There is no denying that the event is literally part of Boston’s turf – that’s not a point of view, but a simple fact. At the 2017 St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast in South Boston, state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry will once again command center stage at the annual event. She has put her own stamp on the tradition since her first stint, in 2014, as the host of the much-ballyhooed event. She has scored a political, cultural, and gender “hat trick” of what was long a case of the Boston Irish “boyos” ruling the podium. As a woman, a Haitian American, and the first non-Irish American male to run the show, Dorcena Forry continues to turn three stereotypes of the breakfast on their heads.
If you ask many in these parts how long the breakfast has been a tradition and how it has been run, and by whom, the answers might run from “always” to “since the first parade” (officially in 1901). Many people also assume that the event has always been a “political roast.” The actual answers are murkier. In fact, a case can be made that the annual breakfast started as a dinner or banquet.
South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast owes a historical nod to the Charitable Irish Society. The venerable organization can lay virtually undisputed claim to the first St. Patrick’s Day event not only in Boston’s history, but also in America’s. It was also the first to feature food and drink. On March 17, 1737, in the heart of Puritan Boston, 26 men gathered to commemorate a decidedly improper Bostonian event. They were Irish-born men living in a place where most locals loathed anything that smacked of “Popery,” and celebrating a Catholic saint’s holy day could well have proven a risky proposition.
The reason that the 26 men pulled it off is that they were Protestant. The religious question aside, the men drew up a charter that professed their pride as sons of the Emerald Isle, and they were meeting on the day dedicated to Ireland’s patron saint. The celebration did not take place in Southie. The site, historian James Bernard Cullen writes, “was the Irish Presbyterian Church, established in Boston in 1727…in a building which had been a barn on the corner of Berry Street and Long Lane [now Channing and Federal Streets].”
In what seems a distinct precursor of the later South Boston breakfast, the Charitable Irish Society’s centennial celebration, held on March 17, 1837, featured a format that would shape the Southie gala. The Society’s festivities offered a special list of guests composing a who’s who of Boston’s movers and shakers: “Governor Edward Everett, Mayor Samuel A. Eliot, Hon. Stephen Fairbanks, President of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, the Rev. Mr. John Pierpont, the Hon. John P. Bigelow, Hon. Josiah Quincy, Jr.” and numerous other luminaries.
Fairbanks delivered an address testifying to the fact that Boston Irishmen, Protestant and Catholic, were indeed making their way in the city. In no way was the event a roast, but it was a meeting of notable politicians and businessmen.
The historical seeds of the breakfast also began to sprout – and do so in Southie – as Irish Catholic immigrants landed in Boston in ever-increasing numbers in the 1840s and staked their claim to a new life in America. One of the early manifestations of the local Irish love for their old sod’s patron saint was the Shamrock Society, a social club that gathered on March 17 to defiantly toast the saint and “sing the old songs,” the revelers’ voices pealing from Dooley’s, the Mansion House, and Jameson’s. No single building, however, would long serve to hold the growing numbers of local Irish longing to celebrate the day in a bigger way. As one historian noted, “No banquet room was broad enough to comprehend all the Sons of Erin, even had they the price of dinner.”
Dinners and banquets, but not yet official breakfasts, followed the St. Patrick’s Day parades organized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which numbered some 8,000 members in Boston alone by 1900. Bands, organizations, refreshments—all were handled by the Hibernians’ Entertainment Committee. In the hands of Ward 17 boss “Pea Jacket” Maguire and other Boston Irish leaders, fun, festivities, and pride in Irish roots ruled the city on March 17.
In March 1901, the blare of bands and the vibrations of marchers’ feet pealed above South Boston’s streets in the first official, city-sanctioned South Boston St. Patrick’s/Evacuation Day Parade. In the wake of the march came post-parade celebrations. Dignitaries in natty overcoats and top hats, figures such as Mayor Thomas Hart, stepped from the open, horse-drawn carriages in which the city’s “high and mighty” had ridden in the parade and dashed into venerable Faneuil Hall for an official St. Patrick’s Day banquet.
According to John Allison in his “History of the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast,” the first public mention of the gathering came in March 1909 in the South Boston Gazette. At the Bellevue Hotel, Mayor George Hibbard hosted an 11 a.m. breakfast before the parade, with the revelers including local and state politicians and military officers. Still, the breakfast was not held in 1910-1911, so it had not become an annual event, and certainly not one paid for by the city, as Hibbard’s event had been. Interestingly, no speeches had been made nor jibes exchanged at the 1909 gathering.
Only when the city appropriated funds for the breakfast was it held between 1910-1920. Five years later, in 1925, a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast bore a strong resemblance to today’s repast. Allison notes that the gathering featured “Himself” – Mayor James Michael Curley – making a “witty speech” in which he leveled barbs at friends and foes alike. E. Michael Sullivan then stood and sang “The Wearing of the Green.”
Of the 1925 gathering, Allison writes: “These traits identify this breakfast as a very close ancestor of today’s event. However, it was still not an annual event. By World War II there was no mention of a breakfast.”
In March 1945, the Boston Gazette related that supporters of Mayor John Kerrigan wanted to hold a breakfast reception for him before the Southie parade. In a move that would seem incomprehensible today, Kerrigan nixed the idea because he “did not want any political demonstrations.”
From 1951 to 1960, the pre-parade meal was a luncheon – actually two luncheons. The City Council luncheon, hosted by the mayor, was held at the South Boston Athletic Club, and state officials attended an affair at Dorgan’s Old Harbor with Senator John E. Powers serving as host. Eventually, Powers’s event superseded the mayor’s, with the papers anointing him “St. Patrick’s Day toastmaster,” a precursor to the role that William Bulger would later take to a whole new level of wit and rhetorical flourishes.
Becauase John Powers ran the show at Dorgan’s, all the subsequent sitting senators of the First Suffolk District followed suit. That “suit” was long filled by Irish-American men named Powers, Moakley, Bulger, Lynch, and Hart. Now, Sen. Dorcena Forry hosts the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, continuing to write a new and fitting chapter in the annals of Boston.