Irish in America
We’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but what about the rest of the year?And how many Irish descendants are there actually here in America? According to the last Census, there are about 34.5 million Americans who claim heritage, primarily or partially, to Ireland and Irish Immigration(Klif). The amazing part is that the population of current Ireland itself is only 4.
68 million. The Irish population of America is seven times larger than Ireland. Ireland was drained of over half of it’s population during the nineteenth century, and many Irish went to America. Once there, they changed America forever. The Irish Immigrants affected the U.
S. with their culture and influence when they made a place for themselves in America. Before the Irish Immigrants affected America, they immigrated to it.About 17% of the Irish immigrants came to America before the 1840s.Because of the Irish potato famine, most of the Irish immigrants arrived in America from 1845 to 1860(Mokyr).
The Irish potato famine, or The Great Potato Famine, was caused by a late blight on potato crops year after year, starting in 1845 and slowing down by 1851 (Mokyr).The blight, scientifically known as Phytophthora infestans, infects the leaves and edible roots of the potato plant, leaving the whole crop rotting in the fields (Mokyr).Because at least half of Ireland at that time, mainly it’s poor, depended heavily on the potato crop as the main source of nutrients, and the rest of Ireland consumed it in large numbers, famine consumed the land almost overnight(Mokyr). A few months into the first few years, having a full stomach was unheard of.By 1847, help was sent from other countries that sent food and medical aid.Unfortunately, by the end of the potato famine, about 1.
5 million people had died of starvation and another 3 million were wandering the streets, starving and homeless, waiting for a free meal from all the soup kitchens set up by neighboring countries(Mokyr).Of those remaining, about 1 million people died from the after effects of the famine and from typhus and other diseases.Those who were most fortunate fled to America during and after the famine; their numbers ranging from an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million (Donlan).The estimated 3 million that either died or emigrated out of Ireland, reduced its population from a flourishing 8.
5 million people for a staggering 6.2 million people, and by 1920, due to a low birth rate and overseas emigration, the population was less than 4.5 million, barely half of what it had been in 1845(Mokyr). After the famine, many found that there was little or nothing left in Ireland for them due to perhaps the death of family members, or lack of the life they once knew.By leaving Ireland, many felt they were leaving their heritage behind, but on the other hand, their future in Ireland seemed only to hold poverty, death, and English oppression. Because of the unfriendly welcome others had received beforehand in England and other countries, many found the only alternative to be America(Mokyr).
With rumors of the streets being paved with gold and free coins and alcohol, America seemed the only escape and the Irish dream. Wanting poor Irish tenants, who couldn’t pay the rent, out of the way, rich landlords sent them to Canada, Britain, and America, promising them false agents who would meet them there. They boarded cheap, leaky ships that were often unseaworthy and unfit for any humanity (Gavin). Below deck about 120 to 200 people huddled together, sharing lice and fevers in a dark and stuffy keeping hold. With no ventilation, the stenches of vomit and diarrhea wafted up through the floorboards and could be smelled from as far as a mile away(Gavin).
Many sick and dying would lay on hard bunks or even the floor in their own filth for almost the entire voyage (Gavin). Victuals were another problem. Passengers were expected to bring their own food, but many people couldn’t afford much after buying the ship tickets. British ships only had to supply one pound of food per person per week, so the handouts soon became starvation rations to the Irish passengers (Gavin). Also, another problem was water, or lack thereof. Many ships ran out of water before the passage was up, so some of the captains handed out or sold large amounts of alcohol to the passengers.
The resulting behavior among the passengers became “totally depraved and corrupted” (Gavin). Because of the lack of human necessities, and the many that died each day, the ships that bore the Irish from their homeland were known among the Irish as “coffin ships”(Kinsella). Out of an estimated 150 passengers, about 30 people died on board and of the 100,000 people that sailed to America during 1847 one out of five died of disease and malnutrition (Gavin). Despite all the hardships the Irish immigrants had endured so far, the worst was yet to come. With thousands of uneducated Irish flooding into America each day, and no one to help them, they settled down on the bottom most rung of society without question. The coldest welcome of all would have been in Boston, Massachusetts; an anti-Catholic, Anglo-Saxon city with a population of 115,000(Gavin).
