Tip Your Hat to Our Irish Ancestors' Achievements
St. Patrick's Day is much more than an excuse for millions of Americans to
wear green, watch parades and party hard. It also prompts us to remember
the tremendous influence of Irish immigrants and Irish culture on
American history and life.
the 19th century, millions of Irish folk fled their homeland, which was
then the most densely populated country in Europe. The Irish had long
resented British rule, British landlords, British Protestantism and
British taxes. But it was the onset of a prolonged depression and an
epidemic of potato rot that unleashed a flood of Irish immigrants to the
United States during the 1830s and 1840s.
Buoyed by the promise
of a better life in America, the immigrants endured terrible hardships
in crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Thousands died of dysentery, typhus and
malnutrition during the six-week trip. In 1847 alone, 40,000 Irish
migrants perished aboard the overcrowded ships.
"If crosses and
tombs could be erected on water," lamented the United States
commissioner for immigration, "the whole route of the emigrant vessels
from Europe to America would long since have assumed the appearance of a
By 1850 the Irish constituted 43 percent of
the foreign-born population in the United States. Many of the men hired
on with construction gangs building the canals and railways that
initiated the industrial revolution.
Others worked in iron
foundries, steel mills, warehouses and shipyards. Many Irish women found
jobs as domestic servants, laundresses or textile mill workers in New
England. Although there were substantial Irish communities in New
Orleans, Vicksburg, Savannah and Memphis, relatively few immigrants
found their way into the South, where land was expensive and industries
scarce. The widespread use of slaves left few opportunities for new wage
By the 1850s the Irish made up over half the
populations of Boston and New York City. They clustered in murky slums
and around Catholic churches.
Life in America beat starvation at
home, but their new situation was anything but comfortable. Irish
newcomers crowded into filthy, poorly ventilated tenements, plagued by
high rates of crime, infectious disease, prostitution, alcoholism and
infant mortality. The archbishop of New York City at mid-century
described the Irish as "the poorest and most wretched population that
can be found in the world."
Irish immigrants confronted demeaning
stereotypes and intense anti-Catholic prejudices. It was commonly
assumed that the Irish were ignorant, clannish people incapable of
assimilation. George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York civic
leader, expressed the contempt felt by many toward the Irish when he
said: "Our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in
temperament and constitution as the Chinese."
Many employers felt
the same way. "No Irish Need Apply" signs sprouted in every city. The
Chicago Post expressed prevailing prejudices when it wrote, "The Irish
fill our prisons, our poor houses. ... Scratch a convict or a pauper,
and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic.
Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this
In the face of such criticism, however, enterprising
Irish immigrants seized opportunities in their new environment to forge
remarkable success stories. Twenty years after arriving in New York
City, Alexander T. Stewart became the owner of America's largest
department store and thereafter accumulated vast real-estate holdings in
Manhattan. Michael Cudahy, who began work in a Milwaukee meatpacking
business at age 14, became head of the Cudahy Packing Co. and developed
the process for the summer curing of meats under refrigeration.
Dublin-born Victor Herbert emerged as one of America's most revered
composers, and Irish dancers and playwrights came to dominate the
Irishmen were equally successful in the boxing
arena and on the baseball diamond. In part because of the hostility they
faced, the Irish communities found strength in their solidarity.
Neighborhood newspapers, churches, political groups, saloons, volunteer
fire companies and fraternal associations such as the Friendly Sons of
St. Patrick bolstered a sense of community and sustained Irish rituals
Perhaps the greatest collective achievement of
the Irish immigrants was stimulating the growth of the Catholic Church
in the United States. Years of persecution had instilled in Irish
Catholics a fierce loyalty to the church. Such passionate attachment to
Catholicism generated both community cohesion among Irish Americans and
fears of Romanism among American Protestants. By 1860 Catholics had
become the largest denomination in the United States.
The days of
"No Irish Need Apply" have thankfully passed into history. Some 44
million Americans are descendants of Irish immigrants. And today, of
course, we all claim to be Irish. Whatever your heritage, I bid you the
top o' the mornin'!