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- Immigrants coming to the United States from Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries had it rough. They’d often come over in large groups aboard small boats, many of them spending all their money for a ticket. Upon arrival, these people were inspected by customs officials. At Angel Island and Ellis Island, scores of people would be judged on their health, skills, and much more. Immigration is and always will be a controversial issue. Some believe the United States should allow only the best in, while others argue that we should help those who need it most. Some think there should be as many immigrants as possible, others only want a few. There are advantages and disadvantages to each strategy, and Americans still debate the issue of immigration today. Often times, the inspectors couldn’t decide whether to let an immigrant in, and many foreigners remained on Angel Island or Ellis Island for months, living in squalor. However, even those admitted soon realized their problems were far from over. Although unskilled labor jobs were frequently available, immigrants had to endure many hardships. One group with an especially difficult path to the American dream is the Irish. Irish immigrants from 1845-1910 were treated brutally because of both American society’s biases, namely a perception that the Irish were violent and a fear of Catholicism, and the actions of the Irish themselves.
- Lots of Irish left their homeland to escape the British as well as the immediate food problem. In 1845, Ireland experienced a famine called The Great Hunger: a fungus infestation that devastated potato crops nationwide (Benson, “Irish Immigration”). Although other crops were successful, most Irish farmers were only allowed to eat potatoes as the other crops were sent to the UK to be sold. Without a reliable food source, many faced starvation. Thus, nearly two million Irish came to the U.S. in the 1840s (Benson, “Irish Immigration”). The Irish immigration was different from previous waves of U.S. immigrants because massive numbers of people were forced to leave Ireland in a very short period of time. While other immigrants typically sent over their heads of the family first, then gradually the rest of the family, the Irish came all at once (Paulson, 36). Immigration of whole families placed greater financial strain on Irish immigrants, who frequently arrived in America literally penniless. In addition to the immediate threat of starvation, Irish came to the United States to escape British oppression. Ever since Britain conquered Ireland in the late 12th century, there has been lots of tension between the Irish and the British. Many Irish never fully accepted British rule, and there were many attempts to overthrow British rulers. In an attempt to reassert their dominance, the British enacted the Penal Laws in 1691. The Penal Laws were a series of acts that prevented Irish Catholics from receiving an education, entering a profession, purchasing land, voting, holding public office, or owning any kind of weapon (“Irish Immigration”). Irish Catholics who refused to convert to Protestantism were stripped of their influence and power. Although the Penal Laws were repealed in 1829, they largely ensured that all Irish Catholics were poor, unskilled farmers. Another important effect of the Penal Laws was that Irish Catholics became good at organizing and fighting back secretly. Irish immigrants would use these skills to fight for workers’ rights in America. In addition, Irish Catholics immigrants who had resisted pressure to convert had formed a strong cultural identity that would be very stubborn towards Americanization. Lastly, many Americans had negative stereotypes about the Irish because of the British. The British managed to convince many non-Irish Americans that an Irish Catholic was an alcoholic, baboon-like figure who cries in his beer while singing a ditty (Donahue).
- America was attractive to immigrants because it was experiencing unprecedented economic growth, although the jobs being created didn’t treat workers well. The nation was expanding territorially to the West, industry in the North was becoming highly lucrative, and there was a large demand for workers in the factories. America was becoming the land of opportunity. The factory jobs appealed to many Irish whose only prior work experience was farming. What many didn’t realize, however, was that the living and working conditions for factory workers were often intolerable. A Lowell mill worker of the time stated at first the noise bothered her but “now [she doesn’t] mind it at all. People learn to sleep with the thunder of Niagara in their ears and the cotton mill is no better” (“The Lowell Offering”). The problem was, working conditions in the factories were largely unregulated, and factory owners were free to adapt practices that helped them make money, regardless of the effect on workers. Factory owners would regularly force their employees to work long hours for little pay and trap them into endless debt by making them live in so called “factory towns”. At these towns, the factory owners controlled the rent, the prices of food, clothing, and anything else workers could buy (Dolan). If workers came too close to gaining financial independence, factory owners would raise prices putting workers in debt. As for the living conditions, when Irish immigrants arrived in America, people called “runners” would guide them straight to a place where they could buy terrible housing that was overpriced (Paulson, 40). These buildings were called tenements. Living in a tenement was awful. Each unit usually consisted of a bedroom and a kitchen that would be shared with eight other people. All the people on a floor would have to share a bathroom, and there was little fresh air. During the early Industrial Revolution, the government did very little to protect factory workers. No system was in place to limit immoral business practices. Of course, not all Irish immigrants worked in factories. Many immigrant men worked in coal mines, on railroads, and on canals (Benson, “Irish Immigration”). These jobs could be very dangerous, but offered more independence than factory jobs. Irish women joined the workforce as well. Some learned trades, while others sewed, did laundry, became housekeepers, or worked in factories (Paulson, 48). In Ireland, women didn’t have the same occupational opportunities. Although America offered jobs, they were of low quality.
