Although many people associate Irish immigration with the potato famine era of the 1840s, there were millions of Irish immigrants that flooded America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The assimilation and immigration of the Irish has been difficult for each group that has passed through the gates of Ellis Island or South Boston. Not surprisingly, the story of my father's grandparents' and my mother's great-great-great grandparents' life in America when they first arrived is no different. Even though the Irish faced discrimination in America, and political, social and economic oppression in Ireland, the Irish have been a testament to the American Dream as their influence in the political and business world increases with each generation. The familial and religiously centered culture of the Irish has allowed the Irish to prosper and persevere through times of injustice. The problems and successes of the Irish-Americans show just how much can be achieved in America with a little hard work, a little Irish Diplomacy and a strong sense of community. Although these Irish immigrants assimilated into American culture, they also enriched their new country with their cultural contributions, active participation in politics, and their wealth of influential individuals.
In the antebellum period in America, Irish immigrants had difficulty assimilating into American culture. They were regarded as inferior to the Anglo-Americans and immigrants already established in America. Their supposed inferiority was due mainly to their lack of skilled laborers. The Irish immigrants worked in mining, quarrying, bridge and canal building and railroad construction. In fact, a common saying at the time was that there was "an Irishman buried under every tie." Others were waiters, janitors and factory workers. Women often worked in menial jobs as well. In fact, when my great grandparents came to America in the 1880's, they were relegated to the lowest of jobs. They both worked extremely long hours, one as a waiter and one as a housekeeper, for minimal pay. Similarly, the immigrants on my mother's side faced an equally difficult situation.
After the Civil War, attitudes toward the Irish shifted slightly, and the "Irish Need Not Apply" signs on businesses, that had been so prevelamt decades before, began to vanish. The Irish had heartily participated in the war: thirty nine Union regiments contained a majority of Irishmen, and the 69th regiment was comprised almost totally of Irishmen. Also, over forty thousand Irishmen fought for the Confederate cause. The Irish Americans gained some respectability for their involvement in the Civil War and were now more accepted by American society. The Irish Americans in the post-Civil War era were more economically successful. Several of the Irishmen that had been manual laborers now held managerial positions in the railroad, iron, and construction industries. Several Irish Americans also became educated and trained professionals. Irish women, although held back by the restrictions placed on all American women around the turn of the century, achieved higher positions in society as teachers, nurses and secretaries.
The method by which the Irish overcame the difficulties of assimilation was through the close knit communities and families that revolved around the Irish's strong religious faith. Since most of the Irish were impoverished because of the tyrannical regime of the British government, they did not have enough money to move west and become farmers. Not surprisingly, the large Irish communities in South Boston and New York are the two places where the Irish immigrants arrived in America. The large factories and bustling cities provided the best economic opportunity for the new Americans. Both sets of my ancestors stayed in Boston; my father's relatives stayed in Jamaica Plain while my mother's relatives stayed in South Boston. This strong sense of community is evident in all Irish communities, for more established and well off citizens almost always try to help "their own" by giving them jobs or housing. The communities of the Irish do not just involve houses and streets. The most important community was that of the local church. The main social event for the Irish were the church dances and mixers. The churches and communities helped the families of the Irish grow and provided a backbone for the next hundred years.
The improvement of the economic status of the Irish Americans helped improve family life. Most Irish American families, settling in the urban centers of the Northeast, were Catholic and practiced the church's preachings against contraception; therefore, many Irish Catholics had very large families. Consequently, the economic rise of the Irish immigrants provided families with the money to feed and clothe their large families. In addition, many Irish Americans could now afford to send their children to parish schools to preserve their Irish heritage and Catholic background. In fact, the life of the entire family often revolved around their parish. The children attended these parochial schools, and the clergy organized activities such as sports and dances to tie the Irish American children to their Catholic community.
Although the Irish Americans of this period were often struggling to assimilate, they did make several contributions to American culture. Irish music has influenced the development of both American folk and country music. The fiddle is the root of instrumental country music, and the music brought by the Irish in the nineteenth century was a significant aspect of America's "urban folk" scene. Irish food, popularized by Irish pubs, is now common American fare. The Irish that arrived after the Civil War contributed such dishes as soda bread, coddle, potato bread, and corned beef and cabbage to American cuisine. Irish whiskey was also popularized by these immigrants. Similarly, the Irish culture is a very humorous one because in order to survive years of discrimination, laughter has to be frequent. For instance, a famous Irish proverb is "Sceitheann fion firinne" which means "Wine reveals truth." Another example of the Irish's humor, and why the Irish have been so successful in politics, is
Irish Diplomacy. Irish Diplomacy is telling someone to go to Hell and having them end up looking forward to the trip. The humorous and rich Irish culture has sustained the Irish through years of turmoil and discrimination.
Irish Americans, although making several cultural contributions, are most famous for their influence on politics, particularly the labor movement. Most Irishmen were Democrats, and during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, their political power increased. The most obvious example of the Irish Democratic influence is their control over New York's Tammany Hall, the center of the city's Democratic Party. The Irish Democrats, like most political factions of the time, were involved in "political machines" and therefore often corrupt. However, the Irish "political machines" were often more socially minded than their Anglo-Protestant counterparts. They provided food and jobs, and founded many social welfare organizations for the poor Irishmen in their communities. In fact, my grandfather, when he was young, single and unemployed, went to ask James Michael Curley, four time mayor of Boston and famous corrupt politician, for a job. Mayor Curley was unable to provide him with any employment so he gave him twenty dollars out of his own pocket and wished him luck.
The major influence that Irish Americans have had on American politics lies within the arena of labor action. Finding the American capitalist system in industrial circles little better than persecution by English landlords back in Ireland, many Irishmen attempted labor reform around the turn of the century.
The most well known labor reformers are the "Molly Maguires"-coal miners that violently revolted against their Anglo-American bosses. Torrance V. Powderly was the son of an Irish immigrant and the founder of the Knights of Labor, the first national labor organization in America. Irish women were also active in the labor movements. Mary Harris Jones worked for fifty years in organizing labor unions and improving worker's wages and conditions. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the most famous member of my family, was both a feminist and an activist in the labor movement at the turn of the century. After a long history as an underpaid, mistreated factory worker, she rebelled against the industries that exploited their laborers. She co-founded the Civil Liberties Union and later became the head of the U.S. Communist Party.
Despite the countless contributions that Irish Americans made to American culture, immigrants in the post-famine era still found assimilation difficult. Negative stereotypes, supported by much of the Anglo-American population, characterized the Irish as "pugnacious, drunken, semi-savages" that were "small, ugly, simian creatures armed with liquor and a shillelagh." During this time, terms like "paddywagons," "shenanigans," and "shanty Irish" were also popularized by the press.
Although the Irish faced discrimination, they had several advantages over other immigrants in the New World. The most beneficial advantage was that the Irish were able to speak English, a luxury not enjoyed by almost every other ethnic group. Also, the Irish did not suffer any form of culture shock, for the American and Western European cultures were, and still are, very similar. However, the overwhelming similarities between Americans and incoming Irish men and women did not help to quell the strong anti-Irish sentiments.
The rich Irish culture in America came at a price of discrimination, injustice and long years of hard and menial work. However, the strong families, the strong faith and the strong sense of humor helped my relatives, and all of the other Irish, to prosper. The current 38,760,000 Irish Americans owe their ancestors a great deal of thanks for sustaining and perpetuating the long standing tradition of the Irish in America.
Rapple, Brendan A. Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America. Boston: Gale Research, Inc., 1995. pp. 732-743.