Boatloads of Irish settled in the enclaves of the city’s slums and took any job they could find; cleaning yards and stables, unloading ships, or pushing carts(Gavin).And once again, the Irish were subject to greedy landlords, who charged up to $1.50 a week for lodging in foul-smelling and dark rooms that were eleven by eight feet across. They usually had no water, sanitation, ventilation and sunlight. The majority, though, could not get a tenement and the overflow of Irish would settle anywhere: in gardens, yards, alleyways, and shacks surrounding the buildings(Kinsella). Typically anyplace where they could lie down and sleep.
New York City, which was three times as big as Boston, was able to absorb the influx of Irish better.75% of all Irish Immigrants who came to America landed in New York City, so having a large city was essential. In 1847 alone, about 52,000 Irish arrived in the city of a current population of 372,000. The total number of Irish that came to New York City during the famine years was about 650,000 people(Mokyr).With so many Irish coming in, some people found the influx of Irish as a way to cheat them out of their money.
As soon as an Irishman stepped off the boat, a fellow countryman known as a “runner” would meet them and recommend cheap housing with comfortable rooms(Gavin). These runners, usually large, greedy men, would grab confused and culture shocked immigrants, and their luggage, as soon as the boats were docked, and “persuade” them to stay at their favorite tenement buildings. Most immigrants quickly agreed as being uneducated farmers without a friend in the New World. Others, who were not so trusting, were physically forced into agreeing to pay rent for the promised “comfortable” rooms. These rooms, like the ones in Boston, were filthy hell-holes on the poorer side of Lower Manhattan.
Instead of the comfortable rooms promised, the bewildered family was shoved into vermin infested basements with three or four other families.They were expected to pay double or higher than what they had been told. With this done, the families had no choice but to stay until their money ran out. Then their luggage was confiscated for back-rents and they were tossed out, homeless and penniless, into the streets(Gavin). Though some Irish men found work as laborers, most were unemployed or indentured servants.
On arrival, many Irish with no way to support themselves were immediately sent to the poor houses, which overflowed with Irish already. They begged on every street corner and loitered around saloons and workhouses until they were chased off by policemen. Every major city up and down the east coast had a “shanty town”, an Irish infested part of the city where culture was tightly knit and anyone who was an outsider was harassed or chased away by stray dogs, children, and idlers with nothing to do. The Chicago post wrote “The Irish fill our prisons, our poorhouses…
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 his country.” (Kinsella)Alcohol and boredom contributed to rowdy behavior which spilled into the streets often resulting in a brawl or free-for-all.Men and boys who were cooped up to long were usually the main occupants that harnessed these attractions for sport. Even children would take part in drinking and fighting.
About 1500 children would roam the streets of Boston every day, begging and making mischief. A large source of income would result from children pick pocketing and stealing. This was encouraged by some adults, even though the police did not tolerate it. One out of every ten adults died six years after stepping off the boat and 80% of all children born to Irish-American families died before they were two(Kinsela). There was only a limited number of unskilled jobs which were constantly fought over by the Irish and African Americans, as well as white, working class Americans, who felt they were better than the Irish population, and that the Irish had come overseas just to take away opportunities that were meant for Americans.
Many Irish were not trusted by most Americans. They were thought to be drunken, lazy slobs. Though Irish did like to drink, they were industrious and hard working.In Ireland, a man could only earn eight cents a day, but in America he could earn up to a dollar a day –if he found a job. Ads for employment were followed by “NO IRISH NEED APPLY” or “NO IRISH WANTED”(Kinsella).People were forced to live in the most inhuman conditions not only because they were poor, but also because they were Irish.
