Authored by Chelsea Hansen
This St. Patrick’s Day I took some time to research a little-known police officer named Barney McGinniskin. He was the first Irish-born officer on record to serve in the United States. In 1851, the year he joined the Boston (MA) Police Department, people of Irish ancestry were barred from many types of work, including law enforcement. The Boston Pilot, a local newspaper, wrote at the time, “He is the first Irishman that ever carried the stick of a policeman anywhere in this country, and meetings…have been held to protect against the appointment.”[i]
McGinniskin’s hire was protested by the nativist “Know Nothing” political party, which fueled anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigration sentiments in Boston politics at the time. As a result, the mayor ordered the City Marshal to gather information about the applicant. After making inquiries, the marshal “found that the man was 42 years old, had been 22 years in this country, and had the reputation of being [a] temperate and quiet man.”[i] With the support of the mayor, McGinniskin was hired.
During the 1854 Boston elections, the Know Nothings gained political influence. As a result, McGinniskin was dismissed just three years after joining the force. It was an unfortunate turn of events for a man who by most written accounts was a good police officer. However, political tides in Boston and other big cities in the United States would soon shift. As many new Americans of Irish ancestry began exercising the right to vote, they had better leverage to advocate for job opportunities. During the second half of the 19th century, just a few decades after McGinniskin’s termination, big city police departments like Boston and New York were significantly, if not mostly, Irish-American by demographic.
Barney McGinniskin played an important role in helping reshape social conceptions about who could be a police officer. Today, it is easy to associate Irish-Americans with the law enforcement profession. So, in the holiday spirit, I’d like to remember him and other historical figures (Irish or not) that overcame obstacles to serve their communities. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!