Insights from Man Of The House by House Speaker Tip O’Neill And My Family

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In a bit of irony, I had read House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O”Neill’s not for reasons pertaining to my family heritage, but rather for political ones, as someone I have a high regard for as a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from my hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Turns out there was more in common, and possibly less, than I had originally anticipated. My family has roots dating back to Cambridge 1898 at the very least, and this book shed some light on what things were like back then.

The English and The Irish

One of the most easily noticed things to understand is the stark difference between my English ancestors, and the Irish. They didn’t really like each other and this is clear throughout the book.

From pages 7 and 8:

I knew I was Irish even before I knew I was American. Back in 1845, my grandfather and his two brothers had been brought over from Ireland by the New England Brick Company. I still have a deed for the plot that my grandfather bought in the Cambridge cemetery. The immigrants had seen so much death during the potato famine that the first thing they did when they came to America was to buy a plot to be buried in – just in case.

My grandfather settled in North Cambridge and worked in the brickyards with nothing more than picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. They would mix the clay, soften it, throw it in the kiln, and then bake the bricks. My father was born in 1874, and as a young man, he too, worked in the brickyards – digging with a pick and an ax and loading the clay on a tram, with a horse to pull it up the slope from the pit.

But the Irish didn’t want their kids in the clay pits, and by around 1900 these jobs were taken over by the French Canadians. Twenty years later it was the Italians, with each successive generation moving their own kids out and getting them educated as clergymen, lawyers, or doctors. Banking and insurance, however, remained closed to the ethnics. The old aristocracy, the Brahmins of Boston, the Yankees, held those for themselves.

There was one section of our neighborhood around Clay Street and Montgomery, where some of the old-timers still spoke Gaelic. They never encouraged their kids to speak it, because we in the younger generation were expected to be “real” Americans.

Still, at the age of seven I was sent to Gaelic school, which met on Sunday afternoons. We learned a few Gaelic phrases and a couple of songs and step dances, but my Irish education didn’t last very long. In 1920 Terrence MacSweeney, the lord mayor of Cork, died of a hunger strike. Our teacher was MacSweeney’s sister-in-law, and so on the following Sunday she wouldn’t allow me back. Because my parents had been born in America, I was considered a “narrowback” – somebody was really wasn’t fit for good labor. And narrowbacks were no longer welcome at the MacSweeney’s.

We had a tremendous hatred of the English. In addition to our fierce Irish pride, there was our American heritage as well. Kids in the other cities were playing cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians, but with us it was patriots and redcoats. During the Revolutionary War there had been skirmishes right in our own neighborhood between the British soldiers and the colonials. There was a store on Massachusetts Avenue on the spot where the redcoats had cut through as they rode into Cambridge from Arlington, and everyday we passed by the stone markers that commemorated the dead. Bunker Hill, the Old North Church, the U.S.S. Constitution, Paul Revere’s house, the site of the Boston Tea Party – these were familiar landmarks, and we felt a first hand connection to the brave men and women who fought the American Revolution. This wasn’t just history; it was real life.

One of the favorite topics of our neighborhood was how the Yankees in Boston had burned down the Ursuline Convent over in Charlestown, just a few miles away from where we lived. People would talk about that terrible deed, about the Protestant Yankees had done to those poor Irish Catholic nuns, and they’d stir themselves up into a frenzy.

I heard so much about that incident that one day, when I was in my teens, I decided to look it up in a book. To my shock, the burning of the convent had occurred back in the summer of 1834! But to hear people talk about it, you would have thought it happened the day before yesterday.

From pages 9 and 10:

The old-timers used to tell stories of how Martin would greet them at the polls on election day. “Here’s your ballot,” he’d say. “I’ve already marked it for you. When you get in there, pick up the ballot and give them back this one.” When you came out, you’d give Martin the clean ballot, and he’d mark it off and give it to the next guy in line.

In the 1930s, when I first entered politics, all the financial institutions in the city of Boston were closed to my people. Today, of course, that’s only a bad memory. It was the politicians who made the difference, who took their people out of the menial jobs and gave them better opportunities.

I’m proud that I was able to play a role in the process. Although it happened gradually, there was one occasion when I literally used my political power to force a change in the system. In 1950, when I was Speaker of the Massachusetts Legislature, I had business to attend to one day in the North Avenue Savings Back in North Cambridge. As I was climbing the stairs, I saw a fellow coming down with tears in his eyes.

“What’s the matter?” I asked him.

“You’re Tip O’Neill, aren’t you?” he said. “Then you probably know my father, Billy Askin. We’re from Worcester and he used to be in the State House.”

“Sure I know your father,” I said. “But what happened to you?”

“Last week I gave up my job at another bank because this place promised to make me a vice president. But this morning, when I came in, they found out I was Catholic and now they won’t hire me. So instead of a promotion, I’m out of a job.”

