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When the Irish Were the Undesirable Immigrants - Lisa M. Wayman Skip to content

When the Irish Were the Undesirable Immigrants

Irish Woman 1849
The great wave of immigration from Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s overwhelmed the US and led to a swell of nationalism and racism. The Irish who came prior to the great famine were fairly well accepted, they tended to be Protestant and fairly well off. They distinguished themselves from the Catholic Irish by calling themselves ‘Scotts-Irish’. The Irish who came during the great famine were a different story. They were poor, Catholic, and considered less than human. The Irish of the 1840s and 1850s were despised in the US.

The Jeanie Johnson
The poverty of the Irish immigrating to the US during the potato famine cannot be overstated. They were starving at home, both from the failure of the potato crop, their primary source of nutrition, and from the English occupation of Ireland. The English exported food from Ireland during the famine in the name of protecting investors and promoting a free market society. The Irish who could manage to cobble together enough money for a fare crowded onto cargo ships and slavers for a three week passage to America. Some Irish even got funding from their English landlords who wished to export the ‘Irish problem’ to the US. The ships were overcrowded with poor sanitation and inadequate food and water. They were soon dubbed ‘coffin’ ships for the high death rates of passengers.

NYC slum 1890
The Irish arriving in the US were refugees. They had no belongings, no funds to invest in farms or business, and very few skills. Many of them also only spoke Irish, separating them from the English speaking American population. Most of the 2 million  Irish immigrants settled in cities. The staggering numbers of Irish overwhelmed the cities they settled in.  For example, Boston had 100,000 residence and swelled with 37,000 Irish immigrants. and took the most menial jobs, angering the Americans who were already at the bottom of the economy and feared that the Irish would undercut the wages. Irish men build canals and worked in factories while many women became servants. Not only did the Irish take jobs they took any available housing and turned neighborhoods into slums as landlords divided old houses and warehouses into small un-ventilated apartments. The slums, with poor schooling and underemployment, festered violence, mental illness and alcoholism in the formerly respectable, but now desperately poor Irish, further increasing the backlash from the non-Irish residence.

Washington Monument Under Construction
In addition to being poor refugees in need of social services, most of the Irish who immigrated during the great hunger were Catholic. At the time the US was a predominately Protestant country. The Pilgrims came, in part, to escape what they felt was the Catholic, or ‘papist’ influence in Europe. The prejudice against Catholics continued forward and was rampant in the 1800s. The papers and cartoons of the time were rampant with wild accusations about Catholics: Nuns were prisons and sexual victims of priests (with any babies being killed and buried). Even more damning was the assertion that Catholics reported to the pope and were immigrating to the US in order to set up a Catholic nation. Multiple anti-Catholic organizations formed and led to Nativist anti-Catholic riots. In one of the odder anti-Catholic episodes the Know-Nothings took the marble the Pope had donated to the Washington Monument, dubbed ‘The Pope Stone‘, smashed it and dumped it in the Potomac. The Vatican donated another stone in 1982.

The Usual Irish Way
Finally, the Irish were considered not quite human. English scientists of the time proposed that the Irish were closer to apes than to humans, drunk and dimwitted and that the subjugation of the Irish was for their own good. Racism, against Native Americans, African Americans and other people of color was not only rampant, but widely accepted. The Irish were lumped in with the other ‘non-white’ and therefore less human and considered people not entitled to rights. The issue was divisive enough that in 1855 Abraham Lincoln wrote in a letter: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

St Paddy’s Day Charleston 2016
The Irish persevered and worked their way into society. Now the Irish are accepted as an important part of American society and many non-Irish celebrate St. Paddy’s Day. I’d like to say that the Irish remembered the discrimination they endured and not inflict it on others. However, once they gained some power the Irish discriminated against the Asians. It really makes me think about how we are building hysteria about others who aren’t like us now. It may be the American way, but it doesn’t have to be.

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