Irish Immigrants in America during the 19th Century

Home

Though life in Ireland was cruel, emigrating to America was not a joyful event...it was referred to as the American Wake for these people knew they would never see Ireland again. Those who pursued this path did so only because they new their future in Ireland would only be more poverty, disease, and English oppression. America became their dream. Early immigrant letters described it as a land of abundance and urged others to follow them through the "Golden Door." These letters were read at social events encouraging the young to join them in this wonderful new country. They left in droves on ships that were so crowded, with conditions so terrible, that they were referred to as Coffin Ships.

Even as the boat was docking, these immigrants to America learned that life in America was going to be a battle for survival. Hundreds of runners, usually large greedy men, swarmed aboard the ship grabbing immigrants and their bags trying to force them to their favorite tenement house and then exact an outrageous fee for their services. As the poor immigrant had no means of moving on, they settled in the port of arrival. Almshouses were filled with these Irish immigrants. They begged on every street. One honest immigrant wrote home at the height of the potato famine exodus, "My master is a great tyrant, he treats me as badly as if I was a common Irishman." The writer further added, "Our position in America is one of shame and poverty." No group was considered lower than an Irishman in America during the 1850s.

Free land did not lure them. They rejected the land for the land had rejected them; yet even so they always spoke reverently of the old sod in Ireland. All major cities had their "Irish Town" or "Shanty Town" where the Irish clung together. Our immigrant ancestors were not wanted in America. Ads for employment often were followed by "NO IRISH NEED APPLY." They were forced to live in cellars and shanties, partly because of poverty but also because they were considered bad for the neighborhood...they were unfamiliar with plumbing and running water. These living conditions bred sickness and early death. It was estimated that 80% of all infants born to Irish immigrants in New York City died. Their brogue and dress provoked ridicule; their poverty and illiteracy provoked scorn.

The Chicago Post wrote, "The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses...Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country."

Instead of apologizing for themselves they united and took offense. Insult or intimidation was often met with violence. Solidarity was their strength, they helped each other survive city life. They prayed and drank together. The men seemed to do more drinking than praying, yet it was their faith and dogged determination to become Americans that led one newspaper to say, "The Irish have become more Americanized than the Americans."

The Church played an integral part in their lives. It was a militant Church--a Church who fought not only for their souls but also for their human rights. After the religious riots in Philadelphia where many Catholic churches were burned, the mayor of New York asked Archbishop Hughes, "Do you fear that some of your churches will be burned."

"No sir, but I am afraid some of yours will be. We can protect our own."

Later, public officials asked the Archbishop to restrain New York's Irish. "I have not the power," he said. "You must take care that they are not provoked." No Catholic church burned in New York.

Actually the Irish arrived at a time of need for America. The country was growing and it needed men to do the heavy work of building bridges, canals, and railroads. It was hard, dangerous work, a common expression heard among the railroad workers was "an Irishman was buried under every tie." Desperation drove them to these jobs.

Not only the men worked, but the women too. They became chamber maids, cooks, and the caretakers of children. Early Americans disdained this type of work, fit only for servants, the common sentiment being, "Let Negroes be servants, and if not Negroes, let Irishmen fill their place..." The Blacks hated the Irish and it appeared to be a mutual feeling. They were the first to call the Irish "white nigger."

A prominent hotel keeper was asked why all the women servants in his hotel were Irish. He replied, "The thing is very simple: the Irish girls are industrious, willing, cheerful, and honest--they work hard, and they are very strictly moral. I should say that is quite reason enough."

The Irish were unique among immigrants. They fiercely loved America but never gave up their allegiance to Ireland...and they kept their hatred of the English. Twice they tried to invade Canada, believing that they could trade Canadian land for Ireland's freedom. In New York City, during the Civil War, they rioted against the draft lottery after the first drawing showed most of the names were Irish. For three days the city was terrorized by Irish mobs and only after an appeal for peace by Archbishop Hughes did it end. In Pennsylvania they formed a secret organization called the Molly Maguires to fight mine owners who brutalized the miners and their families. They ambushed mine bosses, beat, and even killed them in their homes. The Irish used brutal methods to fight brutal oppression. They loved America and gladly fought in her wars. During the Civil War they were fierce warriors, forming among other groups, the famous "Irish Brigade". A priest accompanied them and, before each battle, they would pray together before charging into the enemy--even against insurmountable odds. Their faith guided them. They felt the English might have a better life on earth, but they were going to have a better life after death.

The days of "No Irish Need Apply" passed. St.Patrick day paraded replaced violent confrontations. The Irish not only won acceptance for their day, but persuaded everyone else to become Irish at least for St.Patrick's Day. The Orangemen or New York City copied the St.Pat's Day parade in 1870 and, as they marched, played "Boyne Water", "Derry" and other songs derogatory towards the Catholics. Fights broke out and only the police (themselves mostly Irish) saved the Orangemen and women. The next year another Orange parade was scheduled...the police banned it.

The appearance of large numbers of Jews, Slavs, and Italian immigrants led many Americans to consider the Irish an asset; their Americanization was now recognized. Hostility shifted from the Irish to the new nationalities. Through poverty and subhuman living conditions, the Irish tenaciously clung to each other. With their ingenuity for organization, they were able to gain power and acceptance.

In 1850 at the crest of the Potato Famine immigration, Orestes Brownson, a celebrated convert to Catholicism, stated: "Out of these narrow lanes, dirty streets, damp cellars, and suffocating garrets, will come forth some of the noblest sons of our country, whom she will delight to own and honor."

In little more than a century his prophecy rang true. Irish-Americans had moved from the position of the despised to the oval office.

 

[Home] [Genealogy] [History] [Library] [Kinsellas] [Travel] [Links] [Extra] [Email]

Copyright 1996 - 2014 Hy Kinsella All Rights Reserved.