August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
The Irish built America’s roads and canals, fought in its wars, and triumphed over poverty and discrimination: it was a grand battle indeed
Now there was in Ireland in olden times a great poet named Oisin. Such was his power that he had but to speak of summer, and whiter went from the land; and where there had been only the rime of front and the blackness of rocks, there were meadow’s filled with clover and sweet grass and the murmuring of bees.
And one day a maiden came to Oisin and said, “I am Niav of the Golden Hair and I have come to take you to the Land of the Ever Young, which lies to the west and where you will be happy after all your toils. For you must know, Oisin, that this land you may make yours, as much by your strength as by your speech, which is as pleasant to the mind as spring water running over my feet when I have walked far and am weary.”
And Oisin bade farewell to his companions, who grieved that he should go, and set out for the Land of the Ever Young with Niav of the Golden Hair.
The time had come, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, for the Irish to go to the Land of the Ever Young, which lay across the Atlantic Ocean and which they called America.
To remain in their own country was to accept a present and a future without hope for either themselves or their children. Ireland, at this time, had been united with England by an Act of Union, which, dissolving the Irish Parliament, had with one stroke deprived the Irish of what little self-government they had previously enjoyed.
Rebellion after rebellion had failed to shake off England’s control. The land was owned by foreign landlords who planted tenants as their most profitable crop. The system was to rent small acreages to the landless Irish so that the landlord was certain of his rents—the hazards attendant upon agriculture being faced by the tenant, who could be utterly destroyed by one crop failure. If the tenant did well with his small rented farm, the landlord raised the rent. If the tenant objected to the raisin of the rent, he was evicted, for he had few rights under the law and could get no one to represent him in those rights he did possess.
This planting of tenants as the most profitable crop had become so intensified by the beginning of the nineteenth century that twenty or thirty tenants often shared a farm that a few decades previously had supported but one farmer and his family. The plots were so small that the tenants could not live on the produce from them. The Irish tenant farmer planted potatoes in the early spring because it was a crop that looked after itself. Then he turned his wife and his children out on the load to beg. He himself went to England to search for work, for there was none for him in Ireland. It work was lacking, he, too, became a beggar. When autumn came he returned to his plot, harvested his potatoes, and, using these and whatever money the family had gleaned in the summer months, contrived to get through the desolation of winter until the cycle could be repeated again.
The house he lived in in Ireland was made of boards and turf; and if he could get a little pig to fatten on potato peelings, or perhaps a hen or two, the pig and the hens shared the turf house with the Irishman and his family, for there was nowhere else to put the livestock.
The land itself was beautiful. The mists that lay in the mornings over the lakes and in the blue valleys shone like the cloth of heaven. Off the Kerry heads the azure ocean broke into foam as white as a gleaming bone. Quick rains Hooded the meadows, and then the sun came out so that the grass seemed to be growing in a sheet of crystal. In the spring, marigolds covered the bogs with rich gold, and lapwings moved with slow grace through the sky, each echoing the mournful cry of his fellows.
The Irishman lived in paradise and was a pauper there. His land and its beauties were not his. He and his children were the most hideous creatures in it, and for his and their salvation he must leave this land and go somewhere else.
And the place he should go to was America.
The Irish were not strangers to America, for they knew it by repute, and many of their kinsfolk had gone there from the earliest times. Some of them had gone as indentured servants, bound to another man for a number of years, after which they would be set free in the new land to make their own fortunes. Others were men who could not bow their heads—men who had been soldiers in the armies of the old Irish nobles or who had owned land in their own right. Thousands had gone to America in the years before the Revolutionary War, driven by increased British restriction on Irish trade. They had joined the army of General Washington, and so many Pennsylvania Irishmen had served Washington that the men of the Pennsylvania regiments were called the “line [or army] of Ireland.”
America was the land where all that was denied in Ireland might be achieved, including liberty—and the very word conjured up the brightest imaginings in the minds of the Irish.
A letter from America would put a whole Irish village in a state of tingling excitement. The word would go out to all the neighbors that Kevin Reilly, “the little feller, ye’ll remember, that was so thin he stood halfway between the earth and heaven,” had written a letter to his father from New York or Boston, and everyone would come in to see this wonderful and exciting thing.
