Irish Immigration

From The History Place:
“Throughout the Potato Famine years, nearly a million Irish arrived in the United States. Famine immigrants were the first big wave of poor refugees ever to arrive in the U.S. and Americans were simply overwhelmed. Upon arrival in America, the Irish found the going to be quite tough. With no one to help them, they immediately settled into the lowest rung of society and waged a daily battle for survival….

75 percent of the Irish coming to America landed in New York. In 1847, about 52,000 Irish arrived in the city which had a total population of 372,000. The Irish were not the only big group of immigrants arriving. A substantial German population totaling over 53,000 also arrived in 1847.

In New York, the Irish did not face the degree of prejudice found in Boston. Instead, they were confronted by shifty characters and con artists. Confused Irish, fresh off the farm and suffering from culture shock, were taken advantage of the moment they set foot on shore.

Immediately upon arrival in New York harbor, they were met by Irishmen known as ‘runners’ speaking in Gaelic and promising to ‘help’ their fellow countrymen. Many of the new arrivals, quite frightened at the mere prospect of America, gladly accepted. Those who hesitated were usually bullied into submission. The runner’s first con was to suggest a good place to stay in New York; a boarding house operated by a friend, supposedly with good meals and comfortable rooms at very affordable rates, including free storage of any luggage.

The boarding houses were actually filthy hell-holes in lower Manhattan. Instead of comfortable rooms, the confused arrivals were shoved into vermin-infested hovels with eight or ten other unfortunate souls, at prices three or four times higher than what they had been told. They remained as ‘boarders’ until their money ran out at which time their luggage was confiscated for back-rent and they were tossed out into the streets, homeless and penniless.

During the entire Famine period, about 650,000 Irish arrived in New York harbor. All incoming passenger ships to New York had to stop for medical inspection. Anyone with fever was removed to the quarantine station on Staten Island and the ship itself was quarantined for 30 days. But Staten Island was just five miles from Manhattan. Runners were so aggressive in pursuit of the Irish that they even rowed out to quarantined ships and sneaked into the hospitals on Staten Island despite the risk of contracting typhus.

Another way to take advantage of the Irish was to sell them phony railroad and boat tickets. Runners working with ‘forwarding agents’ sold bogus tickets that had pictures of trains or boats the illiterate immigrants wished to board to leave Manhattan for other U.S. cities. The tickets were either worthless, or if they were valid, had been sold at double the actual price or higher. On the boats, the immigrant were shoved into jam-packed steerage sections, although they thought they had paid for better accommodations. Sometimes, halfway to their destination, they were told to pay more or risk being thrown overboard.

The penniless Irish who remained in Manhattan stayed crowded together close to the docks where they sought work as unskilled dock workers. They found cheap housing wherever they could, with many families living in musty cellars. Abandoned houses near the waterfront that once belonged to wealthy merchants were converted into crowded tenements. Shoddy wooded tenements also sprang up overnight in yards and back alleys to be rented out room by room at high prices. Similar to Boston, New York experienced a high rate of infant mortality and a dramatic rise in crime as men and boys cooped-up in squalid shanties let off steam by drinking and getting in fights.”

Xenophobia

“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 country.” Chicago Post, 1868

Poverty breeds crime in any population, and 19th century New York city had very poor communities of all ethnicities. The nativist Know-Nothing gangs went to war with the Irish gangs, the Irish rioted and attacked  African Americans. They quickly gained a reputation for violence, alcoholism, and slovenly behavior. And the Irish were Catholic, which provided another reason to fear them.

Puck Magazine: The Mortar of Assimilation
Puck Magazine: The Mortar of Assimilation

C. J. Taylor. From Puck, June 26, 1889. “The Mortar of Assimilation”

This cartoon appeared alongside an editorial criticizing supporters of Irish independence as “American only in name.” (Newberry Library)

The melting pot is represented here as something not just desirable, but necessary. All the other immigrant groups go along with assimilation, but the Irish cause trouble: they refuse to give up their ethnicity, and rebel openly. The character on the room of the pot holds a knife and an Irish flag.

The majority of political cartoons about the Irish published by Puck Magazine were far more derogatory, including some of the caricatures of the Irish as brutish – even simian — in behavior and appearance, prone to violence and immoral behavior, and always on the prowl for a way to take advantage of the sweet and innocent. Below are details from the front cover images of two issues  of  Puck (May 1883, June 1884).

It should also be noted that by 1883 the Irish communities were well established enough to gain some political power. They dominated in the police department, and were gaining influence in government more generally.

puck-detail2Puck-May-1883-detail

 

 

 

 

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