post was supposed to be open for “only a year.” Some five decades later, he was still teaching there.
He moved onto the tenure track as one of BC’s most popular and gifted instructors, becoming a full professor in 1970 and serving a stint as chairman of the History Department. His introductory courses in American History and such elective offerings as the Age of Jackson and the Civil War not only cemented his reputation as one of the region’s top history professors, but also led to his publication of the books Lords of the Loom and The Disunited States.
Gradually, he found himself delving even deeper into the history of the Irish in Boston where he learned that there was a surprising paucity of serious scholarly work on the subject. O’Connor addressed that need with his groundbreaking books South Boston: My Home Town; Fitzpatrick’s Boston, 1846-1866; The Boston Irish; Building a New Boston; Civil War Boston; and Boston Catholics. One need only glance at Dr. O’Connor’s resume to glean his status in local historical circles. For thirty-five years, he taught a class in Boston History at the Extension School of Harvard University, where he was named the Lowell Lecturer for 2000-2001. A member of the Board of Directors of the Boston Society, a Resident Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and a member of the Massachusetts Archives Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution – these well-deserved laurels were just a few of the many that came his way. The Daughters of the American Revolution awarded him the Gold Medal in History; the Erie Society of Boston named him the winner of the organization’s Gold Medal.
In a visit I once made to Thomas O’Connor’s office across College Road from BC’s Bapst Library, he chatted about his unabashed love of history in general and Boston’s history in particular. “As a kid,” he said, “I loved books, especially historical adventures. My friends and I invaded the BPL book stacks; I especially went for books about Colonial history. By the time I got to the Latin School, I gravitated toward history; I loved the color and sweep of the wonderful stories.”
We talked in depth about balancing academic history with history that excites the non-scholar, a balance that no one handled better than O’Connor. He related: “I work hard to make the material as interesting for everyone as it is to me. In that sense, one writes with audience in mind. It’s an approach that good teachers use in the lecture hall, too. What good is it if your listeners or readers drift off? You’ve got to make it interesting for all, as best you can. I don’t believe there is ever one history. I also don’t believe there can ever be one approach to history. In my field, many view history as science, and it is a valid approach. However, I also view history as a human story, often driven by emotion and random events such as movements or larger themes.”
Thomas O’Connor’s listeners and readers never drifted off. That is not hyperbole; it is simple truth. When it came to history in general and the story of the Boston Irish especially, there was no one better than Thomas O’Connor. One wonders if there ever will be.