- The Irish formed gangs to gain power, but unintentionally caused society to perceive them as violent. Many Irish were frustrated that even in America they had to face job discrimination and poverty. Irish immigrants tended to cluster in poor areas because they couldn’t find high-paying jobs and because they wanted to live near other Irish. This became an issue when large slums began to form. Two of these slums in New York were Five Points and “Hell’s Kitchen”. These filthy, crowded places were highly vulnerable to disease. Typhoid fever and Cholera were especially common and caused many fatalities. A tiny, dark room in the basement of a tenement in the Five Points cost $2 a month (Paulson, 42). Manhattan’s west Midtown area, nicknamed “Hell’s Kitchen” for its violent crime problems, was the home of many Irish laborers. In an effort to protect themselves from violence, Irishmen began forming gangs. Gang membership Irish immigrant men protection, and even self-respect. They were no longer second-class citizens. People who found themselves unemployed would turn to gangs for help. Gangs made sure all available jobs in an area went to Irishmen (“No Irish Need Apply”). They enforced their agenda through intimidation and election tampering. Politicians, including members of Tammany Hall, would cut deals with gang leaders to bring jobs and money to certain areas if gangs harassed the people there into voting for them. If a business didn’t hire enough Irish, they’d destroy the business’s merchandise or hurt or kill the shopkeeper (Donahue). In the short term, Irish immigrants significantly from the gangs, but the activities of the gangs reinforced the negative Irish stereotypes exported by the British to non-Irish Americans. In New York City in the 1850s, more than half the men arrested by city police were Irish, and those in court were convicted six times more often than other Americans (Paulson, 45). During this time, however, the Irish only made up about 27% of New York City’s population ("Population of 100 Largest Urban Places: 1850"). As a result of the widespread influence of gangs, innocent Irish began to be associated with the violent stereotype.
- The Irish led the way in the fight against the labor injustices in the 19th century which angered affluent business owners. The Irish saw the labor movement as an opportunity to move up the economic ladder and gain respect. Irish immigrants used the skills they had honed in years of secretly organizing in Ireland under British rule to unite laborers in America. The labor reformers ranged from conservative to radical. One radical group of labor reformers was the Molly Maguires. Named after an old Irish gang of men who dressed up as women to surprise their enemies, they were a group of coal miners who terrorized Pennsylvanian coal fields from 1862-1875 (Dolan). According to detective James McParlan, the Maguires were directly responsible for the murder of three mine supervisors in the summer of 1875 (Kenny). On the other end of the spectrum, some Irish played crucial roles in labor unions. In 1879, Terence V. Powderly, son of Irish immigrants, became the head of the Knights of Labor. In addition, by the first decade of the 20th century more than 50 of the 110 unions in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had an Irish president (Dolan). Another significant Irish labor leader was Mary Harris Jones, also known as “the greatest woman agitator of her time” and “Mother Jones” because she cared for injured strikers. She helped found the Social Democratic Party in 1898 and the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. Both the Maguires and the union organizers were fighting for the same thing; a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. The essential difference between them is the methods employed in the fight-the Maguires used intimidation and violence and union leaders used negotiation. Regardless of how Irishmen pursued labor rights, business owners became biased against them because they were perceived as a threat to the power of business owners.
- The New York City draft riots of 1863 promoted the stereotype of the Irish being violent. The riots occurred following president Lincoln’s initiation of the draft to conscript soldiers for the Union army. The draft selected soldiers by randomly picking names from a list of men over the age of 18. The Irish were outraged for multiple reasons. Many Irish did not support the Civil War out of concern that free blacks could take their jobs. As historian Maureen Dezell explains, “To many Irish, abolitionism was a nativist and anti-Catholic movement that represented a profound threat to their livelihoods: the freeing of four million enslaved Africans would compete with them” (Donahue). In addition, Irish were fearful of freed blacks because they could be used as strikebreakers for labor strikes. The struggle for the Irish to find good jobs was already extremely difficult, and the possibility of adding another obstacle for them to overcome pushed many over the edge. Another reason the Irish felt singled out was because of a law passed in 1863 allowing the rich to buy out of the draft. The average yearly salary for an unskilled worker at the time was $500, and the cost to pay out of the draft was $300 (Naden). As a result, the burden of the draft fell disproportionately on the poor, including the Irish. For the families whose men went off to war, life became especially difficult. Many families couldn’t survive without the financial support of the men, even with the women and children working. So, when the city began rioting, the Irish led the way with their well-organized gangs. They burned and looted buildings including the Negro Orphan Asylum and the Draft Board building (Donahue). After several days, Union troops were called in from Gettysburg in order to stop the destruction. At the end of the fighting over 2,000 New Yorkers lay dead, at least 100 of whom were African Americans (Paulson, 60). In addition, there was over two million dollars of property damage (Naden). Although the Irish had made a clear statement about the injustice of the draft, the massive death and destruction strengthened the country’s negative perception of them.
