The Immigrant Experience in the United States

For centuries, the United States has loomed in the Irish consciousness as the place to go for a new life. The United States offered the things that the Irish could not find at home: land, economic opportunities, and freedom from English control. With land resources vastly greater than those of Ireland, the United States seemed like a place of limitless possibilities. For people who chafed under British rule, the United States stood out as the colony that had made itself free.

Early Immigration

After Cromwell sacked Ireland in the mid-seventeenth century, he sent Irish prisoners over to the West Indies as slave labor. Many of these forced immigrants eventually made their way to the English colonies in the New World; the Catholic colony of Maryland was a popular destination.

Irish immigrants had arrived in America in a steady stream throughout the eighteenth century. Most of the first voluntary Irish immigrants came from Ulster in the north of Ireland. These immigrants were generally, although not exclusively, Protestants. They were known as “Scotch-Irish” or “Scots Irish,” because of the large number of Scots who settled in Ulster during the plantations of the seventeenth century. They quickly became an established component of U.S. society. Several U.S. presidents, including Andrew Jackson, James Polk, and Woodrow Wilson, were of Scotch-Irish descent.

The Great Wave

In the nineteenth century, when a rapidly expanding population combined with a series of potato failures, millions of Irish decided to make the trip to the New World. Although the Scotch-Irish immigrants continued to arrive, the vast majority of the new arrivals were Catholics from the south of Ireland. Irish immigrants began to arrive in the United States' eastern cities in large numbers in the1820s and then flooded in during the years of the famine. They headed for the big cities — New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Chicago — and they usually stayed there.

Irish immigrants to the United States (1820–1910)

These new immigrants tended to have a tougher time of it than their Protestant predecessors, and they faced a great deal of anti-Irish prejudice from the people already living in the United States. This was for a number of reasons: they came in far larger numbers; they were mostly poor farmers and unskilled laborers; they came at a time when most land in the East was already settled; and they were Catholics moving into a mostly Protestant land. Immigrants who deluged U.S. cities in the late 1840s were especially unwelcome because of their extreme poverty and poor health.

Irish immigrants tended to be intimidated by the prospect of farming in the vast and unpopulated lands of rural United States, which bore little resemblance to the close-knit farming communities they'd known back home. Instead, they sought the apparently more lucrative work of building U.S. cities.

The massive influx of newcomers caused a strain with the existing populations, who were often of English and Protestant heritage. In the years when the majority of the Irish arrived, U.S. cities had not yet figured out how they would handle immigrants. Consequently, the immigrants wound up figuring it out for themselves.

To get a feel for what it was like to arrive in the United States, visit the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City. The exhibits are excellent, but most Irish immigrants didn't arrive there — Ellis Island wasn't opened until 1892. Prior to that, immigrants arrived at Castle Garden, which today is a National Park site.

Irish Power

Most of the immigrants were uneducated and unskilled, so at first they could only take on menial tasks. But hard work in the United States was better than starving to death back in Ireland, so the Irish immigrants quickly developed a reputation as hard workers. The great wave of Irish immigration happened at a time of tremendous growth in U.S. cities and industries. Factories, apartment buildings, bridges, and railroads all needed to be built, and Irish immigrants were there to build them. In 1847, a New York newspaper wrote, “There are several sorts of power working at the fabric of this Republic: waterpower, steampower, horsepower, and Irish power.”

Because so many Irish-Americans were in the building trades, they quickly took hold of a tool that was still rare back in Ireland — labor unions. The strong Irish sense of community allowed them to quickly grasp the strength of unity and collective bargaining. Irishmen soon led unions for bricklayers, carpenters, and plumbers. Many Irish families are still active leaders in the labor movement.

The textile industry also employed many immigrants, particularly women. Irish women also often found work doing laundry or serving as maids and cooks.