I was furious. I ran up the stairs and into the office of the bank president, a German fellow named Karstein, whose family had run the local coal-and-oil company back when Cambridge was a Yankee town.

“Mr. Karstein,” I said, “my name is Tip O’Neill.”

“Yeah? What do you want?”

“I’m the Speaker of the Massachusetts legislature and I’m also your local representative. I grew up around here, and when I went to St. John’s Grammar School, every Tuesday we’d put a dime in the bank. Today, all my children have accounts in this bank, and so do most of the people in North Cambridge. Our St. Vincent de Paul fund at the church has thirty-three thousand dollars on deposit here.

“Now I understand that you just refused to hire a man because he’s Catholic. I can’t believe it, and I’m going to give you until Monday to change your mind. If my friend doesn’t get the job, I’m going to walk the streets from here to Fresh Pond Parkway, and I’m going to tell every person I meet along the way  that you’re a bigoted son of a bitch who won’t hire Catholics. And I guarantee you’ll have the biggest run on your bank that you’ve ever seen in your life!”

When I returned to the bank a few days later, Billy Askin’s son was sitting in his office as the new vice president. There was also a new teller named O’Connor, and a third Catholic whose name I no longer remember. A lot has changed since that commencement day at Harvard in 1927.

From pages 41 and 42:

 During my early years in the state house, the Speaker was Christian Herter, a tall, stately-looking, and articulate gentleman who always wore a bow tie. His mother’s family was connected with Standard Oil, and his father was a great mural painter. Later, Herter went to serve in Congress, and during the last two years of the Eisenhower administration, he served as secretary of state. The old-timers in Washington maintain that he was the real author of the Marshall Plan, although Senator Arthur Vandenberg received most of the credit.

Christian Herter was a brilliant man and a great Speaker. Although he wasn’t a lawyer, he was a terrific legislator and an expert on parliamentary procedure. But he was also extremely partisan, as I learned one spring day when the Democrats were having a caucus and Johnny Aspell, the Democratic minority leader, told me to ask the Speaker to grant us an extra half hour to discuss the legislation.

No sooner did I make my request than Herter whacked the gavel and announced: “The clerk will lock the door and the house will be in order.” I couldn’t believe it. “You’re not going to let me out?” I asked. “But I’m suppose to report to the caucus!”

Herter simply ignored me, and within five minutes and without any debate the Republicans passed the very bill we had been caucusing about. We didn’t have enough votes to affect the measure in any event, but that wasn’t the point. When it was all over, I approached the Speaker a second time. Although I was outraged by what he had done, I was also in awe of the man, so I made sure to restrain myself. “Mr. Herter,” I said, “that wasn’t a very fair thing to do.”

“Son,” he replied, “we already gave you half an hour. The Red Sox are opening today and we’re getting out of here.”

I was stunned. If the Democrats had ever tried something like that, the press would have crucified us. But that’s the way the Republicans operated in the state house in those days, when Christian Herter simply trampled on the rights of the opposition. The Republicans actually had a rule that no Democratic member – not even the Democratic leader – could enter the Speaker’s office. If you wanted to see the Republican leadership, they met you at the door and spoke to you there. They were so partisan that they weren’t even allowed to cross the threshold.

It’s hard to believe, but in those days the Democrats didn’t even have an office. In 1948, when I became the first Democratic Speaker of the house, I provided the Republican minority with a lavish suite of rooms and offices. I said to myself: if my own party is ever again in the minority, at least next time we’ll have our office space. Four years later, in 1952, Eisenhower swept the country and the Republicans once again won the majority in the state house. This time the minority Democrats had office space. But we regained control in 1954, and the place has been Democrat ever since.

Oddly enough, there was nothing personal about Christian Herter’s behavior. He was a perfectly nice fellow who believed he was simply following the rules. And the rules, as he understood them, said, Screw the Democrats!

Politics In Early Cambridge

Cambridge Sentinel picture of Thomas P. O'Neill for Common Council, 1903

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From the Cambridge Sentinel, November and December 1903

From page 11:

 My father, Thomas P. O’Neill, was always interested in politics, and in 1900 he was elected to the Cambridge City Council. In those days, local politics  boiled down to one thing – jobs. Because of the elaborate patronage system, my father was in a position to control such jobs as teacher, policeman, city clerk, fireman, and trash collector.

From page 25:

In those days, street-corner rallies were very popular in Boston, and people would follow them from one corner to another over the course of an evening. They were also an important source of information, because nobody used a campaign literature in those days, radio advertising was too expensive, and television hadn’t been invented yet.

Old Politics Is Over

During the 2013 Boston Mayoral Election, I was very pleased to support Representative Martin J. Walsh as the new Mayor of Boston. He has been a good mayor, a good leader, and has made very good changes for the city of Boston.

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