- 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
The immigrants fought against labor exploitation, and they formed their own banks and building societies to provide better housing for their people. It is astonishing that a man paying a rent that demanded the fruits of three days’ labor each week could still find use for a bank. To place the credit for thrift where it is due, it probably belongs to the Irish women. A penny a week saved is a penny a week, and these women contrived to save a penny a day. Established banks had no desire to handle these mites. In 1851 the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank in New York, founded largely by the Irish Emigrant Society, opened its doors. In the next thirty years this one bank (and there were many others) handled remittances to Ireland amounting to thirty million dollars. As these were gifts to the people back home, the savings must have been at least equal or greater. Indeed, in 1856 the average savings of the original 2,300 depositors amounted to $238.56.
In setting up their own “penny banks” the Irish set the example for the Italians, who were to follow them as mass immigrants many years later. Many of the great banking institutions of the United States today had their beginnings in immigrant saving banks and the same is true of building and loan associations.
All was not totally grim, despite the poverty and the whiskey and the squalid living and the riots. The Irish could still crack a joke. They retained the gift of provoking a laugh or a grin, and they flocked to the penny theaters to laugh at stage lampoons of themselves. There they saw a caricature of the Irish workman with the whole world against him. He would be dressed in clothes fit for a giant, smoke a stub of black clay pipe, and be told to dig a mile of ditch using a shovel with a one-foot handle.
It might be taken, because of Ireland’s long struggle for independence, that what the Irish were looking for in America was political freedom, but that is an idealistic and unreal point of view. They were looking for freedom from hunger. Their need was as grim and as basic as that.
The great problem, of course, was work. And of that there was plenty—outside the cities. The Irish arrived at the very dawn of the canal and railroad era in America. They came as the Industrial Revolution was just about to get under way, when the Pennsylvania coal deposits and those in West Virginia were awaiting full exploitation.
The mass of the Irish had no skills to offer, no learning, no industrial experience. But they had muscle power and the stamina of dray horses. They were starvation-thin and big-boned, but they were not afraid of work. In America they met with the pick and the shcvel and the drill, and they spat on their hands and drove the canals through the cities and the green fields, linking river to river and lake to lake.
They picked up spiking mauls and crowbars and rail tongs and laid railroads all over the Eastern states. They used sledge hammers and heavy, man-operated tamping tools and built roads where there had previously been naked cart tracks.
Before the coming of the railroad and the macadamized road surfaces, which had just been developed in Britain around 1820, the rivers and lakes were the preferable highways of America. They were excellent natural arteries, but they were not always convenient because traffic was limited to the number of boats available, and also because, until the steamboat came into being, schedules were utterly unreliable.
The Irish, then, arrived at a time of approaching transportation deadlock. And they broke the deadlock.
There were in the United States at the time few Americans who would hire out as laborers. The average American sought a higher station and had the initiative and education to get it. The lowly Irishman, glad to get six dollars a month and his keep, supplied a crying need for unskilled labor. Off they went by the thousands to the railroad and canal and road-building jobs or to the mines and the quarries, and in so doing they changed the face and outlook of America.
The National Road, a project dear to George Washington and tirelessly urged by Jefferson, was approved by the Congress just before the arrival of the Irish laborers, and it was they who made the road possible. Its construction took them into Pennsylvania, and the farmers marveled at the brigades of a thousand Irish laborers with picks, shovels, gunpowder, and carts who drove through hills and mountains “a roadway good enough for an emperor to travel over.” The road went on through Pennsylvania into Ohio, and the Irish settled in these parts in small shanty towns that later became permanent townships and cities.
It was the same with the canal projects. By 1818 there were three thousand Irishmen working on the Erie Canal, a project pushed through by DeWitt Clinton. Twenty-two years later New York had nearly a thousand miles of canals built by Irishmen. And everywhere, the Irish—those who had saved some of their earnings—settled to start towns of their own or to swell the population of towns already established.
Canal work and railroad work was often paid by the day. Wages sounded high to the Irish—as much as a dollar a day. But the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in America and elsewhere brought an exploitation of labor such as had never existed in purely agricultural times since the end of serfdom. Out of his dollar a day, the Irish canal or railroad worker had to buy his food from company stores. The company storekeepers reckoned to make 100 or 150 per cent profit on every item, from tobacco and shirts to shoes and food.