Machine Politics

Irish immigrants arrived in cities that often did not want them and did not have an infrastructure in place to take care of them. To address these problems, immigrants fell back on the tribal cohesiveness that had governed their rural communities in Ireland. While the Irish newcomers did not have status, they did have numbers. This allowed them to focus their power on a political level, almost exclusively through the Democratic Party. The resulting political organizations were the first of America's political “machines” — organizations that used tight community organization to take power over local government, and then used government patronage to maintain their power.

The Tammany machine in New York was the prototype for this style of politics. Bosses Tweed and Croker oversaw tightly controlled political organizations that offered favors — food, clothing, social services — in exchange for votes. Once in power, they exchanged jobs for kickbacks. The patronage jobs were largely in law enforcement and construction, which contributed to Irish dominance in the building trades. It was during this period that the stereotype of the Irish police officer became popular. The machine organizations were undeniably corrupt, but they did provide services to immigrant communities that they would not have had otherwise.

The original Tammany Hall was the headquarters for a Manhattan patriotic organization named after an Indian chief. Around the time of Andrew Jackson, the organization became associated with the Democratic Party and Irish immigrants. Today, the term Tammany is a byword for a corrupt political machine.

The Irish Mob

While some immigrants responded to their tough conditions by becoming cops, others chose an alternate path. The Irish mob sought to make money from the chaos of the United States' fast-growing cities. The Irish relied on old traditions of family and community loyalty, as well as a tradition of rural terrorism. Irish mobsters organized gambling, prostitution, and protection rackets in urban immigrant communities.

The Irish mob families never achieved great success, but they did manage to survive well into the twentieth century. The Irish mob operated alongside the Mafia in several cities, notably Boston and Chicago. Many of them were active rumrunners during Prohibition.

The progressive gentrification of the Irish immigrant community, however, tended to undercut the appeal of crime. As more and more Irish families moved into the middle class, the gangsters lost the support networks and opportunities offered by an insular immigrant community. Once second- and third-generation Irish-Americans found that they could go to college and become professionals, the power of the mob began to die out.

There are a number of good movies about the Irish mob. Before The Godfather made Mafia movies popular, the James Cagney style of Irish gangster was Hollywood's prototypical tough criminal. For classic Hells Kitchen action, see Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) or The Public Enemy (1931). For a more recent film treatment, see Miller's Crossing (1990).

Anti-Irish Sentiments

Catholic Irish immigrants often met with hostility and contempt from the more established American populations. The Irish represented competition for jobs and political power. Also, as Catholics, they presented a challenge to a predominantly Protestant country. Many employers refused to hire the Irish, and some landlords wouldn't rent to them.

One area where the Irish clashed with established groups was the question of alcohol. The Puritan tradition in the United States generally frowned on alcohol, whereas Irish culture viewed it as a harmless indulgence. When the Temperance movement arose in the mid-nineteenth century, Irish saloons were some of its first targets. Political cartoons of the time depicted Irishmen as red-face buffoons, enslaved by the bottle.

Interestingly, some of the worst anti-Irish discrimination came from the Scotch-Irish, who wanted to make clear that they were a different group from the impoverished newcomers. They created social organizations that specifically excluded Irish Catholics, and they derided the social pretensions of the “lace curtain Irish” — Catholic immigrants who had managed to make it into the middle class.

Although the Irish had to overcome a great deal of social stigma, they eventually became a part of the American mainstream. This was partially due to the influx of more immigrants, but it was mostly due to economic advancement. The sons and daughters of manual laborers were able to become doctors, merchants, and teachers. Although some of the old prejudices died hard, by 1960 the Irish-American community had progressed to the point that John F. Kennedy, a Catholic of Irish descent, could become president of the United States.

Alfred E. Smith, an Irish-American, was the first Catholic nominated for the presidency by a major party. Smith rose from the ranks of the Tammany machine to become governor of New York. In 1924 he led a fight within the Democratic Party to condemn the Ku Klux Klan for its violence and anti-Catholic prejudice, but lost. He lost the 1928 presidential election to Herbert Hoover.

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