It is no secret that the Irish were not especially welcomed when they entered the United States. One can understand this reaction. Most earlier immigrants had been, if not wealthy, at least reasonably skilled workers or artisans. They were the most ambitious and vigorous of the Europeans seeking to make new lives for themselves in a richer country. But the famine Irish were poor, uneducated, and confused. They fled not to a better life but from almost certain death. They were dirty, undernourished, disease-ridden, and incapable of anything but the most unskilled labor. That they arrived in great numbers and filled up whole sections of cities almost overnight did not go unnoticed by native Americans. They saw that when the Irish moved in, the neighborhood went to pieces. They did not take care of property, and foolishly allowed great overcrowding in their houses. Nor did they understand how important it was to keep clean, especially when there was almost no provision made for sewage disposal. They failed to understand the importance of health and seemed satisfied to live in crowded, dark basements.
If the Irish were to be accepted into American society they must be sober, industrious, and ambitious, like the Protestant immigrants who had come before them. There, of course, was the heart of the problem. Not only were they poor, sick, dirty, and uneducated. They were also Catholic.
The Irish Catholics, with their unmarried clergy, had an equally strange tendency not to want to send their children to public schools, where every effort would be made to turn them into good Americans-this meant, of course, good Protestant Americans. From the nativist point of view, it was no wonder that churches were burned and that Catholics were occasionally murdered in riots.
The nativists were fond of comparing the Irish with the blacks. If they were northern Protestant abolitionists, they were especially fond of such a pastime. The comparison was always favorable to the blacks. The freed blacks “knew their place” and the Irish did not. The blacks were properly grateful for what the abolitionists had done for them, and the Irish seemed not at all grateful for their second-class citizenship. On the contrary, hardly had they been permitted to become citizens when they promptly joined with others of their kind in political organizations which threatened native American control of the cities. The Irish, then, were not only bigoted Catholics, they also were organizers of political “machines” that were a direct challenge to the established powers. The Know-Nothings and other nativist organizations gained much of their support from their strong appeals to anti-Catholic sentiment.
Practically every charge that has been made against the American blacks was also made against the Irish. They had no ambition. They did not keep up their homes. They drank too much. They were not responsible. They had no morals. It was not safe to walk through their neighborhoods at night. They voted the way crooked politicians told them to vote. They were not willing to pull themselves up by their own efforts. They were not capable of education. They could not think for themselves. They would always remain social problems for the rest of the country.
It was extremely difficult for us to understand what life in the early immigrant ghettos must have been like. There are practically no Americans today who live in anything even resembling the immigrant sections in Boston and New York. The psychological degradation of the Irish was certainly no worse than that to which blacks have been subjected. But it must also be said that from 1850 to 1950 there were no dissenting voices raised on the subject of the American Irish. No one suggested that Irish might be beautiful. No one argued that their treatment was both unjust and bigoted.
The Irish crawled out of the mud huts and wooden hovels in which they lived, and left behind the day labor and domestic service by which they made a living. They managed to do this not because American society offered special opportunities (as the native Americans would like to believe), nor because of a superior merit which enabled them to overcome obstacles (as the Irish would like to believe). The Irish "made it" because the American economy was growing at a fantastic rate, and the Irish were a large group of workers with knowledge of English. The growing economy and the almost unlimited number of jobs allowed the American Irish to move first into the respectable working class, then into the lower middle class, and more recently into the upper middle class. An occasional well-to-do Irish family like the Kennedys shows that even the Irish can become aristocrats.
From canal workers and railroad builders they became police officers, streetcar conductors, schoolteachers, and clerks. From the coal mines, stockyards, and steel mills they moved into offices, classrooms, and political headquarters. Then some began to go to law school, medical school, and dental school. Their heroes were political leaders, entertainers, singers, comedians, and athletes.
These changes took generations. The rate of social improvement increased as the economy grew and slowed down as the economy went down. The Irish were probably on the verge of making it when the Great Depression came. It took the prosperity of World War II and the postwar economic boom, plus the G.I. Bill, to enable the Irish to make it into the upper middle class. In other words, the worst of the immigrant experience was over about a hundred years after the famine. When John Kennedy was elected President, 110 years after the famine, the immigrant period of American history came to an end.
1. How did the "famine Irish" differ from immigrants of earlier times?
2. How did the nativists compare blacks and the famine Irish? (Consider both similarities and
Source: Adapted from Andrew M. Greeley, “The Hard Lot of the Irish”, from That Most Distrustful Nation: The Taming of the American Irish, 1860, as presented in Sources in American History: A Book of Readings (Chicago, Illinois: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1986), pages 127-129.