Then someone would have to be found who could read the letter because Irish Catholics for nearly a hundred years had been forbidden schooling and were almost one hundred per cent illiterate. The man who read the letter might be a priest or one of the “hedge schoolteachers”—one who tried to combat illiteracy, at the risk of deportation, by conducting a secret school behind a hedge or in some remote sod schoolhouse, with a guard posted to give warning should any government official or stranger approach.
Every word was received like a jewel. Sentences were read and reread and marveled over. “I’m learning to write, as you can see,” the letter would state in laborious print and with many words misspelled. “Schools here are free for everyone.” And at that there would be a silence of wonder that such a thing could be possible.
“We eat every day here like we would eat in Ireland at Christmas. Any man may speak what is on his mind without the least fear. If a man will work, he need never go hungry.”
That last was the favorite phrase. To be in a place where you never had to be hungry again, where winter wasn’t something to dread because of the lack of food, where children didn’t whimper at night from hunger pains—that was the greatest marvel of all.
In almost every case the letter expressed the hope that those to whom it was addressed would be able to come to America someday. A little money might be enclosed toward the fare of a brother or a father or a mother. And these letters, combined with the increasingly miserable conditions in Ireland, moved first hundreds and then thousands of Irishmen and their families to migrate.
But first came the huge problem of raising the fare. In 1816 passage to America was about six or seven pounds per head—thirty to thirty-five dollars. That was a large sum to raise, and every means was employed to acquire it. What few possessions the family had were sold; relatives in America sent what they could; a few landlords sometimes helped. With the development of pedigreed animals, cattle had become a more profitable crop than tenants. Corn likewise provided heavy profits. Tenants had to be cleared off the lands to provide pasturage, and it seemed wiser to help them to America rather than leave them in Ireland, a roaming, homeless, and lawless herd constituting a grave menace to both health and property. Usually the decision to leave had to be made many months ahead of the departure date so that every possible source of passage money could be employed to the full.
But more than passage money had to be found. There was food to be provided for a voyage that might take from lour to ten weeks on a sailing vessel. Clothes were needed for the children. And a little extra money would also be needed in case of delay at the port of departure until favorable winds permitted the emigrant ship to clear port. Before leaving his plot of land for the New World, the emigrant planted as many potatoes as he could and delayed his departure, if he could manage it, until after the crop was harvested. For food, he took with him sacks of potatoes, and his neighbors filled out his meager store with what they could spare from their own harvest.
Finally came the great day. The family took a last look around at the sod house, barely distinguishable from the turfy ground above which it rose only a few feet; at the blackthorn hedge that they would never again see white with blossoms in the spring; at the blue mountains that fringe almost every horizon in Ireland. The peasant parts hard with his land, however miserably he has lived upon it. It is his mother, his blood, and his bone; and the wrench away from it is like dying or maybe like being born. No man ever felt for a city as the peasant feels for the soil he has tilled. And so before they left, one member of the family would reach down and pick up a handful of the earth and put it in a cloth, to be kept to ease the anguish of the parting.
And then down the road—a road at once of sorrow and of hope: the long, long road to the sea and the end of life in Ireland. The emigrants went on foot, barefoot to save whatever shoes they possessed. And they pushed barrows that contained their possessions and on which the smaller children could ride when they were tired. The barrows were part of the fare. They would have to be sold when the port city was reached. The money was needed, every penny of it calculated. Not a farthing of it could be spared. The men worried about the money, going over the budget again and again. But the women had a grim confidence. “We’ll manage somehow,” they said, as women have been saying in every country of the world since the beginning of time.
The seaport marked the start of the 3,000-mile gantlet that the emigrant family now had to run. It was the start of a grim contest in which the stakes were the survival of the family.
Whatever port the Irish emigrant picked as his point of departure—Londonderry or Belfast in the north, Dublin in the east, Waterford or Cork in the south, or Galway in the west—he was the special prey of rapacious boardinghouse keepers, shipping brokers, and confidence tricksters, all intent upon extracting what they could of his precious little board of money.
