One of the worst things to happen in the eighteenth century caused by the failure of the potato crop was the Great Potato Famine in Ireland. Potatoes were the food of the poor in Ireland and the entire country depended on them. The cause for the failure was the
fungus called the potato blight. Between 1845 and 1850 around an eighth of the population died from the Famine. The Irish were affected so greatly because of rapid population growth. Because there were so many people there were more people who suffered from it.
Have you ever wondered why there is so many people of Irish descent on the east coast and how they got hear? Well, most came around the same time period and for the same reason, jobs. Millions of Irish people came here because they heard of how great it is and they had nowhere else to go. Most Irish where catholic and Catholics and were not accepted anywhere else. In Ireland thousands were dieing a day from what we know today as the Great Potato Famine. When they came to America they were treated cruelty because so many of them had come with no money. They were considered bums that didn’t deserve jobs. Thousands of Irish immigrants were treated unfairly and with extreme cruelty.
Imagine this Life
Imagine you’ve been living off of basically one food for your entire life, every day you farm this food, you eat this food and you sell this food, not much else can grow on the land you live on which isn’t even yours, the owners let u live there if u grow enough food, it’s the same for everyone in your country; than one day your plants start rotting and eventually stop growing at all. You find out your neighbor cant grow any either and that a virus is killing all your plants and everyone else’s plants stop growing too. Pretty soon your landowner kicks you off his land, you have no food and no shelter, and your friends and family start dieing daily. What would you do? The only thing there is to do, get on a boat and sail to America. 1, 2
This was the life of thousands of Irish men and women, when they could no longer grow potatoes they could no longer survive in Ireland. Taking the risk of sailing to America was almost a bigger risk than staying in Ireland. Thousands died on the trip over. They started calling the over packed ship filled with sick men and women “coffin ships.” They had a choice between staying in Ireland and living longer than most did that went on the ships but surely dieing sooner than the ones that made it to America, or taking the risk of dieing on the ship but living what they thought would be a great life and becoming rich. Most took the second choice. 2
From 1846 to 1855 an estimated 2.1 million men women and children fled Ireland. Out of that 2.1 million people who fled 1.8 million went to North America and 1.5 million of them came to the United States of America. Thousands of the people who ended up in Canada soon made their way to the United States.2
The Irish immigrants in the United States were described as “urban pioneers.” The cities in America with the biggest Irish populations were Boston, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and Chicago. By 1860, nearly one fourth of the population in Boston and New York were Irish born. The poorest of the Irish lived on the rim of the cities in small dumpy towns. During the 1850’s at least thirty thousand Irish families were living in basements in cellars in New York City with no light and with their homes slightly flooding. 2
Living in these conditions many of the Irish were catching diseases like pneumonia, yellow fever, and tuberculosis. Irish made up sixty percent of the people living in homeless housing. Because of the suffering these people went through many came down with mental illnesses. In New York fifty percent of the people in insane asylums from 1849 to 1859 were Irish refugees or kids of the Irish refugees. The amount of Irish arrested or in jail was extremely higher than any other group of people. 1
By the 1870’s The Irish were the most publicly underprivileged of the Americans of European descent. The Irish had made bad names for themselves early in their immigration here. Because there were so many of the Irish people they were not liked by the American citizens because they were taking many jobs and homes in the areas.1
Discrimination against the Irish Catholics reached its worst when the Know Nothing Movement was made in the 1850’s. This movement tried to keep Catholics from running for office. The Irish Protestants opposed this because with most of the citizens in their town being both Catholic and Irish, they wanted a good chance of having an Irishman in office.1
In some areas riots broke out between rival laborers from different parts of Ireland and American laborers over building jobs. It was not out of the ordinary for the Irish men, women and children to be discriminated against in social events. But it was out of the ordinary for a Catholic to marry a Protestant and was looked down upon in the community. Neither priests nor ministers believed that they should intermarry. Religious schools were created to keep Catholics and Protestants from mixing. These schools kept almost fifty percent of the Irish children and young adults out of public schools.
