Home boston How Boston’s South Shore Became the Irish Riviera

How Boston’s South Shore Became the Irish Riviera

It had a lot to do with seaweed


Visit the South Shore of Massachusetts and you won’t have much doubt about why people call it the Irish Riviera. Orange-and-green flags fly from many a home, and the region is filled with Roman Catholic churches and schools, Irish dance schools and Irish pubs, restaurants and bakeries.

Nantasket Beach

Nantasket Beach along the Irish Riviera

You may conclude the Irish Riviera resulted from suburban flight from the working-class neighborhoods of Boston, that most Irish of American cities. But well before the exodus to Braintree, Hull and Marshfield, well-heeled Irish families had built seaside Victorian mansions along the coast south of Boston. And even before that, the Irish gained a toehold in what is now the most Irish town in America: Scituate, Mass. They did it by engaging in the now-lost industry of Irish mossing.


Irish immigrants began arriving in Boston during the Irish potato famine starting in 1845. Daniel Ward, an Irish immigrant, headed south and started collecting seaweed, or mossing, in the 1850s in Scituate.

Irish moss

Irish moss is a red algae used as a thickener and stabilizer in ice cream, beer, wine, medicine and in calico dye manufacturing. Mossers hauled the slimy stuff from the sea floor with heavy rakes at low tide.  Those who mossed at both low tides could gather as much as 1,000 pounds a day. Others made money spreading the seaweed on the beach to dry and packing it into crates.

It was a full-time job for Irish immigrants during the mid-19th century. But it didn’t make Daniel Ward rich. The salvage rights to the Forest Queen in 1854 did.  The wrecked vessel from London had carried a load of silver bars, and Daniel Ward got the rights to them.

Scituate Harbor

He built a big house on a cliff and offered it for use as the first Catholic Mass. Starting in 1856, priests said Mass there four times a year.

In 1942, an anonymous mosser told American Magazine, “It’s a great farm we have out there. We don’t have to plow it or plant it, but it gives us four crops a season.” By the end of World War II, it was a lucrative summer job for young people. It died out, a victim of cheap labor overseas. Lucien Rousseau, the last commercial sea mosser, died in 1983.

But Scituate’s Irish mossers left a legacy: the Irish Riviera. Once they established an Irish-Catholic enclave in the town, Quincy and Randolph built parishes in 1848 and 1850.

The Irish Riviera

Kennedy clan -- the most famous residents of the Irish riviera

John F. Kennedy and others sitting on the deck of the Kennedy family home in Hyannis, Mass. Left to right: Ethel Skakel Kennedy, Jean Kennedy, an unidentified man, an unidentified woman, John F. Kennedy, K. LeMoyne (“Lem”) Billings, and an unidentified woman. (Photographer unknown. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

As the Boston Irish began to acquire wealth and power, they began to move to large houses on the South Shore, to Marshfield, Scituate and Cohasset, according to historian Thomas O’Connor. Boston’s rogue mayor, James Michael Curley, spent summers in Scituate.  In hot weather, Irish families visited Nantasket, Wollaston and Hough’s Neck beaches.

Nantasket Beach in Hull was a fashionable vacation spot for the well-off Irish. Rose Fitzgerald’s family had a place on Nantasket Beach in Hull. Fenian John Boyle O’Reilly died at his summer home there.

After World War II the migration accelerated as returning GIs from South Boston, Hyde Park and Dorchester moved to the South Shore suburbs. It continued through the 1950s and 1960s.

By The Numbers

Today, Scituate and Marshfield are the epicenter of the Irish Riviera, which some consider the stretch from Weymouth to Kingston. Others consider the Irish Riviera to comprise Milton and Quincy outside of Boston to Cape Cod, where the Kennedy family still maintains a compound. The late Speaker of the House Thomas P. ‘Tip’ O’Neill retired to Harwich Port on the Cape.

Nearly 50 percent of Scituate residents have Irish ancestry. The Fieldston neighborhood of Marshfield is the most Irish-American section of the second-most Irish-American town in the United States. At least 44 percent of the population in Marshfield, Braintree, Hull, Avon, Pembroke and Milton have Irish ancestry.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005-2009 American Community Survey, 19 of the top-20 most Irish communities in Massachusetts are south of Boston. Here they are by the percentage of residents who claim Irish ancestry:

47.5 Scituate
46.5 Braintree
45.8 Hull
45.6 Marshfield
44.9 Avon
44.9 Pembroke
44.6 Milton
44.5 Abington
44.3 Whitman
44.2 Hanover
43.4 Weymouth
43.0 Walpole
42.2 Holbrook
41.4 Duxbury
41.2 Norwell
40.8 Hanson
17.4 Boston

This story about the Irish Riviera was updated in 2022. 



