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.”


“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.






French Quarter

The French Quarter of NY Scribner's 1879For some part of the 19th century there was a vibrant and busy French Quarter south of Washington Square Park — now known as Greenwich Village.

The last two decades of the nineteenth century saw the growing commercialization of the Village, a second wave of immigration encroaching on the elegant residences, and the efforts of residents to resist change. The area, already well known as New York City’s bohemia, was home to many of the cafes and restaurants where artists, writers, and other counter-culture intellectuals congregated. In the 1850s, the earlier described Pfaff’s was the bohemian haunt of choice, but in the 1880s the growing French Quarter between Laurens and Broadway provided the best locations for living the bohemian lifestyle. The French immigrants who settled here were part of a new wave of immigrant groups to New York which also included Irish and Italians. Many of the new immigrants began settling in Greenwich Village and quickly over populated the area.1

I have not been able to pinpoint a date when this community was completely assimilated into the city, but it was still there in the 1880s, as indicated by an article in Scribner’s Monthly in 1879.

I CONFESS to finding no little pleasure in lazy explorations of the region that lies west of Broadway, south of Washington Square, and north of Grand street. This is the Quartier Francais of New York. The commonplace, heterogeneous style of the buildings, and the unswerving rectan­gular course of the streets are American, but the people are nearly all French. French, too, is the language of the signs over the doors and in the windows; and the population is of the lowest and poorest class. The Commune has its emissaries and exiles here. There are swarthy faces which have glad­dened in mad grimace over the flames of the Hȏtel de Ville and become the hue of copper bronze under the sun of New Cale­donia. There are secret meetings in ob­scure little cafés, into which strangers sel­dom enter; where the last movements of the Nihilists are discussed, and the would­ be regicide is commended over draughts of absinthe  and more innocent beer. Made­moiselle Berthe, with her little sisters, fabri­cates roses and violets out of muslin and wax in the high attics of the tenement houses. Madame Lange, with her arms and neck exposed, may be seen ironing snowy linen in front of an open window. Here is Triquet, le charcutier; Roux, le bottier; Malvaison, le marchand de vin; Givac, le charcutier Alsacien, and innumer­able basement restaurants, where dinner vin compris,may be had for the veriest trifle.

Another description of the  French Quarter:

For a period of years that section immediately to the south of the Square was the French Quarter. There were the peaceful artisans, and also there were political refugees of dangerous proclivities, men who had had a share in the blazing terrors of the Commune, and who, in some cases, had paid the price in years of imprisonment under the tropical sun of Cayenne. In all their wanderings they had carried the spirit of revolution with them and spouted death to despots over their glasses of absinthe in cellar cafes. William H. Rideing, in an article which was published in ” Scribner’s Magazine ” for November, 1879 [mentioned above], described these men as he had found them in the Taverne Alsacienne in Greene Street : “gathered around the tables absorbed in piquet, ecarte, or vingt-et-un . . . most of them without coats, the shabbiness of their other garments lighted up by a brilliant red bandanna kerchief or a crimson over-shirt.” Keen glances were shot at strangers, for the tavern had a certain clientele outside of which it had few customers and suspicion was rife at any invasion.” They are drinking wine, vermouth, and greenish opaline draughts of absinthe. Staggering in unnerved and stupefied from the previous night’s debauch, they show few signs of vitality until four or five glasses of the absinthe have been drunk, and then they awaken; their eyes brighten and their tongues are loosened —the routine of play, smoke, and alcohol is resumed.”

