Thoughts After St. Patrick’s Day: How Irish Immigration Became Idealized
It was bittersweet for me to read James Fulford’s St. Patrick’s Day tribute to Dennis Kearney (pictured right) the 19th century Irish-born labor leader who fought for the American working man against imported Chinese cheap labor. The issue has long interested me (see my Forgotten Victims—American Workers Immiserated By Chinese Immigration In Nineteenth Century California). But at the same time, I have to recognize that my own Irish immigrant ancestors also had an immiserating effect in their day.
As a child, I thought that my Irish immigrant ancestors were wonderfully good, literally kind of magic! Mother indoctrinated me, saying, “Kathy, there are only two kinds of people in the world, those that are Irish, and those that wish they were.” I was honestly excited to cover my school uniform with green, and some of this feeling lasted until I was a journalism student at Michigan State University.
There, I met, for the first time in my life, a person who was actually born in Ireland. I’m rather embarrassed to reveal that I felt a flood of joyous emotion as I interviewed the slight, red-haired man for my school newspaper. Apparently, I was expecting some kind of Irish mystical experience from this direct human contact from the Old Sod. (Though he was rather touched by this happy reunion of Irish blood, no magic took place.)
Well, all I really knew about the Irish then was what my mother told me!!
Mom had three grandparents born in Ireland. But by my birth, in 1951, there were virtually no immigrants in the provincial, medium- sized Midwest city I grew up in. The only negative thing I ever heard about the Irish in my entire youth was a brief mention about discrimination against Irish immigrants in my Catholic school textbook. My Mom explained that this was just cruel prejudice against the Irish, and I agreed.
Then, in 2013, as I was writing an article about immigration for VDARE, some of these childhood beliefs about my Irish immigrant relatives really started echoing in my mind. I came across things like this line in the book “Immigration and American Unionism,” by Vernon Briggs:
…The majority of American families in 1920 lived in poverty, and many more just barely above its threshold. Most urban workers lived in crowded urban slums that lacked adequate sanitation and minimal public health services; disease spread easily, fires were frequent and general lawlessness prevailed.
The history began to sound too much like today, when “experts” keep swearing that we need more noble immigrants to join the army of unemployed American citizens.
New York City, the historic immigration destination, did not even have most homes connected to the city sewer system. Most residents relied on disgusting outhouses, or even just dug trenches behind their house. The waste simply oozed out onto the city streets. In the mid 1800’s about 25% of 20 year olds did not make it to age 30, working long hours in filthy conditions, according to Infectious Diseases in the 19th_Century City, by Harvard’s Evelynn M. Hammonds. Obviously, thousands of hungry, ill Irish immigrants were just what New York needed at the time.
Irish culture in Ireland was pretty much smashed by the time of the Famine. Irish rebellions had long been brutally crushed by the English, and their land had been mostly seized. When the whole Irish economy collapsed after a total potato crop failure, huge numbers of Irish renters were evicted. Eventually many thousands could only roam the countryside, starving, sick and in rags.
Nicholas Cummins, a Justice of the Peace from Cork, Ireland, wrote an urgent appeal to the Duke of Wellington around Christmas Eve 1846. Bringing five men carrying bread, he toured a stricken community and was surrounded by
at least 200 of such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe. By far the greater number were delirious, either from famine of fever. Their demonic yells are still yelling in my ears….
… my neck cloth was seized from behind by a grip which compelled me to turn. I found myself grasped by a woman with an infant, just born, in her arms, the remains of a filthy sack across her loins—the sole covering of herself and babe.[Full text | Original]
Landlords in Ireland falsely promised peasants that they would be paid if they left the country. Long lines of boats full of typhus-infected and starving wretches overwhelmed Canada’s ability to process them, and many of the sick people walked across the border into to the U.S.
Later episodes like the case of immigrant Mary Mallon, “Typhoid Mary,” later spread fear. Found to be a healthy “carrier” of typhoid in 1907, she infected at least 50 people and caused three documented deaths, perhaps many more. When health officials asked her to cooperate with them, she refused. She never believed she was a carrier of the disease, and refused to leave her cooking profession, though she did not believe it necessary to wash her hands. Finally forcibly quarantined, she promised to stop working as a cook. But she simply changed her name and resumed the occupation, only to be discovered again when she infected 25 people at New York’s Sloane Hospital for Women. Two victims died.
Some Irish immigrants were so poor that they even undercut slave labor. In the South they were used to dig canals and do dangerous work so as not to risk “more valuable” slaves. A paddlewheel steamer’s mate explained why the Irish were used for the dangerous job of throwing cotton bales on his ship at breakneck speed: ”If the Paddies are knocked overboard, or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything.” [Frederick Law Olmsted, The Cotton Kingdom, 1862]
A Boston Irish Reporter staffer, Peter F. Stevens, writes:
Thousands of Irish immigrants pitted against free blacks for society’s most menial jobs loathed the Emancipation Proclamation which many Irish believed would flood Boston … with hordes of exslaves looking to take Irish jobs.[Hidden History of the Boston Irish: Little-Known Stories from Ireland`s “Next Parish Over”]
But Stevens noted that at least the Boston Irish did not “run wild in a mass killing of African Americans” like the New York Irish did. (See John Derbyshire Remembers The New York Draft Riots—150 Years On)
When Boston Irish Mayor James Michael Curley was finally swept into power in 1914 by a critical mass of Irish immigrants and their descendants, he made no attempt to make peace with the old Bostonians, but openly gloated:
The day of the Puritan has passed. The Anglo-Saxon is a joke, a newer and better America is here. The New England of the Puritans and the Boston of rum, codfish and slaves are as dead as Julius Caesar.
In contrast, Curley praised the Irish as virile, intelligent, God-fearing and patriotic.
Sound like Hispanic triumphalism in California?
My Mother would sometimes see her “little Irish grandmother” sitting in her American home crying. The explanation given was that Grandma had had a hard life. Her husband, perhaps weakened by the potato famine, had died of pneumonia in Michigan’s white pine lumber camps. She was left with five small children, and she always seemed to have bronchitis. Both her daughters died young.
Is it any wonder that the terrifying, sordid immigration details were never stressed to the little Irish grandma’s American offspring? Arriving sick and hungry from the boats, she had to think that she had something to offer America. Otherwise, she might as well have just lain down in the gutter and died.
When she saw her children growing up facing resentment from other American citizens, she naturally tried to protect her children’s self-image. It was wonderful that the Irish came here! They should be incredibly proud of their heritage! People who had opposed their immigration were just small and evil!
She had to think that way, for her survival and for the survival of her children.
Of course, I am now selecting some bad things about Irish immigration, but I am just trying to balance out the overly-romanticized version many of us have been given. Why do most Americans still only hear about nativism and discrimination against the Irish, and not the plight of poor American citizens and free blacks who lost their jobs, or were driven out of their neighborhoods?
I now think that there actually was little that was “wonderful” about the Irish Famine immigration. In terms of human suffering, I can still hardly bear to read about it. At least thousands of Irish lives were saved by immigration to the United States. Anyone human sympathizes. Irish immigration receded on its own, but eventually the U.S. government had to curtail immigration so that our country was not pulled down too.
I am still very proud of my Irish heritage, there is much there that is beautiful. But I believe that my feelings are now based on the truth, not a fantasy.
And I think that many present day Americans are still fantasizing when they overlook the problems caused by the huge number of immigrants joining today’s weak American economy.
Kathy Knechtges [Email her]is a writer who lives on the Great Lakes and specializes in working people, spirituality and the family.