Guest Author - Tony King
Although many people associate Irish immigration solely with the potato famine of 1845, millions of Irish immigrants flooded America in the remainder of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In spite of their vast numbers, the assimilation of the Irish into American society and culture was difficult and arduous.
The immigrant Irish Catholics were regarded as inferior to (and by) their Protestant Anglo/European counterparts already established in the country. This feeling of superiority by the non-Irish settlers was due mainly to the lack of skilled laborers among the Catholic workers. The Irish worked in mining, quarrying, bridge and canal building and railroad construction while others of them gravitated towards filling the roles of waiters, janitors and factory workers. Women often worked in menial jobs as well. The result was a general distain for both Ireland and anything Irish and it is from this cultural and political attitude that the infamous phrase arose: “No Irish need apply.”
After the Civil War, attitudes toward the Irish shifted slightly, and the racist slur signs on businesses, began to disappear. The Irish had been heavily involved in the Nation’s conflict: about forty Union regiments contained large numbers of Irishmen, and the 69th regiment was comprised almost totally of Irishmen. Over forty thousand Irishmen also fought for the Confederate cause.
Once the Civil War came to its inevitable end and the nation began to settle down into its truly first “growth spurt”, the Irish Americans gained some respectability and were now more accepted by American society. In the post-Civil War era many were more economically successful. Irishmen that had been manual laborers now held managerial positions in the railroad, iron, and construction industries. Many were availing themselves of the opportunities for education and many began to enter into the professional realms. 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.
It was at this time that the Irish Americans became most famous for their influence on politics, particularly within the labor movement. In the beginning, the Irish discovered an American capitalist system that to them was barely different to the persecution they had suffered at the hands of English landlords back in Ireland. Due to their hatred of these English landlords, most Irish revolted against the “aristocracy” of American culture and became enamored of the Democratic party. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, their political power increased , shown primarily in their control over New York's Tammany Hall, the center of the city's Democratic Party. These Irish Democrats, like most political factions of the time, were involved in "political machines" which were often totally corrupt. However, many were genuinely more socially minded than their Anglo-Protestant counterparts and provided food and jobs, founding many social welfare organizations for the poor Irishmen in their communities. It was in the midst of these “social community” efforts that the Irish sprang to the forefront of the national “labor” movements.
The most famous labor reformers were the "Molly Maguires"----- hard pressed and cruelly treated coal miners who revolted (sometimes violently) against their Anglo-American bosses. The first national labor organization in America was the Knights of Labor, founded by the son of an Irish immigrant. 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 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 and co-founded the Civil Liberties Union. Sadly, many of these people were misled in their ideals and soon formed the basis of the American Communist Party.
Like all immigrant groups, the Irish have made their good contributions to American culture and have also left a trail of bloodshed, misery and despair that all of us should abhor and be ashamed of. Yet, as a nation still in its infancy, the USA has benefited from the hard work, family cohesiveness, religious fervor and sheer stubbornness of a broken-down, half-starved nation of immigrants who came here, under the most strenuous conditions and made this country their own. Catholic, Protestant or “nothing” ( as they would say back home) ----we can all look back with pride on the heritage Irish - Americans can cling to.