Boston Pops

It is easy to be affectionate about Beantown. It seems so familiar. Perhaps it is the propensity of bare-armed freckles that you see as you wander across Boston Common. Or that distinctive drawl with a slight hint of brogue that fills your ear intermittently during heated “politic” speak and laughter in her bars. A definite pro, in my opinion, is the compact centre, which makes it America’s only real walking city and is its primary charm.

A good breakfast is a prerequisite to getting your stride in gear for a good day’s meandering. There are many wood-panelled cafes in Boston that seem to hark back to a different era. Start the day in one of them with a five-seeded toasted bagel loaded with cream cheese and flushed down with a healthy decaf venti latte and you won’t go far wrong. The brimful paper coffee cup will be taller than the stretch from thumb to little finger of your outstretched hand, so if you imbibe it all you will never be dehydrated again for sure. Don’t try the caffeine-enriched latte in this size or you will be wired for a week.

There is more than a few days walking around Boston and each neighbourhood has a specific character that warrants attention. Three distinctive trails– the Freedom Trail, which provides a history lesson in the birth of a nation, and the Black and Irish Heritage Trails, which explore the ethnic history of Boston – take you round the city and act as a pretty good introduction.

The pentangle that is Boston Common is the site where the city originated. The Common is now the city playground and an apex of a necklace of parklands. In olden times it was used to keep cattle and the place of executions for pirates, thieves, Quakers and witches. The Public Gardens next to the Common fill with springtime magnolia blooms and photographers rearranging wedding groups to make them look their best. Everlasting wooden swans carry waving tourists as they float across the reflective pond.

The gold-plated copper dome of Bullfinch’s Palladian New State House dominates Beacon Hill and overlooks Boston Common. Behind on the hill are the small narrow streets that epitomize the centre of old world conservatism that was Bostonian Brahminism. The quaintness of red brick houses, black gas lamps and cobbled streets positively ooze exclusivity. This is where America’s aristocracy carefully chosen first protestant colonists settled and entrenched their merchant elitist stature over emigrants and any Irish papists or Jews that were in the vicinity. Local writer Oliver Wendell Homes called it the hub of the solar system and this typified their inflated ideas of their own importance. Beacon Hill is still exclusive, but just wealth (mostly old money) and not necessarily religion is the requisite standard for residents.

It seems strange that the Black Heritage Trail takes you through Beacon Hill but the north slopes of the district was the home of many of the city’s African American community in times past. Massachusetts was the first state in the Union to give slaves their freedom. The higher echelons of Boston society boasted of their magnanimity and their abolitionist achievements. Yet many had made their money from trading slaves, selling drugs (opium) to the Chinese and still had the “No Irish need apply” attitude to the city’s Celtic immigrants.

Downtown Boston is dominated by skyscrapers and would be of limited interest if it were not for the Old State House and Faneuil Hall. Even though it seems dwarfed in modernity, the Old State House is an elegant period gem. The notorious Boston Massacre occurred on the street outside in 1770. It seemingly started with a spat as “some boys and young fellows threw snowballs” at a British soldier. Five of them were killed. Three years later some patriots dressed in Mohawk garb theatrically threw some tea in the river – the Boston Tea Party

Nearby Faneuil Hall was once the “cradle of liberty” where Sam Adams and George Washington orated about impending freedom. The former 19th century food market and warehouse was renovated as a tourist attraction in the 1970s. It is now full of tourists browsing among souvenir peddlers and food stalls selling cheap food at tourist prices.

Downtown is demarcated by the infamous John Fitzgerald Expressway, which has become the traffic clogged central artery of the city. The solution is on the way in the form of the Big Dig. Bostonians are so enthusiastic about their hole in the ground, even if it has proven an expensive and over budgeted hole. The Big Dig is a euphemistic name for the disruption that has been caused to the city, but the planned urban regeneration will be worth it when it is completed. There is something so enlightening about sticking fumigating traffic way underground in a city centre. The first icon of the restructuring of Boston is the Zakim suspension Bridge near the Fleet Centre and it is already rising in the city’s pride.

North End has its history and there is plenty of it to savour among its narrow streets. Here are the glorified hero Paul Revere’s house and the Old North Church where he hung two lamps to warn Patriots on the other side of the Charles River that the British forces were coming by sea for the first battle of the Revolution at Lexington. The North End is now the picturesque Italian quarter of the city and as you might expect they have imposed their personality with tasty food delis, cafes and excellent restaurants.

