- Historic Sites
The Coming Of The Green
The Irish built America’s roads and canals, fought in its wars, and triumphed over poverty and discrimination: it was a grand battle indeed
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
Almost the highest buildings in New York were three-story residences of wood and bright red brick. Hardly anything rose above these but church spites and belfries. There was about both New York and Boston an air of summer leisure; and the rural aura was sustained by the clopping of horses’ hoofs down Broadway or Beacon Street, the rumbling of the wheels of heavy drays, the cracking of carters’ whips, and the baaing of sheep driven into the city for sale and slaughter. City and countryside were wedded one to the other; and shepherds watched their flocks on the Sheep Meadow, which was later to be part of Central Park in New York, or on the Common of Boston, the Boston Common being the direct lineal descendant of the common lands of England where all might graze their animals.
Into these somewhat elegant towns then, where culture had reached a height that it has perhaps never reattained, came in a strong flood the desperate, alien Irish. At first the wealthier New Yorkers and Bostonians out of sheer humanity did what they could to care for these people and find them employment. But the flood was too great to be coped with by individual good will and charity. These were indeed the wretched outcasts of a teeming shore. They had run the terrible gantlet of immigration and, arriving in the great ports of Boston and New York, were too exhausted, too stricken to go farther.
They crammed the rails of the immigration ships from the first cry of “Land ho!” and they feasted their eyes on the green, fertile woods and fields of Staten Island or the coastal approaches to Boston Harbor.
“It’s America!” they cried, “America!” and they hugged each other and cheered, the little children catching up the excitement and laughing, for all their ailments, in spontaneous joy as children do. When at last the ship was warped to her dock and the gang-planks lowered, they went ashore in a rush, as souls long barred must enter paradise.
“Praise be to God and all the Holy Saints,” they said and knelt in gratitude on the dockside. Some took the little bags of Irish earth and scattered them on the ground—a symbol of the wedding of Ireland and America that they hoped to achieve. Everybody seemed friendly and helpful. There were boardinghouse runners, wearing green hats, or Irish caubeens—”shoulder hitters” they were called—who picked up heavy bundles or a child or two, warning the immigrant to be careful of anybody else who was out to rob him.
Actually, these apparently friendly strangers sought to extract the last penny from families already all but destitute. In addition to the runners, there were spurious travel agents and bogus Irish immigrant service agencies that advised the families who had managed to retain a little money to move inland. They would take care of all the travel details for the bewildered immigrant. They knew which railroad to get on or which river boat. But the immigrant found, when he presented the ticket purchased for him, that it was either a forgery or that it took him only a small portion of the distance for which he had paid the fare.
The fact that these Irish immigrants were almost one hundred per cent illiterate made the work of these sharks easy. They could give an Irishman a coupon from a cigar box, pretending it was a ticket to Albany. If the coupon had a picture of a river boat on it, the Irishman was convinced. He could not read. He had no one to stand up for him, and, defenseless as he was in financial matters, he was unmercifully fleeced.
The Irish found themselves defrauded in many ways. Quite often much of their baggage was stolen by the boardinghouse runners. They were taken to boardinghouses where no mention was made of the rent, and when they discovered how much they owed for a day or two’s lodgings, it was more than the total sum of their meager remaining capital. They were then compelled to remain in these places until the men found work and the debt was paid off. But the debt mounted as fast as the earnings, and many immigrants became the financial prisoners of their landlords in New York or Boston, as they had been in Ireland.
After a while the Irish themselves, as well as city governments, organized to prevent this fleecing of newly arrived immigrants. As early as 1790 the Irish of Philadelphia organized a Hibernian Society for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland. In 1817 the Shamrock Society published advice to Irish immigrants. Irish newspapers in America—they were soon being published in New York and Boston—warned immigrants against sharks, while agitation by the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick eventually resulted in the creation of the New York Commission of Immigration to help the incoming Irish.
But all these efforts could not deal successfully with the flood of immigrants. In they rolled by the thousands, and the charitable agencies could not protect them all. In 1816 some 6,000 Irishmen arrived in this country, disembarking mostly in New York or Boston. By 1820 the number had reached 20,000. By 1850 there were 961,719 Irishmen in the United States. They made up 4.1 per cent of the total population, and more were arriving at the rate of about 20,000 a year. Thirty years later, by 1880, there were 1,854,571 of them in America.
The first task of the Irishman upon arrival in the United States was to find a place to house himself and his family other than a high-priced boardinghouse. But neither New York nor Boston nor Philadelphia nor any of the other immigration ports had quarters to rent at the miserable prices the Irish could afford. And so they camped in alleyways or in doorways, or they begged the use of cellars or attics or old warehouses whose wooden walls were worm-rotten.