It was not uncommon for passenger agents and boardinghouse keepers to conspire to delay the departure of the emigrant so that more money could be extracted from him, the agent taking a commission. The professional advisers, posing as friends, bewildered the emigrant with a list of articles that he should buy and without which he or his children could not hope to survive on the big Atlantic crossing.
Most, however, survived this initial test. They lingered ashore until boardinghouse keeper and shipping broker had extracted the last possible farthing from them, until confidence men and other leeches had taken all they could. And then came the announcement that their ship was ready and they were to get down to such and such a wharf with their wives and children, their belongings, and food for the crossing.
Most, though not all, of the immigration holds were pesthouses. It this was an immigration ship, one that earned its way by hauling human cargo across the Atlantic, the hold was a gloomy, largish cubicle evilly lit by primitive oil lamps and crammed with rough bunks, one atop the other, on which were pallets of straw. They were the worst kind of sleeping quarters; but for the immigrants they were to be, in foul weather that might last for weeks, their living quarters. Here they would dress and undress without a pretense at privacy. Here they would cook and eat and make whatever laundry arrangements they might. Here children would spend day after day in hot, oxygen-depleted air, lying on the bunks because there was nowhere else for them to go. Here sudden murderous fights would break out when nerves cracked. Here there was never any quiet—day or night. There was always the noise of crying children, quarreling, the groaning of the sick, the mutter of unending prayer.
Of sanitary facilities, until governments stepped in to regulate matters, there were none. “Ship lever,” a kind of typhus resulting from lice that abounded in the straw pallets, was common. “Rotten throat” (probably a streptococcal infection) was the daily hazard of young and old. In the immigration hold the peasant lost the last of his possessions—privacy. On a long journey of foul weather he sank to an animal level, and the younger women were constantly in danger lrom a trew whose morals were questionable.
Food often ran out because the immigrants had little real knowledge of how long the journey would take. They then had to buy food from the ship’s stores, and the prices were piratical. Water was almost always rationed; there was enough perhaps to drink, but none for washing. The Irish immigrants debarking in New York or Boston were covered with sores and scabs from itch, and they had not been able to clean themselves for sometimes as long as two months.
The ships themselves were frequently undermanned and overloaded by murderous owners. “Coffin ships” were a feature of maritime life in the early 1800’s. These were vessels sent to sea so overladen that they must founder in heavy weather, that was the calm intention of the shipowner, who heavily insured his vessel and made a profit from its sinking. Immigrants were sometimes forced to make their voyages in such coffin ships, for to wait in port for a safer vessel meant spending in boardinghouses the money needed for the passage. It was not until 1876 that Samuel Plimsoll was able to carry through Parliament a law establishing a Plimsoll line on cargo vessels beyond which the vessel was not to be loaded.
Not all voyages were bad, however. Usually the bad and good were mixed together. In foul weather, when hatches had to be battened down, the immigrants were confined to the hold, while the waters thundered like judgment around them. But in fair weather they could go on deck, and on mild nights they would dance reels and jigs to the tune of a fiddle, or they would sing songs, often in Gaelic.
There were usually several storytellers among them, for the tradition of the spoken folk tale still lives in Ireland, sustained at one period as a result of the enforced illiteracy of the people. The tales these storytellers related fascinated young and old, and even the crew would join the immigrants to listen to them. They related how Oisin, the son of Finn, visited the Land of the Ever Young; and how the magic spear of Lugh had to be kept in a pot of poppy seeds to slake its thirst for blood; and how the warriors of the great Finn had taken it as their motto that “a man lives alter death but not alter honor”; and how Cuchullin, with a spear in his side, had tied himself to a post so that he might die on his feet facing his enemies.
These tales the Irish carried with them, with their handfuls of Irish soil, across the Atlantic to America. Wretched, illiterate, and unskilled, incapable of so much as signing their own names, they still had within them a shining literary treasure. The tales were not memorized and retold by rote. Each storyteller embellished the tale as he desired, and the most popular were those whose imagination was the tidiest and who could make words skip and jump or walk slow with sorrow as if they were living things.
Such, then, were the Irish immigrants, who in an increasing tide swept down the roads of Ireland to the sea and, risking all on one pitch, crossed the great ocean to the Land of the Ever Young.
