Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Irish in America

They went through quite a bit when they first arrived, as shown in the film Gangs of New York. My ancestors settled in Canada where there was a great deal of prejudice, too, but not quite so violent as in the U.S.A. According to an Irish history site:
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.


CelticLady said...

Wonderful post!! As I was going through the blogs I follow of course my eyes perked up at the mention of Irish. My husband had an ancestor who was part of the Irish Brigade and he, in this day and age still dislikes the English. I have wanted to go to England but he doesn't want to so we went to Ireland twice.

Christina said...

Interesting post! My own great-great-grandmother came over from Ireland at the tender age of fourteen, to work as a "domestic." She eventually established herself in Kansas City and became the nanny for the children of a well-to-do man. She ended up marrying the man and had several children of her own with him. It's a very interesting story and I wish I knew more about her.

tubbs said...

Hating, like poetry, is something the Irish are very good at. I'm very lucky that my saintly Irish grandfather was spared that curse. And life wasn't easy for him > having married an English lass.

The history of the Phila. Know-Nothing riots have an interesting detail most people are unaware of:

These Ulster Irish thugs burnt St Michael's and then marched down to St Augustine's and burnt that down. Right smack-in-the-middle of their route was St Peter's. LEFT UNSCATHED! and why?... Because it was the church of German tradesmen who were way out of their league... Those krauts posed no threat to their factory/ weaver jobs.

Julygirl said...

My Mother, who was not Irish, would say when something bothered me to "Let it be like water on a ducks back". Then I married an Irishman and experienced the 'everything is a cause' mentality. Exhausting.