Around 1860 signs were being put up saying “HELP WANTED- NO IRISH NEED APPLY.” Soon to be called “the NINA signs.” A song had been written called “No Irish Need Apply” by John F. Poole and had a huge impact on the Irish and sparked a slight rebellion. They held tight to the jobs they had and refused to let any other immigrant groups or African Americans to work those jobs. 1
The Irish Catholics were stereotyped many times. George Potter (an Irish historian) said the Irish were stereotyped as violent (even among themselves), alcoholics, voted illegally, and relied on violent or criminal gangs. George Potter quoted newspapers from the time:
“You will scarcely ever find an Irishman dabbling in counterfeit money, or breaking into houses, or swindling; but if there is any fighting to be done, he is very apt to have a hand in it.” Even though Pat might “‘meet with a friend and for love knock him down,'” noted a Montreal paper, the fighting usually resulted from a sudden excitement, allowing there was “but little ‘malice prepense’ in his whole composition.” The Catholic Telegraph of Cincinnati in 1853, saying that the “name of ‘Irish’ has become identified in the minds of many, with almost every species of outlawry,” distinguished the Irish vices as “not of a deep malignant nature,” arising rather from the “transient burst of undisciplined passion,” like “drunk, disorderly, fighting, etc., not like robbery, cheating, swindling, counterfeiting, slandering, calumniating, blasphemy, using obscene language, &c.”1
They were discriminated against in local newspapers and in various other types of media. The picture to the right was drawn by German cartoonist Thomas Nast and published in an 1876 Harpers Weekly Magazine. The picture is showing bishops in the form of an alligator attacking public schools.1, 5
Another reason the Irish were hated was because of their religions. The Irish were Catholic and even though America was supposed to be free and not segregated or prejudice, there was on exception, Catholics. From the 1820’s through the 1860’s two thirds of the Irish refugees were Catholic, the rest were mostly Protestant. The Protestants obviously not hated against as bad as the Catholics. Irish Catholic is a expression used to say a person is Irish and practices the Roman catholic Religion.3
Southern Irish Families
The Irish made up a very small percentage of the southern population, so most of them stuck together in cities like New Orleans. They were not as discriminated against their, they became political leaders in the Democratic Party and supported slavery. Beginning as manual laborers they worked their way up the economic ladder and were granted over the usual financial rank. 1
The religion of the Irish concerned the local southerners very little. The native southerners knew how important they Irish were to the protection of slavery. The Protestant Irish had a big part in the making of the development of this country, the United States of America seal of approval was designed by Charles Thomson, an Irishman. 1
Irish in the Government
Irish Catholics became a big part of law enforcement very quickly. In 1855 in New York City, three hundred and five out of one thousand one hundred and forty nine policemen were Irish natives. In 1860 in Chicago forty-nine out of one hundred and seven police were Irish natives. The Irish have been known for being very organized and many of the catholic leaders in the United States of America have been Irish. 1
They have also been known to lead labor unions and the Democratic Party in some regions. Irish men usually voted eighty to ninety-five percent Democratic. In 1928 an Irishman by the name of Al Smith was the first Irish Catholic to run in the presidential elections but lost to Herbert Hoover.1
The Irish suffered more than any other group of immigrants from Europe. They suffered harsh times and had to work hard to gain respect. Even though some Irish were out of hand and violent, many helped shape the country into what it is today. Millions died, thousands went insane, and thousands made it and brought themselves up from nothing. They had to fight to keep their jobs and that is what they did, and even though they wee harassed and hated, they still made it in the end.
1) Wikipedia “Irish American”.
2) Lalor, Brian: The Encyclopedia of Ireland. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
3) Wikipedia “Irish Catholics”
4) Gorman, Michael: Ireland by the Irish. Galley Press, 1963.
5) Wikipedia “Thomas Nast”.