New York and Boston, in the early nineteenth century, were almost country towns. Both were ports, to be sure, and had on their water fronts their tough sections. They had also some factories and machine shops, but largely they were mercantile and residential.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When the Irish immigrants first began arriving in America in large numbers, they had no right to vote even after being naturalized, and naturalization at one time demanded fourteen years’ residence in the United States. Voting in almost all states was dependent upon the possession of property, and the pauper Irish, with this restriction, might well have spent their whole lives in their new land without a voice in city, State, or national government.
In New York State this situation was changed largely due to the efforts of one man, DeWitt Clinton. Clinton was the leader, economically and politically, of the immigrant Irish who had supplied the labor to build the Erie Canal, which he had planned and advocated for many years.
In 1822 Clinton proposed and pushed through an amendment to the New York State constitution eliminating the property requirement for voters. That one piece of legislation in New York suddenly made of the Irish immigrant hordes valuable political material. It had been at first opposed and then supported by Tammany Hall, the most powerful political organization of New York City and New York State.
Tammany in its youth was antiforeign and antiCatholic. Irishmen and Catholics were originally excluded from full membership. As a result of this policy and Tammany’s refusal to support Irishman Thomas A. Emmet for Congress, the Irish in 1817 invaded and wrecked Tammany’s New York headquarters.
But Tammany was in the wrong city to cling to its native American policy and nourish. Its own rottenness brought it into public disfavor time and again, and in the early 1840’s, following the exposure of vast frauds in the Tammany-controlled Manhattan Bank, it underwent a profound change. It had previously been ruled from the top. Now, bereft of other support, Tammany opened its doors to the immigrants, and was soon ruled from the bottom. Out of one of the oldest American political organizations, this group of new and unloved citizens forged a weapon that was to dominate New York City and State government and exercise, through the Democratic party, profound influence upon the national scene.
The Irish record in American politics has them cavorting with the devils on occasions and on others singing with choirs of angels. The Irish racked up for themselves an astonishing record of corruption, graft, terrorism, and milking of the public, side by side with vigorous programs of reform, of cleaning up the ballot, of purging cities of racketeers, and of upholding the principles of American democracy in tribunals as hisrh as the Supreme Court of the United States.
There is no need to make a special plea for leniency in considering the corruption of civic and state governments attributed to the Irish. The whiskey barrel and the plug-ugly were standard features of the American election before the appearance of the Irish in great numbers. Multiple voting by one individual and the stealing of ballot boxes were common election tactics of early times. The Irish, with the aid of Tammany, merely studied these tactics and decided to take a hand in the game themselves. And the hand they took provides some of the most colorful and lurid chapters in American political history.
The story of what happened with Tammany serves as the classic example of the history of other political machines in other states. Whatever the name and whatever the state, all at one time followed the Tammany methods to a greater or lesser extent in gaining political strength from the immigrant Irish entering the country in flood proportions.
As a start, Tammany opened a bureau to cater to the needs of the immigrants and lead them into the Wigwam. The bureau undertook a great deal of charitable work that would pay off politically. Tammany saw to it, for instance, that no Irish family in New York was without food on Christmas Day. Carts laden with provisions and flying the Tammany banner went through the Five Points section and other Irish rookeries, distributing largess. Everybody who got anything knew where it came from—Tammany. Gratitude and self-interest demanded that the recipients vote the Tammany ticket. They did—regularly.
Tammany’s object, of course, was not pure charity, although Tammany Hall has always maintained that it has a distinct charitable function, separate from political activity. Charity was but a device for obtaining political power. The next step, after paying the rent or distributing the food, was to make of the Irish immigrant a citizen and a Tammany voter. Tammany established a naturalization bureau whose product was American citizens. Irishmen went in one end of this bureau and emerged citizens at the other end.
These practices were not confined to New York. They were adopted by other and smaller political machines in such other cities as Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, and Detroit.
Tammany soon discovered another political weapon to influence the opposition vote. In the Five Points and “bloody ould Sixth Ward” districts of New York, there were numerous gangs of Irishmen who took their vengeance on society by fighting and rioting and generally establishing a reign of terror. Tammany soon turned to these as a means of keeping opposition voters away from the polls. Gangs like the “Dead Rabbits” were employed to police the polling areas and beat up the opposition voters.
