Were Robert and Julia Mooney the first Irish people to settle on Nantucket?

Portrait of Robert F. Mooney standing beside a painting of the shipwreck of the British Queen.
PH9-3-21, 1988, photographed by Beverly Hall – Portrait of Robert F. Mooney standing beside a painting of the shipwreck of the British Queen. Originally appeared in Nantucket Map & Legend on 4 August 1988.

No. When the ship British Queen bound for New York from Dublin with 246 Irish passengers (5 cabin passengers, 66 in the “second cabin,” and 175 in steerage) went aground off Muskeget Island in December 1851, there were already close to 150 Irish people residing on Nantucket. Most of them had come in flight from the Potato Famine that had begun in 1845, but there had been Irish-born residents of Nantucket much earlier.

Eleanor Boyle was accused of selling rum without a license back in 1743. In 1747, Henry Fitzgerald married a Nantucket wife, and their descendants carried on through many generations on the island. The Quinns were operating an inn and a laundry in Newtown in 1763 when the “Indian Sickness” struck. It was said that Molly Quinn was the only non-Wampanoag to contract the disease. She recovered and later denied that she had ever been sick, but Nantucketers were quick to blame the Irish, claiming that the epidemic had originated from an Irish “plague ship” in close proximity to Nantucket or to clothes sent from a ship to Molly Quinn’s laundry.

GPN815, circa 1880 – Portrait of Robert Mooney.
GPN815, circa 1880 – Portrait of Robert Mooney.

That same year a man by the name of “James MacMurfie,” who had come to the island from New Hampshire, was sent packing for having moved to Nantucket without permission, but another James Murphy settled and raised a family. Although he died in 1775, his descendants lived on Nantucket right into the twentieth century.

Nantucket vital records include a spate of Irish deaths before the Potato Famine. Among them were merchant’s clerk John Christy, age 65, who had lived many years on Nantucket before dying on the mainland in 1838. Ireland-born James and Margaret Gallagher lost two of their children in 1835 and 1836, and William Sullivan lost one of his twin daughters, Mary Jemima, in 1838. When Patrick Welsh, “an Irishman,” was found dead on the waterfront in 1838, the coroner’s inquest returned a verdict of accidental death. Over a twelve-months’ span, three others died as well.

P21897, 1932 – Robert F. Mooney as a child sitting on a cow with his father, Lawrence F. Mooney, standing behind him at their farm in Polpis.
P21897, 1932 – Robert F. Mooney as a child sitting on a cow with his father, Lawrence F. Mooney, standing behind him at their farm in Polpis.

The 1850 federal census recorded 145 residents of Nantucket who had been born in Ireland. They were on hand to receive and assist their compatriots rescued from the British Queen. Most of those rescued continued on to the mainland, but Robert and Julia Mooney stayed. They settled on Nantucket, joining—among others—the Nevins family. They were soon joined by the Macks (originally McNamara), the Killens, the Robertses, and eventually the Flanagans. Despite hard economic times, these Irish families “made good” on the island, becoming prosperous and influential.

As for Robert and Julia, their grandson Lawrence F. Mooney Jr. became Nantucket’s police chief, and their great-grandson Robert F. Mooney, a graduate of Harvard Law School, served for many years as Nantucket’s representative to the Massachusetts legislature.

For more about the Irish on Nantucket, see Frances Karttunen’s book, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, available from the NHA Museum Shop and from Spinner Publications of New Bedford.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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