Did South Boston Ban the Shamrock for St Patrick's Day?

by JoHarrington

The city never did. But business-speak, ill-judged political correctness and Chinese Whispers blew the backlash into global proportions. Find out how!

It was Boston which held the world's first ever St Patrick's Day parade, and Bostonians who first linked the shamrock with Ireland.

Therefore, it was all the more startling to read that Boston had banned the shamrock as a symbol of hate. That city governors had castigated this humble clover, as representative of a minority group set on segregation.

The Irish, a minority in Boston? What?!

All over the world people were gaping incredulously at the news. As well they might, as it didn't have a shred of truth. But people believed it, and that was more indicative of early 21st century anti-Americanism than anything Bostonians had done or said.

How Boston DIDN'T Ban the Shamrock

Diversity awareness in a public meeting turned into a debate about 'hate' symbols. When it was hinted that a shamrock might fit the bill, people hugely over-reacted.

Image: No ShamrockThe story began in the summer of 1999. Against a background of racial tension, Boston Housing Association hosted a voluntary meeting promoting diversity in the housing projects.

The shamrock was mentioned, and it lit a fuse that just keeps on burning.

Boston is proud of its Irish heritage. While it's long been a melting pot of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the largest proportion of Bostonians claim Irish descent.

20.4% of the population at the last count, which makes it the highest concentration of Irish-Americans in the whole of the USA.

The entire of Boston - and South Boston in particular - is habitually festooned with shamrocks. Not the plant itself, but paintings, murals and iconic prints gracing shutters, windows, doors and the sides of buildings. The mere suggestion that they might not be appropriate to display in a multicultural society incensed Bostonians before the news even escaped the city.

But it all turned out to be a storm in a tea-cup. (If such a phrase is appropriate, given that this IS Boston.)

Traced back to source, it turned out that the original public meeting had taken on the aspect of a debate. Boston Housing Association representative Linda Argo had led a discussion about triggers for tension. Was it permissible to display, say, a Confederate flag or a Nazi swastika on a South Boston window?

While a chorus of 'no, no, no' was instantly forthcoming, she turned the issue on its head.  What about a shamrock?  After all that only really symbolized the Irish, in a city where nearly 80% of the population were not of Irish descent.

She was getting people to think. She wasn't suggesting for a moment that the ubiquitous shamrock should actually be banned. But that's what it sounded like to some in the audience and the uproar was instant.

Books about the Boston Irish

Discover more about why the city is called the Irish Capital of the USA in these histories about the Irish in Boston.

Boston Shamrock Ban Hits the Press

Thus the Chinese Whispers started its insidious progress across the city, the USA and finally the world.

Image: Detail from Irish Famine statue in BostonColumnist John Ciccone wasn't at the housing project meeting in South Boston, but he spoke with people who were.

His opinion piece in the South Boston Tribune blew the story city wide. It was laced with vitriol concerning the whole concept of a meeting to discuss diversity. He called that 'brainwashing'.

But his most scathing points surrounded the suggestion that the shamrock might be perceived as hateful, and that it could possibly be lumped in with symbols like the Southern Cross or the swastika.

Yet Ciccone's editorial went further than Linda Argo had ever gone. He stated outright that Boston Housing Association (BHA) had ordered Southies, in the three main housing projects, to strip their properties of shamrock displays.

Letters to the editor poured in from furious Bostonians. They were printed, which pushed the story into the public eye for weeks. By the time that had finished, a casual reader might have supposed that shamrocks had actually been banned throughout the entire city.

America's largest Irish-American newspaper, The Irish Echo, quickly picked the story up. Its reporters at least contacted Linda Argo to establish what had been said. But unfortunately the diversity awareness trainer was not equal to dealing with the press.

She didn't deny the story outright. She used business-speak and the language of academics tip-toeing around political offense. She told The Irish Echo that she'd merely asked residents not to display 'bias indicators'.

Pretty much everyone, journalist included, read that as confirmation that Linda Argo - thus the entire BHA - had banned shamrocks in Boston. The story ran as such.

By now, reporters from the Sunday Tribute in Dublin had heard about the furor, probably via The Irish Echo. The urban myth took on an international scope, as Ireland now read all about it, in one of its most widely circulated national newspapers.

'Outrage as Shamrock is Seen as ‘Hate Symbol'' screamed the headline with the story presented as fact.

