The emigration of the Irish to the United States in the mid-19th Century has sometimes been referred to as “from the frying pan into the fire.” Conditions which motivated the Irish to leave their homeland were deplorable in both the social and the economic sense, and those in which they lived in the new country were hardly much better.
In the first few decades of the 19th Century, the population of Ireland experienced a rapid increase which was accompanied by a decrease in the land under cultivation. This caused a recurrence of severe rural distress, a condition from which the Irish suffered earlier during famines of the 18th Century. For several generations, the Irish peasantry had attempted to revolt against their English masters, but without success. Although the Irish had enjoyed a brief and artificial wartime prosperity during the Napoleonic Wars with the need to feed large armies, the demobilization after the war threw many Irishmen into the labor market. New competition from foreign grain caused the price of Irish corn to fall, and the land being tilled to decrease while the population was increasing.
Irish agriculture in any case was backward, and long before the Great Famine of 1845-1846, the people had endured many small famines with disease and death. The years of the Great Famine saw unusually wet summers which caused poor harvests elsewhere in Western Europe, but Ireland suffered far more than other countries because of its poor social system. For one thing, a system of absentee landlordism prevailed, placing the Irish peasant in virtual subjection to agents and landowners. Tenants were exploited while agents and landlords could get rich, and there was no incentive for the peasant to improve his holding. More important was the dependence of the peasantry on the single crop: potatoes. When the potato blight ruined the crop in 1845 at the same time that Irish grain was being exported to England – and protected by the Corn Laws – there was no escape from hunger and death other than emigration.
In their own country, the Irish underwent great discrimination on the part of the English. Some of the most repressive legislation which history records was enacted in the form of the Penal Laws by which the land was confiscated from the Catholics, and a host of anti-Catholic, anti-priest laws made the lives of the Irish Catholics abjectly miserable. The Irish peasant, Bishop George Berkeley commented, was “more destitute than savages, and more abject that Negroes… The very savages of American are better clad and better lodged…
These social, cultural and economic conditions at home shaped the lives of the Irish in such a manner that they could not be accepted in the new country anymore than they had been in the old. They were poor. They had no education and no skills. There were undernourished and often ridden with disease. They had suffered and many of them had died on the way to the new land, and the Americans who saw them arrive were often quite horrified at their condition. Americans were not very partial to immigrants in any case, but the Irish were especially unwelcome. They seemed to have no skills which were wanted in the new country, and in addition to their ignorance, poverty and low social condition, they were Catholic. Anti-Catholic feeling was a large part of the dislike and fear of these newcomers.
Thus, the same anti-Catholic attitudes of the British were taken up by the Americans. Just as the British looked down on the Irish as ignorant and savage louts, so did the Americans. Like some other immigrant groups, the Irish were said to be too “clannish, flocking by themselves and cutting themselves off from the life of the community like an alien element…” Americans looked upon the Irish as they had been looking on many other foreigners since the late 18th Century, and by the early 19th Century, “nativism” developed with the Irish as the special target of American fear and resentment. The nativist thought that the American way of life was threatened by such aliens (the Irish were by 1850 twice the proportion of the American foreign-born as the Germans, the next largest group). They constituted forty-three percent of foreign-born.
The Irish had, however, brought their considerable manpower with them. As they landed in Eastern cities and had no money to go elsewhere, they began their new lives by building up the cities in which they lived. They became the street workers, the yard laborers, the house servants, the carters, waiters, porters, bartenders, hod carriers and other lowly workers of the cities. Their labor built the sewers, the subway systems, the homes and the streets in the pre-Civil War decades. As the country expanded, the Irish went westward with it, doing the heavy work of building roads, canals and railroads.
The lowliness of their labors, however, and the fact that it was largely unskilled – at least at the start – defined the place of the Irish in their new society. They were called “greenhorns, clodhoppers, cattle Irish and blacklegs,” and the women who became domestic workers were labeled “biddies, kitchen canaries, pot wallopers and Bridgets. By upper class Americans, the Irish were considered as different as the Chinese. They might do the dirty work of the new world and help to build up the economic as well as the cities and the transportation systems, but – being of the “lower” classes – they were invisible to their “betters” as human beings. In other words, their culture, as it had been in Ireland and as it developed in America, was foreign to Americans and their culture and their kinds of work relegated them to a low status. And their religion, took was not only feared – but despised. America, it was thought, must be saved “from the degrading influence of popery.”
Yet, if the Irish were hated by the Know-Nothings and the nativists … despised by the middle and upper classes and made the butt of cartoons and jokes, they gradually became Americanized. Their loyalty to their compatriots, their adherence to the Church and their affinity for political life and to the Democratic Party strongly influenced the shape of American political and religious life. Their work in the Catholic Church transformed it into an institution of prestige and power.
Gradually, the Irish-Americans gained acceptance. They had placed their stamp on American life (particularly in the big cities of the Eastern seaboard), and they had done it by flaunting, rather than by concealing, their Irishness. Their hard work and their energy had not exactly won them praise, but it had made them difficult to ignore and to continue to despise.
Thus, in 1861, Thomas Francis Meagher – while recruiting volunteers for the Irish Brigade inBoston – told a crowd of Bostonians who had so hated the Irish: “Here at this hour I proclaim it… Know-Nothingism is dead… The Irish soldier will henceforth take his stand proudly by the side of the native-born, and will not fear to look him straight and sternly in the face, and tell him that he has been equal to him in his allegiance to the Constitution.
It is an open question whether the American-Irish had quite won the high status of some other immigrant groups, but many of them had at least overcome the disadvantages of their poverty and lack of education, if not of their allegiance to Catholicism. Pre-Civil War society had finally accepted the Irish.
Costigan, Giovanni. A History of Modern Ireland. New York: Pegasus, 1969.
Greeley, Andrew M. That Most Distressful Nation. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972.
Smith, Page. The Nation Comes of Age, A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years, Vol. 4. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
Wakin, Edward. Enter the Irish-American. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1978.
Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.