From this it was a simple step to destroying anti-Tammany ballots or to manufacturing bogus pro-Tammany ballots, so that it was not uncommon, when the total vote was counted, to find more votes had been cast in a ward than there were registered voters.
The appeal to the Irish gangs as an instrument of political persuasion was, in the end, a mistake on the part of Tammany leaders. The gang leaders took counsel with themselves and decided that if the gangs could be used to influence an election, they could also be used to influence Tammany. Thereupon they took control of Tammany and paved the way for the rule of Tammany Hall by the worst elements in the city.
Nominations for office were hawked about by both Whigs and Democrats. The nation was becoming money-mad and all things were for sale, including what passed for political honor. There arose among the Irish and other immigrants a new profession—that of politician. Politics paid and paid handsomely. It paid all the way from a job on the police force to a job as United States marshal or member of Congress. It was a pork-barrel era, and a man was a fool who would not exchange fifteen hours of hard labor a day for membership in a ward heeler’s gang.
The shoulder hitter, or gang member, didn’t work. He just beat up his rivals. He had huge power, to the extent that in the 1840’s political gangs controlled the New York police, and gutter government was the order of the day in the greatest of America’s cities. The antidote was to enlist the Irish as policemen, and from the 1840’s on, the police of New York, Boston, and other cities became more and more Irish.
The reaction to all this was inevitable but for a long time ineffective. The better elements of the Irish community, led by Archbishop Hughes of New York, denounced the widespread corruption and pleaded with the Irish to vote independently and become respectable citizens. The better elements could provide guidance but no groceries, and the Irish were still starvation-poor. They ignored morality in favor of meal tickets.
All the growing Irish influence in city, state, and even national politics did nothing to raise the average Irishman’s standard of living or provide him with employment worth more than seventy-five cents a day. In the mid-nineteenth century there was no effective move to build public housing, to clean up slums, to enact effective labor laws.
But the reaction against the bloc vote finally made itself felt as a general abhorrence of the Irish.
Riots and fights and burnings involving Irish Catholics and American Protestants broke out in every major city of America. In Charlestown, Massachusetts, the Ursuline convent was burned down by a Protestant rabble from Boston. A Catholic church was blown up in Dorchester. When Bishop Kenrick raised the issue of the reading of the Protestant Bible in public schools, the reaction touched off one of the bloodiest riots in the history of Philadelphia. Protestants, with cries of “God, Country, and Bible,” stormed Catholic sections in the city and burned and damaged Catholic houses and churches.
The country was getting fed up with Irishmen, and earlier immigrants of Irish stock began to call themselves Scotch-Irish to divorce themselves from their unloved fellow countrymen.∗
∗ Many of these earlier immigrants were from Scottish Presbyterian families which had migrated to the North of Ireland. In America they settled chiefly in Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Georgia. Among them were Calhouns, Jacksons, Polks, Houstons, and McKinleys—families which would later make significant contributions to American life.
Editors pleaded with their readers to go to the polls and vote. They pointed out that the native American still outnumbered the Irish. The Irishman voted but the American didn’t, and here lay the trouble.
But the native American was doing handsomely in his business and had no desire to get knocked on the head in an effort to outvote the Irish. Plainly, if he were to achieve anything, he must form a counter-organization to the Irish. He must form a society or a number of societies aimed at stripping the Irish of their political power. He must, in short, find his strength in the same place as the Irish—in unity.
Unity came fast as the Irish political power grew. First there sprang up in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Boston, Buffalo, San Francisco, and other cities a number of secret societies dedicated to the emasculation of the political power of the Irish and other immierants. These societies had no real contact with each other initially, but they soon merged to form a powerful political party with the enigmatic name, Know-Nothing.
The Know-Nothing party grew with mushroom speed and almost overnight achieved astounding political success. Old-time politicians did not know what to make of it. They could only look on in amazement. By 1852 Know-Nothing candidates were getting elected to Congress by big majorities and by 1854 there were an estimated 100 congressmen and senators who were either admitted members of the party, and its official nominees, or were secret adherents of Know-Nothingism. In the same year, the Know-Nothing party elected governors, legislatures, or both, in four New England states and carried local elections in points as far apart as California and Kentucky.