Not many would venture to employ the Irish, but the ones who did, were wholly satisfied with their hard working laborers. Another reason Americans practiced discrimination against the Irish was their religion. America, at that time, was strictly Protestant and not particularly open to other religions. Though a few small English-Catholic colonies had been established in America long before the Irish came, many nineteenth century immigrants contributed largely to the Catholic population and helped make it what it is today(Byme). In 1850, Catholics only made up about 5% of the American population, but by 1904 they made up 17% of the total population (about 14 million out of 82 million) and Catholicsnow make up the single largest religious population in America(Byme). With so many Catholics immigrating to their homeland, Americans became afraid of the Pope “controlling” America, so a band of Protestant New Yorkers took up arms and began to burn down Catholic churches and homes belonging to successful Irish Catholics.
The Irish fought back with equal fury, and only stopped when their Archbishop asked them to. Similarly, after a few “religious riots” in Philadelphia, where a few churches were burned to the ground, the Mayor of New York asked Archbishop Hughes if he feared for his diocese and churches. The reply was “No sir, but I’m afraid some of yours will be. We can protect our own.” (Kinsella). In all, the Irish were driven by a religion that they clung to in the bad times, and celebrated in the good.
The Irish came to America in a time of need(At the end of the Industrial Revolution (1820-1840)). The United States was growing, and it required men who would do heavy work such as building bridges, canals, and railroads (Kinsella).One of the biggest employment opportunities for the Irish was the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 was approved by President Lincoln, but the work was postponed, due to the start of the war (Quigley). In 1866, however, the great race between the Union Pacific Railroad — starting at Omaha — and the Central Pacific Railroad — starting at Sacramento – began. Each team was laying tracks as fast as they could to see who could get the farthest before the two lines joined up.
The work could never have been done without Chinese and Irish laborers, who did the bulk of the work. The Chinese worked for the Central Pacific, and the Irish worked for the Union Pacific(Quigley). The amount of money of the pay in both groups began to show the Irish small progress in society.The Irish workers were paid $35 a month, while the Chinese were paid only $27 a month (later rising to $30 a month). The Union Pacific Railroad was built primarily by Irish laborers from the East Coast who were civil war veterans, both Union and Confederate (Quigley). Although the Irish did not face racial discrimination like the Chinese, they were still paid very little for working in dangerous territory.
Irish laborers were often attacked or killed by Native American war parties and were sometimes killed by blasts of dynamite(Quigley). It was said that “an Irishman is buried under every tie”. This was a high price to pay, but railroads helped pave the way of immigrant expansion across the United States. Being the rebellious type, the Irish would fight fire with fire. Railroad overseers and mine owners would abuse miners and their families in their homes.
So a secret organization made up of Irish miners was started in Pennsylvania in the 1860s.The miners called themselves the “Molly Maguires” which was named after a woman who led an illegal, anti-landlord organization in Ireland during the 1840s. The “Mollies” would fight back by beating and even murdering railroad and mine owners. From 1865 to 1875, the group dominated the Pennsylvania mining fields and terrorized the population. In 1875 they started an unauthorized strike, so the president of the mining company hired the Pinkerton agency to track down the Mollies. Their detective, James McParlan went undercover and discovered the leaders of the Molly Maguires.
Ten of them were tried and hung and the group was disintegrated, but they set an example for other Irish fighting for equality. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, more than 150,000 Irishmen joined the Union army, though most of them were recent immigrants and did not have their U.S. citizenship yet (History). Some joined to show loyalty to America, but others joined to be recognized as patriotic enough to put a stop to Irish discrimination. Between 1861 and 1863, the soldiers who fought in all Irish units were part of the “Irish Brigade” and were known for their ferociousness and bravery during battle(History).
The three all-Irish infantries that made up the Irish Brigade were the 63rd, the 69th, and the 88th New York Infantry Regiment. Later, in 1862, the 28th of Massachusetts and 116th of Philadelphia were added(History). Thanks to their courage and toughness in battle, the brigade was nicknamed “fighting Irish” among the other regiments of the army. Also, due to their bravery, the five regiments led the Union charges in many of the Army of the Potomac’s major battles. This was a great honor, but also it caused a massive amount of casualties.