One of its journalists had also contacted the besieged Linda Argo. She was quoted as saying, "We want people to talk about what they may be doing that is causing an effect that they did not intend and not to display symbols people might consider to be bias indicators on the outsides of their buildings."

That term 'bias indicators' again reeked of political correctness gone mad.

In Boston, the backlash was as much about academics and administrators losing all common sense in the pursuit of not causing offense. In Ireland, the reception broadened considerably. It became damning of Americans as a whole.

Meanwhile, back in the USA, the story was about to explode again.

Within the same week, both The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald reported that the housing association was trying to ban shamrocks. Any Bostonians who'd missed it the first time now had the opportunity to add their rants to the others.

Then The Salon got involved.  A popular source of news and gossip, the magazine is enjoyed by millions of readers across the USA and online.

In 2000, it chose to run the shamrock banning Boston story on St Patrick's Day!

In fairness, The Salon did mention that it was just a rumor in the by-line. But the first half of its long editorial merely highlighted the apparent truths behind the rumors. People had to read right to the end to discover that the shamrock ban was never on the cards.

Even then, the article was laced with inflammatory quotations from officials and local residents alike, which all added up to suggest that Boston's shamrock displays really were endangered.

Of course, those celebrating St Patrick's Day in Boston could quite patently see that no shamrocks were being excluded from their city. 

But those living elsewhere had no such evidence before them. Condemnation rolled in, framed in letters, blogs, and editorials, not to mention personal conversations and good old word of mouth.

Nevertheless, it seemed that the story had finally run its course. Until it resurfaced again in time for St Patrick's Day 2001.

'Loony Americans are set to ban the Shamrock in Boston following complaints from minority groups!' blazed the editorial from one of Britain's best-selling tabloid newspapers.

The Sunday Mirror ran its story in February 2001, just as Britons were gearing up for their major St Patrick's Day parades in cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester. They received the startling news that shamrocks 'will now become a thing of the past' in  Boston, 'following complaints from blacks and Hispanics.'

Racist embellishments (who were those colored people complaining?) is par for the course for the Sunday Mirror, as was anti-Americanism at the time. It made it all the more darkly amusing when the newspaper railed against linking the shamrock with the swastika.

In short, xenophobia and racism are fine, as long as it's the Sunday Mirror doing it. Yet the Nazis were still bad.

Nevertheless, reporters from The Irish Times apparently took it at its word. One of Ireland's more prestigious broadsheets, it published the Boston no shamrock story on March 8th 2001. Just a week before St Patrick's Day.

While not as blatantly racist as The Sunday Mirror, the newspaper did lay the blame solely upon 'some minority residents' in Boston, while politely sneering over the 'wilder shores of political correctness'.

It also stated that Boston Housing Association had urged Bostonians 'to avoid public displays of such "bias indicators" as swastikas, Confederate flags and shamrocks'.

Linda Argo must have seriously wished by then that the words 'bias indicator' had never left her mouth.

BHA's Official Position on Shamrocks

Within the first six months, BHA spokesperson Sandy Henriquez initiated a campaign of damage limitation.

She wrote a letter, distributed to Boston's officials and local residents, stating, 'The BHA has no oral or written policy banning shamrocks nor has it given any of its residents any directive not to use shamrocks or other ethnic symbols such as the Puerto Rican flag.'

She also denied that the shamrock had ever been linked with the swastika, not even during the diversity meeting that sparked the whole furor.

Linda Argo's diversity meeting had made two separate points. One was that some symbols are designed to encourage tension (i.e. the swastika), and others to promote unity (i.e. the shamrock).

Irish Politics in Boston

The Shamrock Ban in Boston Rumor That Won't Go Away

This urban myth just keeps on running, fueled by journalists who report it not only as fact, but as a recent event.

As late as February 2011, The Irish Echo reported the shamrock ban rebuttal, like it had only just occurred. Under the headline, 'Shamrocks Get OK for Boston Housing Projects', the story described events a decade old as if they'd happened 'last week'.

It looks like the myth is going to run and run, carried on tides of righteous outrage by people who never check their facts. But the truth has always been clear - Boston never banned the shamrock from its streets.

And Bostonians would tell officials where to go, if that ever became the case. In Boston, the shamrock remains utterly and permanently everywhere.

