Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Most Hated People In America by Sarah J. McNeal

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.

John F. Kennedy, President of the United States

F. Scott Fitzgerald-Author

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:


  1. Wonderful, Sarah. I knew some of this, but in bits and pieces. Reading the history of the Irish immigrants all at once almost takes your breath away.
    I read a novel years ago about a young Irish woman in the slums of Boston. I recall details of the novel even today, because the author so vividly wrote about her plight. I cried reading that story. It was fiction, but seemed real. I wish I could remember the title.
    Thanks for this history lesson--it is quite appropriate for St. Patrick's Day.

    1. Thank you, Celia. I wish you could remember that title, too. That book sounds so interesting.
      I don't think any ethnic group has the most grievous experience in America. Every group seems to have gone through a trial by fire period. Opportunity is here, but boy oh boy, you have to really work hard, keep your chin up and earn it.
      Thank you so much for your comment, Celia. I always appreciate what you have to say.

  2. Interesting post, Sarah. I researched Irish immigration for my latest novel, A Touch of Texas Irish. I'd not realized how badly they were treated by the English who knew of their starvation and did little to nothing to ease their plight. I also read where women who worked as domestics were often mistreated. Slaves were treated better as they weren't replaceable and the Irish servants were. There were 100 more waiting to take their place. Our history is quite ugly at times.

    1. Linda, I guess the idea of supply and demand applies to human beings the same way it does with merchandise. There was no international outcry in respect to the foul treatment of the Irish as the trend seems to be today. They were considered garbage, And don't get me started on the English and their rampant desire for land and power back in history. Remember the saying, "The sun never sets on English soil"?
      Did you write about the plight of the Irish in your novel, A Touch of Texas Irish?
      Thank you so much for your comment, Linda. I wish you great success with your new novel. I am intrigued by its subject matter.

    2. I touched on it, Sarah. The Irish No Need to Apply signs and the young woman is man handled in the dining car by a bore and told to get back to 3r class where she belongs. Her husband comes in on the situation and scrubs the floor with the man.

    3. Now I like that her husband took her part and settled that situation, Linda. I know it's got to be a great story.

  3. I like the name of the Know-Nothing Party. At least they didn't claim to know everything. lol

    1. The Know-Nothing party was like people who would rather stick their head in the sand to avoid issues that to make a decision to stand up for what was right. The name is catchy though.
      Thank you so much for coming and leaving a comment, Morgan. I really appreciate it.

  4. Very interesting and enlightening blog, Sarah. You're right that almost every group of people have had trials to bear at some point in history. The Irish people were treated terribly by Britain throughout the ages, as well. I really respect the Irish, and what they managed to accomplish in America. In spite of their hardships they assimilated into American culture and became proud, successful citizens. Their hard work and endurance paid off well. I'm proud of my small Irish heritage!

  5. Viki, the Irish must have had the motto, "Work hard without whining" because that is what they did. Eventually their numbers were great enough at the voting place to influence politics and that made a huge difference.
    I'm proud of my Irish heritage, too.
    Thank you so much for your comment, Viki.

  6. It seems people never change. We always think we're better than the "others." I am part Scot-Irish too, and I'm sure my ancestors experience the discrimination you describe, Sarah. Thank you for your insightful post.

    1. Lyn, I think the harsh reality of life happens to everyone. It's how we handle it that counts. Are we going to just react, or are we going to give it thought and respond in a positive way.
      The Irish were mistreated and scorned all around the world, but they found a way to rise above it.
      Thank you for coming by and sharing your thoughts, Lyn.

  7. Sarah, as usual the worth of the in-depth researched topics you post are proven in the thoughtful comments you receive from your readers. I certainly gained a new appreciation of the trials and tribulations of the Irish immigration to America. I hope you don't mind, but I printed out a copy for our dear friend, John O'Brien, who comes from generations of Irish and is proud of it! He was glad to receive it and passed it on to his teenage sons, Joseph, Conor & Sean to read.

    1. Cheri, so many people, including many Irish descendants, don't know what a miserable welcome the Irish received when they came to America searching for a better life. Our ancestors certainly deserve respect and recognition for the trials they went through and how they overcame them--not by whining and begging for better treatment, but by hard work, steadfast courage, and dedication to improving their own lives. They are a proud bunch, the Irish.
      I am so happy you shared the post with your Irish friend and his sons. Irish descendants have so much to be proud of and grateful for in their ancestors.
      And thank you for your compliments on my article. I truly appreciate it.

  8. We look back today and wonder why the discrimination. Yet people still look at anyone who is different with fear. Maybe someday we will learn.

    Thanks for a the great article!

  9. E., I think many times it has to do with people worried that these new people, whoever they may be, will take jobs away from them--and afraid there won't be "enough" for them their families. The Irish posed no threat to the country's security like terrorism; they were just starving to death in Ireland. It's sad that it happens, but it seems every group of immigrants goes through this "right of passage", but it was exceptionally hard on the Irish because their numbers were so great. Today there are more Irish in America than in Ireland.
    Thank you so much for your comment. I really do appreciate it.

  10. Enjoyed your post, Sarah. I'm Scott-Irish (on my dad's side). Didn't know about the Scottish part until I did a DNA test. lol I knew quite a bit of what your wrote here, but also learned a few more things about the way the Irish were treated. So horrible what humans do to each other. Thanks for sharing.


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