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Irish Americans

Public awareness of "Irish-American Heritage Month" remains obscure. Forty-four million Americans proudly share their Irish ancestry, especially in celebrating St. Patrick's Day with parades, family gatherings, Masses, dances, etc. The American Foundation for Irish Heritage wants to have the same national recognition as other ethnic cultural celebrations, such as; Black History Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. This same national celebration and recognition can and will only happen with all Irish Americans taking action to succeed in that goal by appropriately commemorating heritage, history and culture.

Irish-Catholic immigrants came to America during colonial times, and not all Irish-Catholic immigrants were poor. For example, wealthy Charles Carroll immigrated to America in 1706. His grandson, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, signed his name to the Declaration of Independence.

Ireland’s 1845 Potato Blight is often credited with launching the second wave of Irish immigration to America. The fungus which decimated potato crops created a devastating famine. Starvation plagued Ireland and within five years, a million Irish were dead while half a million had arrived in America to start a new life. Living conditions in Ireland were deplorable long before the Potato Blight of 1845, however, and a large number of Irish left their homeland as early as the 1820s. In fact, Ireland’s population decreased dramatically throughout the nineteenth century. Census figures show an Irish population of 8.2 million in 1841, 6.6 million a decade later, and only 4.7 million in 1891. It is estimated that as many as 4.5 million Irish arrived in America between 1820 and 1930.

Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States. In the 1840s, they comprised nearly half of all immigrants to this nation. Interestingly, pre-famine immigrants from Ireland were predominately male, while in the famine years and their aftermath, entire families left the country. In later years, the majority of Irish immigrants were women.

Ill will toward Irish immigrants because of their poor living conditions, and their willingness to work for low wages was often exacerbated by religious conflict. Centuries of tension between Protestants and Catholics found their way into United States cities and verbal attacks often led to mob violence. For example, Protestants burned down St. Mary’s Catholic Church in New York City in 1831, while in 1844, riots in Philadelphia left thirteen dead.

Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments in the 1840s produced groups such as the nativist American Party, which fought foreign influences and promoted "traditional American ideals." American Party members earned the nickname, "Know-Nothings," because their standard reply to questions about their procedures and activities was, "I know nothing about it."

In the Questions for Admittance to the American Party (1854), inductees committed to "…elect to all offices of Honor, Profit, or Trust, no one but native born citizens of America, of this Country to the exclusion of all Foreigners, and to all Roman Catholics, whether they be of native or Foreign Birth, regardless of all party predilections whatever." This commitment helped elect American Party governors in Massachusetts and Delaware and placed Millard Fillmore on a presidential ticket in 1856.

During much of the nineteenth century, when large numbers of Irish and Blacks were present, they were pushed into competition. There are striking parallels in the culture and history of the two groups. They began their life in America with low social and economic status. Over time, they advanced in common fields such as sports, entertainment, religion, writing and publishing, and politics. They even had similar social pathologies—alcoholism, violence and broken homes. Rather than being united by their common hard life, they were divided by the need to compete. For political benefit, this pattern was reinforced as Blacks were drawn to the Republican Party while the Irish strength in numbers was wooed by the Democratic Party.

Both the Irish and Blacks had reason to feel they were treated unfairly in the workforce, and often at one another's expense. In the antebellum South, for instance, where slaveholders viewed slaves as valuable property, Blacks were prohibited from participating in hazardous, life-threatening work. Thus, many of the most dangerous jobs were left to the Irish who did not have such protection (or limitation). Thousands of Irish lives were lost in the building of the nation's canal and railroad systems.

The Conscription Act of 1863 exacerbated tense relationships. This act made all white men between the ages of twenty and forty-five years eligible for the draft by the Union Army. Free black men were permitted to "volunteer" to fight in the Civil War through the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, Blacks were not drafted or otherwise forced to fight. In addition, white men with money could illegally bribe doctors for medical exemptions, legally hire a substitute, or pay for a commutation of a draft. Lower-class workers could not afford to pay for deferments. The inequities in draft eligibility between blacks, monied whites, and lower-class whites (many of whom were Irish), inevitably increased racial tensions.

Several cities suffered draft riots in which enrollment officers and free blacks were targeted for violence. The largest such incident began on June 11, 1863, in New York City when more than 100 people were murdered by an angry mob. After burning down a draft office and attacking police officers and well-dressed whites, this mob of lower-class whites (including many Irish) focused its energy on killing black bystanders. The Report of the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People . . . documents some of the acts perpetrated by the mob in the section, Incidents of the Riot.

For centuries, though legally free, the Irish lived as a conquered people in their own nation. Britain controlled the politics, economics and religious life of Ireland. Subjugation and strife gave rise to an unmistakable Irish identity, a sense of cohesion, and an ability to organize to accomplish goals. The Irish often met their economic, educational, religious and social needs through clandestine means that frequently involved their trusted village priests.

Their organizational ability coupled with the large number of Irish living in U.S. cities, made the Irish a powerful political force. They literally transformed politics in American cities by putting local power in the hands of men of working class origin. Building on principles of loyalty to the individual and the organization, they built powerful political machines capable of getting the vote. Though remembered most for their perceived corruption, these political machines created social services long before they were politically mandated by national political movements.

Political machines controlled major American cities into the 20th century. From New York to San Francisco, the Irish dominated big city politics. New York's Tammany political machine was under Irish control for more than fifty years. Irish influence resulted in increased power for the Democratic Party as well as the Catholic Church. William R. Grace became New York City’s first Irish-Catholic mayor in 1880. Four years later, Hugh O’Brien won the same position in Boston.

Irish-American political clout led to increased opportunities for the Irish-American. Looking out for their own, the political machines made it possible for the Irish to get jobs, to deal with naturalization issues, even to get food or heating fuel in emergencies. The political machines also rewarded their own through political appointments. In 1855, "...nearly 40% of New York City's policemen were immigrants, and about three-fourths of these immigrants were Irish." [Wittke, The Irish in America]

Over time, many Irish climbed occupational and social ladders through politically appointed positions such as policeman, fireman, and teacher. Second and third generation Irish were better educated, wealthier, and more successful than were their parents and grandparents, as illustrated by the Kennedy family. The first Kennedy who arrived in the United States in 1848 was a laborer. His son had modest success in this country, but his grandson, college educated Joseph P. Kennedy, made the fortune that enabled the great grandsons (one of whom became President John F. Kennedy) to achieve great political success.





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Page last modified: 24-09-2017 18:55:42 ZULU