March is here and, with it, comes the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day, the patron saint of Ireland, and all things Irish including the huge exodus of the Irish following the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840’s. Because I am Scot-Irish in origin, I am riveted by the plight of the Irish following the famine when many Irish fled to America. The Irish came seeking sanctuary, relief from starvation and hopeful America would provide them with the opportunities for a better life. But the reception they received on arrival wasn’t kind, friendly, or inviting. Americans saw the Irish, not as people who were desperate and starving, but more like a swarm of locusts about to consume all the resources of their country.
Many of the Irish fled To Boston increasing the population there by 30,000-100,000 and settled into the worst of slums. Political correctness did not exist in those days. Newspapers printed cartoons called Hogan's Alley sketched by late 19th century cartoonist RF Outcault. One particular star of the Hogan's Alley Cartoons was the Yellow Kid whose appearance is half child, half ape, and half man. Many caricatures of Irishman/boys appeared at the time. Images displayed the typical stereotyped Irishman with his top hat and simian face. Bostonians and other Americans, held the Irish in a low opinion along with the two other denigrated racial groups in this time period, the blacks and the Asians. These cartoons were featured regularly in Boston newspapers. And it would have been what Joseph P. Kennedy, Rose Kennedy and their families would have seen on a regular basis.
Many Irish searching for work turned to servitude. 70% of servants in Boston were Irish immigrants. In fact, Bostonians saw the Irish as a “servant race”. Bostonians called their Irish female servants the "bridgets" or "biddys" and the males "paddys". Many Irish named their children after the two popular Catholic saints, but in America, the names carried derisive connotations and many Irish tried to erase that legacy. Joseph Kennedy Sr.'s mother named him Joseph instead of Patrick after his father and grandfather. And Joseph Sr.'s grandmother Bridget Murphy never named her daughters Bridget to save them from this name abuse.
Of the 70% of Irish that were servants, two thirds were Irish women. Irish servants were noted to be full of melancholy and loneliness. I can certainly understand why. As a result of the negative treatment they received, Irish women suffered from high levels of mental illness. By 1908, there were more Irish than any other nationality in mental hospitals.
The “Know-Nothing Party”, a late 19th century party, established themselves as the “native” Americans who hated the influx of immigrants, especially the Irish. Working class Americans resented Irish laborers because they would work for low wages—as if the Irish had a choice.
Employers blatantly placed signs in their windows with “NINA” written across them which means “No Irish Need Apply.” The signs were often placed nest to signs that read, “No Dogs Allowed” to purposely insult the Irish. Even in newspapers that extended out west printed help wanted ads with “No Irish Need Apply” emblazoned across the bottom of the ad. In newspaper cartoons and on stage in skits the Irish were portrayed as blundering idiots, unreliable in behavior, and as belligerent drunks. The term "don't get your Irish up", stemmed from a stereotypical belief in the volatile Irish temper who spent their days lounging in saloons drinking and had regular bar brawls and parties filled with boisterous carousing and depravity. They were considered illiterate, greedy, and desperate. The “native” Americans considered the Irish as "Micks on the Make", and declared Irish families were too clannish, bred like rabbits, and stupid.
The Burning Of An Irish Church
This reception did not surprise the Irish. They were used to English Protestants deriding their brogues, their religion, and their poverty. They had endured centuries of oppression. As harsh as the prejudice they encountered in the United States was, it paled in comparison to life in Ireland. “Skibbreen” an Irish-American ballad, captures the enduring quality of Irish hatred of the English and their sense of America as a place from which to regroup and then resume their centuries-old struggle.
The Irish Soldiers In The Union Army
During the Civil War, the Irish became useful because they could outnumber the Southerners. Even so, the fellowship with the Irish during the war did not change the opinion of the Irish for most Americans in the late 19th century. Even after the war, Irishmen worked in jobs that required hard labor and danger such as mining, quarrying, bridge and canal building, and railway construction. So many Irish were killed working on the railroad that it was speculated that "there was an Irishman buried under every tie." Others were dockworkers, ironworkers, factory-hands, bartenders, carters, street cleaners, and waiters.
Even today one might wonder how the Irish managed to climb out of this antipathy and become cherished and respected citizens. Those looking to escape these stereotypes and rise above them to be part of American society like Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of John F. Kennedy, had to work hard and take many knocks before any change could be made.
Some Irish became quite successful but their numbers were few. The handful who attained white-collar status were frequently shopkeepers and small businessmen. There was an exceedingly meager number of Irish professionals. Those Irish who made the long trip to the western states tended to have somewhat more prestigious jobs than their compatriots in the East and North. This is due in part to the large numbers of Chinese in the West who did much of the manual laboring work. Many Irish participated in the California Gold Rush.
In the years following the Civil War the occupational lot of the Irish began to improve as more entered skilled trades. Many moved into managerial positions in the railroad, iron, construction, and other industries. Some went into business for themselves, especially in the building and contracting sectors. Numerous others became police officers, firefighters, streetcar conductors, clerks, and post office workers. The Irish began to hold many leadership positions in the trade union movement. Entertainment and athletics were other fields in which they began to attain greater recognition. Irish women found it more diffucult to move into higher prestige jobs, as there were far fewer opportunities for women in general at this time. Still, many attained upward occupational mobility by becoming teachers, nurses, and secretaries. Many Irish American nuns held positions of responsibility in hospitals, schools, and other Catholic social institutions.
By the beginning of the twentieth century Catholic Irish Americans were making great strides in their ascension of the occupational ladder. Although most remained members of the working class, large numbers began to move into the ranks of the lower middle classes. Throughout the century this improvement in socioeconomic status has continued. Today the Irish are well represented in academia, medicine, law, government service, politics, finance, banking, insurance, journalism, the entertainment industry, the Catholic clergy, and most other professions.
Some famous Irish Americans:
Audey Murphy-the most decorated soldier in American history who became an actor.
Joe Biden- Vice President of the United States
I am proud of my Scot-Irish ancestors. They proved that hard work, persistence, and forbearance can overcome the greatest of obstacles. There was no whining, just silent strength and endurance.
Slan’s beannachd! Gaelic for Health and a blessing!
Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media: