Michael Mulcahy, 1928-2018
In this post we celebrate the life of Michael Mulcahy, a pillar of the neighborhood for more than 50 years.
First, in a 2007 interview, Michael reminisces about JP in the 1960s, living two blocks from the Haffenreffer Brewery, and facing down some bigots who opposed JPNDC in the early days.
Michael would never boast, so scroll down further to read how he made a difference at critical moments. Executive Director Richard Thal remembers how Michael played a hand in saving JPNDC when it was broke and keeping Blessed Sacrament in community hands.
Where are you originally from, and how did you end up in Jamaica Plain?
I’m from Waterford County in Ireland. I had been trained as an elementary school teacher, but there was no hope of getting a job in Ireland. You’d have to wait for someone to die and then there would be dozens applying for the job.
So I joined the Air Force, and when I was discharged after 18 months I decided to go to England because there, you could find a job the next day. But if you were Irish you had to have a visa and to get a visa, you had to be in a specific occupation. There was coal mining, and I didn’t like that idea at all. There was military service. Agriculture was one, but I came off a farm and wanted nothing to do with that! I chose nursing because it was the line of least resistance.
We emigrated to the US in 1958 and in 1960 bought a house in the Brookside neighborhood here in JP. In those days people used to ask “what parish are you in?” more than what neighborhood. We moved to the Our Lady of Lourdes parish, which was known as the German parish. Of course, there was a reason for that. Wherever there was a brewery, there were going to be Germans!
Our neighbors were the Huffnagles, the Wolfgangs, the Meyers, the Fishers. The Huffnagle men worked at the Haffenreffer Brewery. Mrs. Huffnagle, who was a very old lady at the time, would tell us about playing as a child in the Stony Brook when it used to run down the hill there along where the church is now.
The Mulcahys were the first people to break the German pattern on the street! What drew us was that we could afford to buy it, and be close to a church and a Catholic school. That was important to us. In those days there was no charge for the school and all our children went there. The parish was able to support it. Most of the activity, dances, socials, all that kind of thing, revolved around the church.
What was it like living two blocks from the Haffenreffer Brewery?
When Haffenreffer was in operation, the main thing I remember was the smell of hops on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I don’t really know what they did, but you could smell it all over for a few hours. It wasn’t unpleasant at all.
Is the legend about the open beer tap true?
Yes it is. My kids were the first to tell me and I got concerned about them drinking beer! So I came over to see for myself. It was like an ordinary water faucet. Then I noticed people how people were walking over there with their milk jugs, filling them with beer, and taking them home!
How did the brewery closing down in 1965 affect the neighborhood?
It was considered a great calamity in the area. There was also another factory down on Amory Street that closed around the same time. They made small motors and in fact, the fellow who was living at the time in the apartment downstairs, he worked there. I think there were 300 people working in there. So it was a considerable part of the decline too.
But already, there were a lot of younger people moving out of the city. When I used to work nights at McLean Hospital, a lot of the guys who were working as nursing assistants were veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill and going to college. They were getting educated for good jobs and they didn’t want to live on the third floor of their parents’ house anymore. So they were moving out to where the grass was green and the tax was low—the Bridgewaters, the Braintrees, what have you.
It turned into sort of a harrowing time. There was a point when almost no one wanted to come to Jamaica Plain. People wouldn’t come down to the Brookside area because it was near Egleston Square. All my kids were Irish dancers and went to a dancing school up around Thomas Aquinas church and if I wasn’t able to pick them up, particularly in the winter time, they would ask their friends who had cars to give them a ride. The friends would live in West Roxbury or out in that direction and they’d say, “Oh no, my parents say we can’t go down there.”
How did JPNDC come into your life?
I didn’t know where they heck they came from! What I remember first was that there was a flyer under our door trying to get people to go to a community meeting. It kind of indicated that there was all kinds of sedition and lefties and commies and what have you and they were going to take over Jamaica Plain and they were spearheaded by the Jews. So I went to hear for myself.
