THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Kevin Cullen

Erin go Barney

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / March 15, 2011

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They had a reception at the Mt. Washington Bank in Southie last night in honor of Barney McGinniskin, just in time for Saint Patrick’s Day.

Barney couldn’t make it, but he had a good excuse: He’s been dead for 143 years.

Barney McGinniskin embodied something that became a stereotype: He was an Irish cop, the first Irish cop, not just in Boston, but the whole country, which, when he joined the force in 1851, consisted of 31 states.

He was a big, strapping man, well over 6 feet, from the next parish over, Galway. He left a country that was starving because a virulent fungus ruined successive potato crops, and because Ireland’s unmoved English rulers decided this was some form of providential ethnic cleansing, God’s plan for the rebellious, feckless Irish.

After crushing a 17th century rebellion, Oliver Cromwell suggested that the indigenous Irish go to hell or Connacht, the rocky, unfertile province where Barney lived. As his neighbors starved, Barney saw Boston as a more attractive alternative.

Legend has it that Barney’s first words off the emigrant ship loudly and proudly proclaimed he was from the bogs of Ireland.

Bad idea.

Because with that declaration came all sorts of assumptions, held by many in Boston’s Brahmin establishment, none of them good. Many in the majority despised the new minority as dirty, diseased, uneducated, and fond of the devil’s milk, but worst of all, Catholic. Because you could clean them up, give them medicine, and send their kids to public schools, but at the end of the day they were still a bunch of hard-drinking papists, taking orders from some Italian guy in Rome.

Like many of the famine Irish, Barney settled into the teeming tenements of the North End. He worked in a grain store, using his strength to lift heavy sacks, and drove a horse-drawn cab. Eventually someone in the Police Department figured out it would make sense to put an Irish cop on the streets where the Irish comprised a third of the population.

By most accounts, Barney did a good job walking a beat. But politicians accused him of being more loyal to those he was supposed to be using his nightstick on than to the city.

Barney had been on the job for only three years by the time the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, Know Nothing Party made huge inroads in Boston municipal elections. And so, in 1854, a year before the Know Nothings extended their control to the Massachusetts Legislature and governor’s office, Barney was fired, not for anything he did, but for who he was.

Barney McGinniskin, the first Irish cop in America, was the victim of sheer, unadulterated bigotry: people being judged as a group, not as individuals, based on the actions of a minority of individuals in that group; national loyalty being questioned on the same basis; nativists spewing anti-immigrant invective; people believing God favored one group over another.

Whew. Good thing nothing like that ever happens in the good ol’ US of A anymore.

Sean McCarthy, a West Roxbury cop and president of the Emerald Society, and Bob Anthony, the East Boston cop who serves as the department’s chronologist, aren’t finished with Barney. They plan on putting up a proper memorial at his grave in St. Augustine’s Cemetery in Southie, as the department did in Brighton last year at the grave of Sergeant Horatio Homer, its first African-American officer.

Homer was appointed in 1878, by which time Barney had been dead for 10 years, the Know Nothings were nothing, and there were 100 Irish cops in Boston.

It’s too bad they never met, because Barney McGinniskin and Horatio Homer would have been great pals. They had a lot in common.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com