- 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
A house that had once sheltered a single family in comfort became, under immigrant pressure, the home of a dozen families. Stately mansions in New York and Boston changed, in a single decade, into squalid human rookeries with a family of seven or eight in each room. Cellars rented to single Irish families were partitioned off to provide quarters for two families and sometimes for three. Attics served in the same way. No effort was made to provide increased sanitary facilities. No additional water outlets were supplied. Toilet facilities remained the same. The sewage systems were not expanded, and it was not long before sewers and drains had ceased to function. Garbage rotted in germ-breeding, slimy hills outside mean doors and windows, and more appalling was the death rate from disease since none could afford medical service and public medical care and facilities were not adequate to the size of the problem.
As the years went by, the immigrant hordes increased and the pressure became greater. It reached a peak in mid-century when the potato crops, upon which the Irish peasant depended in his own country, failed completely. When the famine started there were eight million people in Ireland. When it ended there were six million. Of the two million who disappeared, many died of starvation, hopeless and helpless in their cabins or on the roadside. More than a million migrated, chiefly to Canada and the United States.
The famine emigrants were from the lowest Irish economic and social scale—they were indeed the proletariat. Those who reached America before them might have had some little skill or learning; but few of the famine emigrants had the ability to do more than the roughest sort of manual work and almost none could read or write.
This famine emigration was made possible almost entirely by the Irish already in America. When news of the famine reached them, there was hardly a laborer or a carter or a servant girl who did not dip into his or her meager wages to send something to help. In the famine year the Irish in America, with wages that amounted to fifty cents take-home pay a day, sent about eight hundred thousand dollars “back home.”
A few years later, in 1863, they were sending eight million dollars to Ireland, and these were not loans but gifts to people who, they felt, needed the money more than they themselves. Between 1848 and 1864 Irishmen in America had sent some sixty-five million dollars to friends across the Atlantic.
The work available in the big cities for the Irishman was primarily laboring work—indeed, it was initially all he was capable of doing. Employment was by its nature haphazard, and an Irishman might get a week’s or only a day’s work mending roads or sewers or tearing down a building or loading and unloading ships. He might get employment as a sweeper in one of the New England shoe factories or clothing factories. He might do some odd jobs around a livery stable, currying animals and cleaning out their bedding. But for all these kinds of work he competed with his fellow Irishman, each one driving down the other’s wages.
The Irish did finally rise, many of them, in the economic scale in the cities. Men who got odd jobs cleaning out stables because of the Irish ability with animals, particularly horses, could after a while look for steady employment as stable hands.
Or, sweepers in factories, if they showed any intelligence and curiosity, might get a semiskilled job at a loom or in a cutting or sorting room and so start a rise of sorts into the ranks of skilled labor. Some saved a little capital and set up “Irish groceries” in which they supplied the peculiar requirements of the Irish people. These grocery stores frequently made whiskey their stock in trade and often became saloons.
There was a great demand among the Irish for whiskey. To the wealthy man or the man of secure circumstances, whiskey might be a part of graceful living. To the slum Irishman it was the opiate he needed to obliterate, even momentarily, the festering hopelessness in which he lived. There was no place for him to rest in his one-room hovel after his day’s work. There was no room to have a friend in for a talk or to carry on any kind of social life. The streets were as noisome as his dim, foul lodging. He went to the saloon and there, with his fellows, he talked of his troubles, of the old days, of his hurts. And he drowned all these with raw, cheap liquor.
It was a grim battle, then, that faced the immigrant Irish in the nineteenth century. The casualties were high and there were no medals. Yet the immigrants did not quit. They fought against “the drink” as they did against their pauper wages—when they realized that this was the thing to do. Temperance societies blossomed among the Irish like marigolds in a bog. Father Theobald Mathew, the great reformer and preacher of abstinence, came to the United States to help his countrymen “snap their chains of enslavement to liquor,” and some three hundred thousand Irishmen took the pledge.