At the meeting Barbara Kaplan, who was JPNDC’s Executive Director at the time, made a presentation about getting control of the closed Haffenreffer brewery and I thought, “What she’s talking about sounds good to me.” But other people kept telling me how the Jews were taking over the neighborhood. I thought, “geez, this is crazy.” So I told them what they were, a bunch of goddamn bigots and Jim Craven’s cohorts. Jim Craven was our state representative at the time and he was a shyster, a corrupt politician, but he did things for people and had a lot of support.
They even went after me on the steps of the church, coming out of Mass. “You’re supporting abortionists,” they said. That’s what they were like. And when changes did occur in the neighborhood, many people did not change with it, unfortunately. They just cut loose and moved out.
Anyway, soon after that meeting I was asked to be on JPNDC’s board and now it’s been near enough 25 years.
What really stands out for you about those 25 years?
You might not believe it, but back then I remember JPNDC’s one-room office and how it was a falling-down place. I came over one day and Barbara Kaplan was sitting there at the desk wrapped in a blanket! She looked so frozen I went back home and brought back a little heater.
Being part of it gave me a greater sense of the community. At first the Brewery was the main focus but then over time it moved into affordable housing. To see a dilapidated, half-burned house turned into a home—well, it was great to be involved.
Bridge Builder with a Stubborn Streak: Memories of Mick Mulcahy
By Richard Thal, JPNDC Executive Director
Michael (or Mick, as he was called by most of those close to him) was a person of deep faith and he was blessed with many wonderful gifts: wisdom, inner strength, a great sense of humor, steadfast conviction and personal warmth.
We first got to know him in the early 1980s in the days when JPNDC was just starting out and some of the old-timers in the neighborhood weren’t exactly welcoming us with open arms. At one particularly contentious meeting about the potential development of The Brewery, several people were voicing doubts about our mission and the people who were behind the organization.
Michael Mulcahy had the courage to stand up and tell his neighbors that he thought we were trying to do something that could bring new life to the community and create opportunity, and that people ought to give us a shot. Those who were there tell me that Mick’s comments made a huge difference and it was small wonder that we soon recruited him to the JPNDC board, where he served with distinction for almost 30 years.
Not long after he joined the board, the still fledgling JPNDC faced the most dire financial situation in its history. Although we had a commitment of grant funding that we expected in a month or two, the well had run dry and Barbara Kaplan, our Executive Director, asked board members if they would be willing to sign personal guarantees so we could get a line of credit.
Several of the board members looked down at their shoes, allowed as to how that might be a good idea but they had to confer with their spouses, etc.
Without hesitating, Mick Mulcahy turned to Barbara and said, “Give me that paper. I’ll sign it right now.” Needless to say, other board members soon followed suit.
Mick by temperament and belief was a bridge builder between people of all backgrounds, so it is perhaps ironic to have such vivid memories of his presence at times of great conflict. During the effort to save the Blessed Sacrament campus, I vividly remember how he addressed some of our opponents.
After hearing about as much as he could take about how dangerous it would be if “those people” were allowed to move in, Michael stood up and with his voice quavering asked “Don’t you realize that those people are human beings just like you and me? And they deserve what we deserve.” After that, it felt like our opponents were shamed and there wasn’t much more they could say or do.
Fittingly enough for someone who was a longtime leader of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, there are other, lighter moments that took place in and around church, in this case at Blessed Sacrament.
One of those was the gaggle of people remonstrating with Mick not to climb to the top of the tall and rather rickety ladder on the top step in front of the basilica to hang the JPNDC banner for our 30th anniversary celebration in 2007.
He was damned if he was going to listen to all of us warning him and cajoling him. He didn’t make it as far as he did in life without a will of iron and a healthy streak of stubbornness! Later that day, Michael regaled us by playing his accordion and singing along. It was a beautiful sight.
I remember Mick telling me that, if he had learned anything in his work in nursing over the years, it was about the capacity of the human soul to rise above suffering.
Michael Mulcahy’s memory truly is a blessing and, while we’re saddened at his passing, we treasure him and the contributions he made to our community.