Pleasanter to recall  are the sober, industrious men and women who were denizens of the neighborhood in the years gone by—Mademoiselle Berthe and her little sisters, fabricating roses and violets out of muslin and wax in their attic apartment, Madame Lange, the blanchisseuse ironing in front of an open window, Triquet, the charcutier, Roux, the bottier, Malvaison, the marchand de vin. Then there were others of the colony, higher in the social scale and less prosperous in their finances, the impecunious music-teachers and professors of languages who maintained themselves with a frosty air of shabby gentility on a very slender income, and the practitioners of literature and art who maintained themselves somehow on no income at all. For the leisure hours of these there were the innocent wine-shops of South Fifth Avenue, such as the Brasserie Pigault, which Bunner introduced to the readers of ” The Midge ” with a quaint conceit. The sign of the little cafe from without read: ” A LA VILLE DE ROUEN. J. PIGAULT. LAGER BEER. FINE WINES AND LIQUEURS.” But its regular patrons knew it best from within, from the warm tables they liked to scan the letters backward, against the glass that protected them from the winter’s night. It was a quaint haunt, where gathered Doctor Peters and Father Dube, and Parker Prout, the old artist who had failed in life because of too much talent, and M. Martin, and the venerable Potain, who had lost his mind after his wife’s death, and Ovide Marie, the curly-haired musician from Amity Street.

But the prize exhibit, the piece de resistance, of that old Bohemia of the French Quarter to the south of Washington Square was the Restaurant du Grand Vatel in Bleecker Street. Not only the French strugglers, but American artists and authors in embryo used to dine there substantially and economically. As Mr. Rideing described it :

” The floor is sanded, and the little tables are covered with oil-cloth, each having a pewter cruet in the centre. A placard flutters from the wall, announcing a grand festival, banquet, ball, and artistic tombola in celebration of the eighth anniversary of the bloody revolution of March 18, 1871, under the auspices of the ‘Societe des Refugies de la Commune’ — Family tickets, twenty-five cents, hat-room checks, ten cents —from which we gather that the Restaurant du Grand Vatel has some queer patrons. The landlady sits behind a little desk in the corner. She is a woman of enormous girth, with short petticoats which reveal her thick, white woolen socks; her complexion is dark, her eyes are black and deep, and large golden rings dangle from her ears.”

The regular patrons begin to come in. The poor professor, after his unprofitable labours of the day, enters, and bows to the landlady, who is cordial or severe in her greeting according to the items on the little slate which records her accounts. He begins his meal.

“He has coupe aux croutons, veau a la Marengo, pommes frites, a small portion of Gruyere, and a bottle of wine. He eats appreciatively after the manner of a bon vivant; he uses his napkin gently and frequently; he glances blandly at the surroundings; watching him, you would suppose the viands were the choicest of the season, exquisitely prepared, while, in reality, they are poor and insubstantial stuff, the refuse, perhaps, of better restaurants. Having finished the edibles, he calls for a ‘gloria,’ that is, black coffee  and cognac; and, sipping this, he communes with his fancies which come and vanish in the blue waves of cigarette smoke. His aspect bespeaks perfect complacency—Fate can-not harm me; I have dined today.”

To Mr. Rideing we are indebted for certain items indicating the very moderate scale of prices at the Restaurant du Grand Vatel. Outside there was a sign that read : “Tous les plats, eight cents ; plats extra varies; cafe superieur, three cents; cafe au lait, five cents.”

Here is a list of some of the dishes and their cost:

  • Soup and a plate of beef and bread, 10¢
  • Soupe aux croutons, 5¢
  • Boeuf, legumes, 10¢
  • Veau a la Marengo, 12¢
  • Mouton a Ravigotte, 10¢
  • Ragout de mouton aux pommes, 8¢
  • Boeuf braise aux oignons, 10¢
  • Macaroni an gratin, 6¢
  • Celeri salade, 6¢
  • Compote de pommes, 4¢
  • Fromage Neufchatel, 3¢; Limbourg, 4¢; Gruyere, 3¢
  • Bread, 1¢

Thus, Mr. Rideing figured out, the professor’s dinner, wine included, cost him the sum of forty cents, and with five cents added for a roll and a cup of coffee in the morning, his daily expenditure for food was less than half a dollar.

Maurice, Arthur Bartlett. “Trails of Bohemia” (Chapter 10) Fifth Avenue. Dodd, Mead, 1918. Print.