- The Irish seemed violent to other immigrant groups as well. In the coal mining industry, many Irish found themselves in conflict with the Welsh. The Welsh dominated the skilled mining jobs, whereas the Irish worked as unskilled laborers, often for Welsh bosses. This is because Welsh immigrants came from a country with a long tradition of coal mining (the UK), so they had more training and expertise (Kenny). However, many Irish blamed the absence of Irish from the skilled, higher paying jobs on discrimination. In the railroad industry, the Irish often worked alongside Chinese laborers to lay down track. Often times, they’d set off explosives to clear some rock without telling the Chinese (Paulson, 54). In response, the Chinese would set off explosives while Irish worked beneath them and trap them in. Many people from both groups were injured in this manner. A German visitor to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1854, describing the conflict between Irish and German Americans to provide wagon transportation, said “the Irish want to claim this trade for themselves exclusively...when we hired the only German wagon, the Irish followed us a good distance with abuses and insults and finally even with stones” (Paulson, 54). Many Irish were fiercely protective of their jobs. They were willing to use extreme measures to ensure economic security for themselves and their families. However, as a consequence of these extreme measures, the Irish were once again labeled as “violent”.
- As the Irish began to be perceived as a threat to job security of those already in America before them, there was a large, anti-Catholic movement to fight them. This movement, called Nativism, was anti-Catholic because the main difference between Catholics and older immigrants was their religion. The goal of Nativists was to preserve the old social hierarchy and keep the groups that had come to America before the 1840s in power. The ideology spawned many political groups, including the Know-Nothing Party. This party got its name from its members’ practice of saying “I know nothing” when asked about the group (Benson, “Know-Nothing Party”). The group was responsible for many riots, including an incident in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania involving 24 murders and the burning of two Catholic churches. In response, many Irish promised to meet violence with violence. One priest from New York City, nicknamed “Dagger John” for his toughness, stationed armed forces around the Catholic churches after hearing about a Nativist rally, and no violence followed (“Irish Immigration”). A similar anti-Catholic sentiment was visible in the media. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast often showed his fear of Tammany Hall and the Catholic church. In his 1871 cartoon The American River Ganges, he depicted the Roman Catholic clergy as crocodiles trying to devour America’s schoolchildren. Nast sought to prevent public funding from going to Catholic schools. The Irish were perceived as a threat to other Americans, so society became biased against them.
- American society did various things to ensure the economic prosperity of Protestants. Many people were worried that the corrupt local governments such as Tammany Hall would use too much money for schools that didn’t even benefit them. It would allow many Irish to gain more power and influence. Today, 38 of the 50 states have passed “Beecher” amendments to their state constitutions that prevent financial aid from being given to religious schools, (Benson, “Know-Nothing Party”). Catholicism in particular was seen as un-American because its followers bowed to the Vatican. Catholics were disliked by other Americans because they were viewed as European. America strongly desired independence from Europe, and had fought a war against Britain not very long ago to achieve this. Nativists were angered by the stubbornness of the Irish to convert because they believed it gave the Roman Catholic Church a greater political and social influence over the United States. The resistance to Americanization created a large divide in the country. Feelings of fear and anger against the Irish led to discrimination against them in the workplace. In the 1860s, it was not uncommon to see job ads reading “Protestants Only” (“No Irish Need Apply”). Job discrimination kept the Irish from achieving higher socioeconomic status, forcing them to continue in low-wage jobs, and made the Irish angry. Many Irish found it ironic that the United States was supposed to be a place founded on freedom of religion, but really was just a place with freedom to practice Protestantism. The sad part is, whenever the Irish fought back against prejudice, they fulfilled the the violent stereotypes that people already had of them, giving people more reasons to discriminate.
- The struggles of the Irish prove the American dream is difficult to achieve for anyone. It isn’t enough to be born with the “right” type of skin. Although America prides itself on being a free place for all, the fight for immigrants to make a good life for themselves is very difficult. It’s not easy, because the people in power don’t want to give up their power. The “Muslim Ban” is a modern example of our society trying to protect its own interests at the costs of others. Everybody deserves a fair opportunity to succeed, but in America, some people are still waiting.
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