Charitable Irish Society marks 287 years with St. Patrick's Day gala

BOSTON -- To Thomas Hynes, the story of his family is the story of the Irish in Boston.

His uncle was John B. Hynes, mayor of Boston from 1950 to 1960, and his cousin was Jack Hynes, the famed television newscaster. The Hynes family didn't always have such prestige. John B. Hynes's father Bernard, and Bernard's brother Thomas, came to Boston from Galway.

"One went to work for the railroad, the other went to Harvard," Thomas Hynes explained. "He was a groundskeeper, not a student."

Bernard worked cleaning railroad cars for 40 years.

"One generation later," Thomas Hynes said, "his son was mayor of Boston."

John B. Hynes wrote a poem about the city of Boston, celebrating its "mingled strains," "preacher(s) dauntless," and "faith so wise."

Thomas Hynes recited the poem, and shared his family history, at a gala celebrating the 287th anniversary of the Charitable Irish Society. The gala was held on March 17, St. Patrick's Day, at the Boston Harbor Hotel.

The Charitable Irish Society was founded in Boston in 1737 and has assisted immigrants in need ever since. Their first clients were Irishmen who had been kidnapped and forced into service by the British Navy. When famines in the 1840s and 1870s brought an influx of Irish immigrants to Boston, CIS sent food and money to the old country, and welcomed immigrants at the waterfront. To this day, the society helps immigrants find food, housing, employment, healthcare, and education, though their clients are no longer exclusively Irish. In the past year, CIS has awarded grants to immigrants from Ireland, as well as Afghanistan, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Iraq, and Nigeria.

Addressing the donors and dignitaries who attended the gala, CIS President Kathleen Williams said that St. Patrick, who forgave the men who kidnapped and enslaved him, provides a much-needed example of charity.

"I do not need to tell you about the need for loving, charitable hearts and attitudes in the world today," she said. "We need the help of people like you, in modest but effective ways, making life a bit more tolerable for those needing hands in a new land, just as many of our ancestors might have."

Every year, CIS presents the Silver Key Award to someone who has supported its mission. This year's recipient was Msgr. Liam Bergin, a priest of the Diocese of Ossory in Ireland who currently serves as a professor of Sacramental Theology at Boston College and priest in residence at Gate of Heaven and St. Brigid Parishes in South Boston.

Msgr. Bergin said he was "surprised and grateful" to receive the award. His remarks focused less on himself and more on the other man who was being celebrated that day: St. Patrick.

"Patrick, patron of Ireland, patron of Boston, too," he said. "Trafficked slave, kidnapped victim, forced emigrant, he continues to speak in these times. From the recesses of history, Patrick carries a message for us today."

Msgr. Bergin's humility was described in a letter that former President of Ireland Mary McAleese, a friend of Msgr. Bergin, wrote congratulating him on the award.

"No one deserves it more than Liam, as I have cause to know," she wrote. "However, knowing him as I do over many years of valued friendship, I also know his capacity for dodging the personal limelight, but not tonight."

She wrote that, as a priest, Msgr. Bergin was "the heart and the helping hand of a loving God."

Along with helping immigrants, the mission of the Charitable Irish Society is to promote the Irish heritage and culture of Boston. That heritage was feted throughout the night, from music played on the bagpipes, fiddle, and Irish harp to a toast to Ireland given by Sighle FitzGerald, consul general of Ireland in Boston.

In her toast, Fitzgerald said that Ireland "peopled America with an abundant contribution of poets, clergy, merchants and mechanics, farmers and framers of our nation, a generous Celtic genius that has continued to bless the world with glory and honor."

Attorney General of Ireland Rossa Fanning thanked CIS for its work, which he said is "indelibly woven into the history of Boston."

"Your philanthropic endeavors have changed for the better the lives of countless immigrants," he said, "Irish and, indeed, many other nationalities, who come to this country seeking new beginnings and greater opportunities."

In his remarks, Msgr. Bergin said that while St. Patrick is the most famous, he is but one of Ireland's many saints, and he is co-patron of Ireland with St. Brigid. St. Brigid's Day was celebrated as a public holiday for the first time in Ireland on Feb. 1, 2023. Msgr. Bergin was pleased to see the Irish government recognize a saint, and noted that unlike the U.S., Ireland now has a holiday honoring a woman. He believes that St. Brigid received less attention than St. Patrick because of "the dominating patriarchal culture" of her time.

He explained that St. Brigid's feast is celebrated on Feb. 1 as a continuation of the pre-Christian Irish festival of Imbolc, celebrating the beginning of spring. In his research, Msgr. Bergin has found that much of Ireland's pre-Christian culture has harmoniously interwoven with Christianity over the centuries. He believes that this is why, unlike in so many other parts of the world, the missionaries who brought Christianity to Ireland were not martyred.

"The interplay of Christian symbols, rituals, poetry, stories, folklore, the whole bucket," he said, "they created a Christian Celtic culture. Brigid, and Patrick, were important figures in that."

He told those at the gala to be more like Sts. Patrick and Brigid in their everyday lives.

"To celebrate our heritage is not just to dye a river green, with all due respect to Chicago" he said, "Or to gorge on corned beef and cabbage, as some of you were probably forced to do today. No, it is to join Brigid and Patrick, to promote equality and inclusion, to care for the marginalized and the environment. Why? Because we're all created as daughters and sons of a loving God."

He ended his remarks by saying: "God bless Ireland and God bless Boston."