Laura Eisener May 26, 2016 - 4:29 pm

I’m having a little trouble figuring out if Marshfield is the 2nd most Irish town in the US how it can at the same time be the 4th most Irish town in Massachusetts, as the list in this same article shows. I suppose the percentage listing may be a different way of computing “Most Irish” – perhaps the statement about Marshfield being second most Irish is based on total numbers, or on figures gathered in a different year?

Very interesting article anyway.

New England Places To Visit Now That It's Memorial Day - New England Historical Society May 28, 2016 - 6:48 am

[…] better New England place to spend Memorial Day than the Irish Riviera? Wollastan, Nantasket and Hough’s Neck beaches have been popular vacation spots for Irish […]

Flashback Photo: The Great Salem Fire of 1914 - New England Historical Society June 26, 2016 - 1:33 pm

[…] 28 percent to 48,000. More than 5,000 newcomers had arrived in the four years since 1910. They were Irish, Italian, Polish and  French-Canadian immigrants come to work in the mills, the wharves and the […]

The Merry Widow Murder of 1936 - New England Historical Society November 18, 2016 - 6:30 am

[…] the entire region waited for news, another piece of the body turned up in the harbor. However, there was little solid […]

Six Irish Landmarks in New England - New England Historical Society March 11, 2017 - 9:08 am

[…] five New Englanders claims Irish ancestry. Boston is the most Irish city in the country, and nearly half the residents of Scituate, Mass., along Boston’s South Shore, are of Irish […]

John Clarke Guides the Pilgrims to Shore - New England Historical Society August 27, 2017 - 8:06 am

[…] of 1620 found the Pilgrims shuttling in and around the shoreline of the Duxbury and Plymouth coast, using a small shallup as transportation. A storm came up quickly and threatened the small […]

Helen Keller, Not Quite the Nice Lady Who Campaigned for Peace - New England Historical Society June 27, 2018 - 7:41 am

[…] was nearly blind herself, but she was not so lucky as Helen Keller. Her parents, working-class Irish immigrants, sent her and her younger brother to an institution. There, disabled children were abused by staff […]

6 Places That Became a Summer White House - New England Historical Society July 7, 2018 - 7:57 am

[…] The summer cottage that Joseph P. Kennedy rented in Hyannis Port in 1926 would eventually become the summer White House. Hyannis then (and now) belonged to the Irish Riviera. […]

Jeff Soltesz March 16, 2019 - 1:46 pm

A slight correction as it relates to Daniel Ward in Scituate. While a mosser he was able to get the salvage rights to the shipwreck of the Forest Queen in 1854 – that ship held 2MM lbs of counterfeit silver. That is how he came into his wealth.

Leslie Landrigan March 19, 2019 - 6:58 am

Thank you! We’ve made the correction.

Taking Leaps of Faith | Supply Chain Nation Blog September 11, 2019 - 8:51 am

[…] grew up in a Scituate, Mass., a small town south of Boston, known as the “Irish Riviera.” It’s an interesting story, and for me, it speaks to my Dad who grew up in Dorchester quite […]

How To Talk With a Boston Accent (Not for the Faint of Haht) - New England Historical Society November 26, 2019 - 8:33 pm

[…] you get to the Cape (grr), you’ll hit the Irish Riviera, also known as the South Shore.  Scituate (Sit-u-it) and Marshfield (Mahshfield) form the […]

The Portland Gale of 1898, and the Cat that Saved a Life - New England Historical Society November 26, 2019 - 8:42 pm

[…] Portland Gale destroyed dozens of piers and houses along the South Shore of Massachusetts. It damaged coastal railroads, severed telegraph and electric lines and destroyed the ferris wheel […]

Dear Financial Advisor, What's Your Business Model? - The Enlightened Long Game December 6, 2019 - 12:35 pm

[…] recent Census data supports that Scituate, MA does, indeed, bleed green.  While the Irish Riviera was not born in the 1940s & 1950s, the population certainly escalated as GIs from WWII headed […]

Six Irish Landmarks in New England - New England Historical Society March 15, 2020 - 10:17 am

[…] five New Englanders claims Irish ancestry. Boston is the most Irish city in the country.  Nearly half the residents of Scituate, Mass., along Boston’s South Shore, are of Irish […]

Dear Financial Advisor, What’s Your Business Model? – Infinite Wealth May 6, 2020 - 10:18 pm

[…] recent Census data supports that Scituate, MA does, indeed, bleed green.  While the Irish Riviera was not born in the 1940s & 1950s, the population certainly escalated as GIs from WWII headed […]

Comments are closed.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!