September 1862, at the battle of Antietam, about 60% of the soldiers in the 63rd and the 69th New York regiments were killed, and at the battle of Fredericksburg, 545 of the brigades remaining 1,200 were either killed or wounded. One soldier wrote, “Irish blood and Irish bodies covered that terrible field today…..We are slaughtered like sheep”.(History).
And finally, at the battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863, 320 men of the Irish brigade’s remaining 530 men were killed. Just as Gettysburg was the turning point of the war for the Union, it was also was a turning point for the Irish Brigade. By summer of 1863, the staggering high quantities of setbacks in the unit led many Irish soldiers and their families to believe that the Army was exploiting their willingness to go to battle by using them as cannon fodder. They were further enraged when the Union released the National Conscription Act, which made every unmarried man in the union, in the boundaries of a certain age, join the army unless he could pay $300 fee for another man to go in his place(History). Of course, as most of the Irish were of the working class, many of them saw this as discrimination. They saw it as a rich man’s war and instead of keeping the Union together, the Union was now fighting against slavery.
The Irish did not support this idea because then there would be a much bigger competition for employment. The anger finally exploded in New York City on July 13, a week after the Battle of Gettysburg. Irish workers mobbed the streets for almost a week in response draft law and discriminated against the African Americans for whom they blamed the war upon. They attacked any blacks, as well as any Southern “sympathizer”, and terrorized the streets and the population of New York by ransacking, burning, and looting any black homes and businesses. Government troops finally arrived on July 16 to put an end to the mayhem.
Around 120 blacks died that day from the mistreatment of the Irish(History). This was not a proud moment in Irish American history and it ended the career of the Irish participating in the war, but many of the crucial battles depended heavily on the “fighting Irish” to be won to help end the war. When the Irish came to America, they brought many traditions with them, at least a small portion of home. St. Patrick’s Day is one of the largest Irish traditions back home and in America.
This feast day celebrates St. Patrick converting Ireland to Catholicism, and who is now the patron saint of Ireland. Also there was food — bacon, to be precise. Americans did like pork before the Irish came, but the market for it went up considerably when the Irish moved in. Meat was a rare delicacy in Ireland but it was plentiful in America.
Also, alcohol brewed the Irish way for the special taste, and coffee mixed with beer, became famous among miners and railroad workers after the Irish men found jobs there(Szmuk). Among the many cultures that form America, Irish culture did its fair share, and more, to help define America. Since the first boat of Irish docked in New York harbor, through the Civil War years, till present day America, the Irish have been advancing towards a place in America that they could call home and enduring hardship after hardship, generation after generation, trying to lessen the hardship for their children. They have crawled out of the “hell holes,” dusted themselves off, and kept going. They achieved things that they could have never done in Ireland. In conclusion, after almost a century of conflict, The Irish immigrants have proven to the world that a select group of foreign descent, in a new country, can rise to such heights in the status ofcivilization in less than a century, whoso beforehand, had been on the bottom-most rung of society.
America has been affected by many cultures of all the immigrants who have had the courage to leave their homeland and to make a new one in an unknown land, but the Irish went the extra mile. They left a beaten down Ireland in hopes of a new and better life only to be handed discrimination and mistrust. They stayed close together and built each other up. The Irish had to be “fighters”, to achieve respect from Americans. The Irish can be our role models: we can learn from their mistakes and imitate their achievements.
The current Hispanic, Black, and Asian populations in America can look to the Irish for guidance. As the white population is declining, a prediction is made that by 2043, whites will be in a minority. We are still working on a nondiscriminatory America, but we have come a long way since the 1840s and the first batch of Irish stepped off the boat. We just must remember that we are the United States and we are all Americans. Works Cited •Donlan, Leni.
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