Some Boston Irish Merchandise with a Shamrock

From sports teams to the emblems of Boston's emergency services, this iconic symbol of the city's Irish heritage is very much in evidence!
Updated: 03/16/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 04/09/2014

The Salon article mentioned the bussing kids in for desegregation period.

I love it when you talk about the history that you've lived through! How was that one resolved? It does sound like a messy situation.

Your take on the shamrock in Boston is based on more insight than mine. It could easily have been people worrying about political correctness going mad again.

Sheilamarie on 04/08/2014

This is Sheilamarie again. I'm having some problems signing in.
I wouldn't say that there are anti-Irish feelings in Boston today, only that it wasn't that long ago that there were. My eyebrows were raised when you wrote about public housing and the possibility that people considered shamrocks to be racist. It brought me back to my college days when bussing kids in order to desegregate the schools was such a controversy. I worked that summer at a restaurant with a white girl whose mother kept her home instead of letting her be bussed into a predominantly black neighborhood high school and a black guy who was being bussed out of his neighborhood. These two kids had no problem with each other as fellow workers but were smack in the middle of an ugly situation. That experience made me realize how complicated these issues can be. I wonder whether the anti-shamrock message was somehow linked to racism in Boston in general. Was a benign symbol such as a shamrock striking a nerve, resurrecting old wounds? I have no idea, but it makes me sad.

JoHarrington on 03/27/2014

It's really surprised me that there was anti-Irish feeling in Boston. I thought that it was fundamentally an Irish-American city! And the Irish have been there for several generations now. Any idea how prejudice against the Boston Irish came about?

As for the general point - about hard times begetting bigots and bullies - I can certainly see how it comes about. When people feel like they've lost control of their lives, they want to grab some back. Picking on those who are 'other' is a quick-fix way to feel superior. They're not, of course - in fact they just sank even lower - but the point is that they feel so.

Either that or the media sell papers through social scares, and/or a government wants to distract the electorate from political failures by playing the blame game. It's amazing how quickly and thoroughly communities (or whole nations) can be led into hatred, if it's presented as not only normal, but expected of all 'reasonable' people.

sheilamarie on 03/27/2014

Jo, I really must live with a bag over my head because I'm from Boston (Irish, of course!) and was living in Vermont during the time you've written about. Your article is the first I've heard of this so-called ban. I guess I was busy over those few years with a full time job and three teenaged sons. Besides that's the kind of thing I'd probably have laughed off at the time as it seems so ridiculous. But the hurts and the tensions between groups in Boston really are nothing to laugh about. And that "Irish need not apply" mentality was really not all that long ago, even in Boston. My mother was told as much when she was a young woman and I was called some nasty names by people living across the street when I was a child. It takes a longer time to get over such things when you're stuck in the situation of no future, which is how many people living in public housing must feel. What's sad is how people who are hurt can turn on those who are going through some of the same injustices they've just pulled themselves from. People need their symbols of identity, which is not the same as a hate symbol. Still nothing is as simple and clear as it looks from the outside.

JoHarrington on 03/12/2014

The sheer furor it sparked gives testament to how hard people would fight to retain it!

Ember on 03/12/2014

Banning the shamrock seems so random. Even if in some other reality it had actually been banned, I feel it would've only served to empower the symbol. But in general, it is so hard to imagine that actually happening in any sort of recent terms.

JoHarrington on 03/10/2014

Oh! That provides greater insight from someone who knows the area. Thank you very much for this!

So banning the shamrock wasn't quite so out of left field as it might appear to a casual reader.

And yes, I'd love to see you here more regularly too. Lots of discussions to be had. :D

Nelda Hoxie on 03/10/2014

Malcom X called Boston the most racist city in America. Former Mayor and Southie resident Ray Flynn made his political bones by throwing things at buses that held small black children. Today the Mayor of Boston may boycott this year's Southie St. Patrick's Day parade because they ban openly gay people from marching.

Granted all of this might have been caused by the days when there were signs in the windows of Boston that stated, "No Irish Need Apply." The city is a complicated warren of discrimination and tribal feuds. The shamrock is one of the symbols of it.

I forgot to sign in so i'm a gray face. I'll have to start writing here, I can see we could have gobs of fun discussions.

JoHarrington on 03/10/2014

LOL That's the honest answer for sure. :)

Alexhliel on 03/10/2014

Not really sure to be honest. XD you never can tell.

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