The Back Bay has become a well-heeled neighbourhood from its humble beginning as a stinking swampland. Newbury Street and the Copley Place mall complex extraordinaire are the main Meccas for shoppers with designer retail outfits and café bars to be seen in. At Copley Square the past and present collide in a mishmash of architecture. The view of the juxtaposition of the Athenian Boston Library, the glass shard shaped Hancock Tower and the Romanesque Trinity Church in the foreground is the definitive architectural highlight of the city.

Across the river, the days of Bohemian Cambridge counterculture are filed in the tomes of history. This is liberal Boston still though even if it is oft just a theoretical kind. MIT and Harvard University are responsible for the unusually high brain density. MIT itself seems dour except for the innovative sculpted Strata Centre designed by Frank Gehry. Harvard Square is the tourist centre and its plethora of bookstores will keep the budding bookworm sated. Harvard is one of the elite Ivy League Schools and you need money to burn as well as brains to get in.

Boston is a close as you can get to Ireland on mainland America. It was a maritime boomtown when the Irish arrived in their droves in the mid 1840s. They formed an immediate impoverished class and entered enslaved employment, but it was a lot better than the famine stricken Ireland they left. In the 1860s there was a further influx of Europeans, mainly of Italian and Polish descent. A population explosion led to ethnic frictions. These new emigrants eventually infiltrated social and political life and challenged the autocratic order of the puritans on the hill.

The second wave of Irish emigration was of Ireland’s educated elite in the 1970s and 80s. The Bostonian Irish dollar provided them with jobs and a start in the New World. For many Irish graduates, Boston was the escape route from the stifling repression of a stagnant economy back home.

With the changing global political climate, the ebullient Celtic Tiger economy, even if it oft seems a myth of late, and the tragedy of 9/11 the flow of Irish emigrants into Boston has abated. Despite this we flock as tourists to Boston to visit our blood in the Boston brownstones with their steeply inclined stoops.


Five things not to miss

The Irish President

The quintessential Irish thing to do in Boston is to catch up on the history of the most famous Irish American family at the JFK Library and Museum. Some highlights include a replica of JFK’s oval office, videos documenting his career and trips abroad (at three months old I was held high to see his cavalcade on the streets of Dublin), a large piece of the Berlin Wall and his rocking chair. It makes you wonder what might have happened if the Kennedy brothers hadn’t been tragically gunned down in their prime. Columbia Point, Morrissey Boulevard, Dorchester, Tel: 617 929 4523,


Sample Some Seafood

You must eat to live, but in Boston it doesn’t seem a necessity, but an exquisite pleasure. Baked beans in molasses (Beantown) are off the menu, as this is the finest place for seafood on the Eastern Seaboard. Creamy clam chowder with biscuits for lunch and lobster (no longer wasted on pigs) for dinner is dining fit for a king. You wont go far wrong with Atlantic scrod and chips in the Union Oyster House to or shucked oysters and stout in an Irish bar.


A Bit of Art

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has an outstanding art collection with exhibits from the East most (noticeably ancient Egypt) to an array of Monets (shame they are stacked) to works by top local artists Sargent and Copley. Avenue of the Arts, 465 Huntington Ave, Tel: 617 267 9300. Web:



Listen to Some Pops

The Boston Symphony Hall is the home of two world famous orchestras. The Boston Pops run from May to July culminating in a 4th of July concert on the Esplanade. In the winter, the Boston Symphony Orchestra stage classical concerts. 301 Massachusetts Ave, Tel: 617 2661492. Web:


Take Me to the Ball Game

The Monster is green at Fenway Park. The famous green wall adorns the home of the present world champions. Babe Ruth, a famous slugger, philanderer and drinker put the “curse of the bambino” on the Sox when sold to the Yankees. The demon is buried after the greatest comeback of all time to beat the despised Yankees and then St Louis to win the World Series. The Boston Red Sox site is Fenway Park Tours, 617 226 6666, Email:


Conor Caffrey stayed at the Jurys Boston Hotel, which is on the site of the former City Police Headquarters in the Back Bay.

© Conor Caffrey, 2004




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