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Hibernian Hall (2013)


March 2013



There was a time when all roads led to Dudley Square in Roxbury for the Boston Irish. They began settling in Roxbury in the 1850s, and by the 20th century a bustling community was anchored around St. Patrick’s Church and the Mission Church, as well as Catholic convents, orphanages and schools.

In 1906 Irish groups like Ancient Order of Hibernians recognized the need for a building of their own to hold cultural and social activities. They formed the Hibernian Building Association of Boston Highlands, and sold $10 shares to over 500 shareholders to support the building fund. They purchased the lot at 184-186 Dudley Street, hired architect Edward T.P. Graham to design a building, and in January 1913 contractors broke ground for construction.

In May 1913, 5,000 residents turned out for the laying of the cornerstone. The keynote speaker was US Congressman James Michael Curley, a Roxbury resident who was already a hero on the streets and an emerging force to be reckoned with in Boston politics. As the crowed waved tiny American flags, Congressman Curley laid the stone with a silver trowel. Organizers placed a copper box inside the stone with “a copy of the deed, pictures, newspapers, and other things . . . of interest in the future.” Then Curley launched into an impassioned oratory about the role of the Irish in shaping America.

Hibernian Hall officially opened in the fall of 1913, and for the next half century the hall, along with other local halls, became the Mecca for the Boston Irish, hosting dance lessons and Gaelic classes, wedding receptions and fundraisers, and union meetings and political campaigns.

Thursday night was Maid’s Night Out, when young single Irish women and men streamed into Dudley station, hoping to meet their future spouses at Hibernian Hall. After World War II, the scene became even more robust as new Irish immigrants and returning GIs converged on Dudley Street, dancing the night away in a new era of peace and prosperity.

Author and musician Susan Lindsay recorded the memories and recollections of that post-war generation in her fine book, See You at the Hall: Boston’s Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance.

Many renowned Irish musicians played Hibernian Hall in the 1950s: Roxbury native accordionist Joe Derrane, County Kerry’s master fiddler Paddy Cronin, fiddlers Larry Reynolds from Galway and Brendan Tonra from Mayo, and pianist Tom Garvey from Lawrence were just a few of them.

But all good things come to an end, and by the late 1950s the Irish began moving out to West Roxbury, Dedham, Milton and the South Shore. The Hibernian association went into bankruptcy and the building was sold. The Irish dance scene drifted apart, settling into smaller halls in Dorchester and Roslindale, and out to the suburbs. The Irish music scene was never the same after Dudley Street.

Hibernian Hall had mixed uses over the next three decades and was nearly demolished in 1997 to make way for public housing. But then Massachusetts Historical Commission designated the building an historic property and it was spared the wrecking ball. Madison Park Development Corp. renovated the building and in 2005 the Hibernian was reborn as the Roxbury Center for the Arts.

Today, Dillon Bustin, Artistic Director of Hibernian Hall, is programming the hall with a blend of cultural events, music and dance, theater performances, film screenings, and youth-related activities. The Hall now serves the multi-cultural, diverse Roxbury population of African-Americans and new immigrant groups – Haitians, Dominicans, Cape Verdeans and more. The new owners have graciously kept the name Hibernian Hall, retaining a remnant of Irishness for a building that once meant so much to a generation of Boston Irish.

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