- 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
Many railroad and canal contractors hit on the happy scheme of giving the Irishman whiskey as part of his pay. It looked well in the advertisements, but it was a devilish and enslaving form of payment. Whiskey wages kept the Irishman poor. It made chronic alcoholics out of thousands of them. It provoked the bloodiest kinds of riots and hung on the Irish the reputation for being a rebellious, bloodthirsty, idle, drunken, shiftless tribe. There was no such thing as regulation of work hours. The day started at dawn, ended at sunset. Men returned to their shanties tired as beaten dogs and sought relief for aching muscles and backs in a drink of whiskey. Then, inevitably, came the singing and the rioting and the fighting that turned the railroad camps into murderous jungles.
It was to the benefit of the contractor, whatever the job, to drive wages down as low as he could and extract all the work he could out of every man in the gang. One method of driving down wages was to advertise in Irish papers that there was plenty of work available for immigrants on the American railroads and canals. This brought over hordes more of the Irish, particularly when conditions in Ireland worsened. Those who could not themselves raise their fares had money advanced to them for the voyage by labor contractors. They found themselves in servitude, receiving no money wage at all until the interminable transportation debt was paid.
“Working off the dead horse,” the Irish called this arrangement, which was little short of peonage. The Irishman in these conditions was in an almost hopeless state. However much he earned, there was always something more to be paid for: food or clothes or advances of a few dollars at terrible rates of interest.
A great number of the riots that were at the time put down to the bloody spirit of the Irish actually arose out of the practice of using new immigrants to undercut the wages of their countrymen already in America.
Gangs would be told that henceforth their wages would be cut two or three dollars a month. If they did not like it, there were a hundred or two hundred men waiting outside the camp to take their shovels. That would start the riot—the Irish fighting the Irish, not merely with fists split to the white of the knuckle-bones but with pick handles and shovels.
Often men working in one gang found that another gang was receiving less than they. Then a riot would break out, at times so serious that troops had to be called out to break it up. President Jackson had to use federal troops to break up a gang war on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal job. Laborers from one county in Ireland fought those from another county. It was just the fighting spirit of the Irish, the contemporary critics said. But these riots were of economic origin in almost every case. They were the first shots of the terrible labor wars that were to be fought later, in no small measure by the Irish, in an effort to protect their wages. The Irish in the years to come were to give enormous impetus to trade unionism in America and to the enactment of fair labor laws.
Before union organization it was not uncommon for a man to work fifteen hours a day, stimulated by whiskey, for a wage as low as fifty cents. This was the Promised Land—a hell of bone-bruising work, shanty living, and mental and spiritual stagnation.
But it wasn’t really hell, because hell is a place without hope. Here at least there were food and work—and the hope that someday, somehow, each individual might find a way of bettering himself. In Ireland there was only hopelessness.
The Irishman, for all the hardships he underwent, did not curse America but found a passionate love for it. Poor as he was, housed in a hovel, he celebrated the Fourth of July with Irish enthusiasm and found in Bunker Hill compensation for the Battle of the Boyne. He became more American than the American—a scarecrow, miserably poor, an exploited patriot, passionately in love with his adopted land. Yet he remained also an Irishman and continued to send his remittances to Ireland, remembering how things were in the old country. America and Ireland became one to him.
As time went by, the Irish laborers did raise themselves up by their pick handles. Canal, railroad, and road laborers became straw bosses and foremen or left the gangs to work on farms or on land of their own, handing over their tools to the Italians, who followed them as the unskilled workers of America.
From construction foremen many became small subcontractors and then contractors for jobs, small or large, until a time came when a vast number of the heavy construction companies in the United States were headed by men who had started life as laborers.
The Irish didn’t find the streets of America paved with gold, but they found perhaps a rarer and more valuable ore for those who were prepared to mine it—opportunity.
It was this that was missing in the old country, and it was this that America gave to them.
But before the Irish could escape from the slums of the city and the shanty towns, they needed a weapon and a powerful one. They needed a voice that would represent them in this new land. In short, they needed the vote. A solitary vote wouldn’t mean much. But a hundred thousand Irish votes all alike—that would be power.
The Irish set out early to achieve this power.