The French Quarter is mentioned many times in The Gilded Hour, first as a neighborhood very close to Waverly Place that Sophie, Anna and Cap explored as children.  Particular houses of ill repute were  mentioned in an infamous guide to houses of prostitution:

Nos. 111, 127, 136, 139 and 141 W. 3rd St.

Feuding sisters Marie and Mathilde Hermann owned half a dozen French brothels on this infamous block, including one disguised as a cigar store. Mathilde took (unsuccessful) steps to stop her 18-year-old niece from entering the family business.

Washington Square and part of the French Quarter to the South. 1879
Washington Square and part of the French Quarter to the South. 1879


See also: Bastille Day Remembrance: The South Village Was Once the Quartier Francaise


Castle Garden

Castle Clinton or Fort Clinton, once known as Castle Garden, is a circular sandstone fort now located in Battery Park, in Manhattan, New York City. It is perhaps best remembered as America’s first immigration station (predating Ellis Island), where more than 8 million people arrived in the U.S. from 1855 to 1890. Over its active life, it has also functioned as a beer garden, exhibition hall, theater, public aquarium, and finally today as a national monument.

Castle Clinton in Battery Park

name: Castle Clinton National Monument (formerly Castle Garden)
built: 1808
architect: John McComb, Jr.; U.S. War Department

Excerpt from Daytonian in Manhattan:

Since the 17th century the lowest point in Manhattan, then known as Schreyer’s Hook, had contained a fortification of one kind or another.  But around 1788 it was resolved to demolish the badly damaged old stone Fort and build a residence for the President of the United States on the site.  Known as the Government House, its foundation stones came from the old fort.  For nearly 20 years New York City’s southern tip would be without protection.

In 1806 Congress dedicated 400 feet of ground off shore for the erection of a national fortress.  Planned by Lt. Joseph G. Totten of the United States Engineers, the project relied on a stone mole constructed below the water line.  The South West Battery would be connected to Manhattan by a long drawbridge.  Completed around 1811, the large oval-shaped fort, capable of mounting 28 heavy cannon, was built of red sandstone with walls thick enough to withstand a cannon barrage.  Inside were cisterns, two large magazines for the storage of weapons, explosives and provisions, and barracks for the soldiers and officers. […]

On August 1, 1855 Castle Garden opened as an immigrant processing station.   The New York Times said “Bob Murray got out his brand new books, all ruled and labeled, to keep the record of the new comers, his assistants were ready for service in ascertaining their wants; the bathtubs were full of Croton for anticipated ablutions, and Captain Cruttenden was duly prepared to give the aliens all needful dispatch by railroad or steamboat to their Western homes.”

The Committee that insisted that the Castle Garden location would prevent the immigrants from being ill-used apparently did not consider rogue workers.  On July 7, 1857 the New-York Daily Tribune printed a letter to the editor that complained “It is a fact too well known, that the Castle Garden establishment, beneficial as it may be to the immigrants, generally speaking, is still very far from being perfect—very far from preventing all abuses.  Again it is a matter of notoriety that a considerable number of immigrants (almost all of them Germans) have lost their luggage at the Castle Garden depot, after having been compelled to intrust [sic] it to the safe keeping of the establishment, and have never been compensated for such losses.”

The Castle Garden commissioners held a monopoly on railroad tickets and hotel bookings for the immigrants.  If a runner were found offering lodging even at an approved boarding house, that establishment would lose its ability to house immigrants.  The penalty often spelled the end of the small businesses.  The Evening World complained on October 14, 1887 that “the pool” (the authorized railroad tickets) overcharged the newcomers.  A runner was able to offer tickets to Omaha, for instance, at $23.75 each.  “The rate charged by the pool in the Garden is $26,” said the newspaper.

Read more in Wikipedia

Immigrants at Castle Garden
Immigrants at Castle Garden
Castle Garden, ca 1880 (lower left)
Castle Garden, ca 1880 (lower left)