And then, as quickly as it had bloomed, the Know-Nothing party withered and died.
Two factors killed it. The first was the difficulty of devising an antiforeign plank acceptable to all the different sections of the country. The second and more important factor was that the big question before the United States was not the political power of the Irish immigrant but the slavery of the American Negro. The Know-Nothing party tried to straddle the slavery question in devising a national platform and failed miserably. By 1860 the party had disintegrated.
Up to the moment that Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter, the Irish in America had been proslavery and inimical to Abraham Lincoln and the new Republican party. They formed, for President Lincoln, a most embarrassing bloc of northern voters—numerous, vocal, powerful, and aligned with the southern slavery faction. The alignment was remarkable—an alliance between the propertyless Irishmen, in their congested city slums, and the propertied southern planters, with their mansions and their vast estates.
But it was not love of the southern planter but fear of the southern Negro that decided the Irishman in his stand supporting slaverv and opposing Lincoln. Although by this time many of the earlier Irish immigrants had managed to raise themselves in the economic strata, the vast bulk of them were still day laborers, using the pick and the shovel and the maul, their wages constantly depressed by the influx of more of their countrymen. They were afraid that the Negro slaves, released in time from bondage, would come north, undercut their wages, and even take away from them the fifteen hours’ hard work a day they depended on for their living.
On the continued bondage of the Negro depended the salvation of the Irish. That was the laborer’s view. Anyone who wished to liberate the slaves was no friend of the Irish.
This being their attitude, it was expected that the Irish immigrants would not fight for the North when hostilities started. But hardly had the war broken out before the Irishman began to enlist.
The reason was the objective of the war as announced by President Lincoln in his first call for volunteers. The war was being fought to “save the Union,” Lincoln said—that is, to save the United States of America from dissolution. The Irish in the northern states were certainly in favor of that.
Added to this deep motivation were several others. There was the Irishman’s love of fighting. There was the Irishman’s sense of outrage that the South was apparently going to try to enforce its will upon the North by war. There was the growing suspicion (as the war continued) that England would come in to side with the South. Fighting for the Union, then, offered a prospect of striking, indirectly, a blow for Ireland. There were the excellent bounties offered to men who would enlist—amounting to well over a year’s pay for most Irishmen. And there was the belief, encouraged in both the Union and Confederate armies, that the War Between the States would provide the finest military experience for Irish soldiers, who could then invade and free their own country.
The arguments that stimulated the Irishman to join the Union Army applied in many instances to Irishmen in the southern states, providing reasons for joining the Confederate Army. The Irish flocked in great numbers to both sides. In the South the Irish conceived that the new Confederate States of America, exercising their perfect right to secede from the Union, were being prevented from doing so by force of arms. This was just like what took place in the old country, where, by force of arms, Ireland was being kept within the United Kingdom of Great Britain, against the will of the Irish. Bounties offered in the South represented much more than any man could hope to earn in a year, as they did in the North. And the southern Irishman had no more wish to see the slaves freed than his northern fellow.
On both sides, the Irish often fought, as did their fellow Americans, with sword-bright courage. They emerged from the Civil War with a reputation for being extremely hard to discipline, but also with a reputation for fighting fiercely when the need arose, regardless of the odds against them. Around their camps they were not the best of soldiers. They did, perhaps, more drinking and more roistering than their by no means completely disciplined non-Irish comrades. But told to storm a position or hold a line, they did so with a careless, laughing courage that brought words of praise even from the war correspondents of English newspapers.
Some 400,000 foreign-born—the equivalent of forty divisions—helped to save the Union, and according to a Sanitary Commission report issued in 1869, of these, 144,221 were natives of Ireland. These figures, of course, do not include first- and second-generation Irishmen or others in the Union Army of Irish descent; so the Irish contribution was plainly a mighty one. The Sanitary Commission report divides the statistics of Irish soldiers into the states where they enlisted. New York enrolled 51,206; Pennsylvania, 17,418; Illinois, 12,041; Massachusetts, 10,007 (the equivalent of a modern division); Ohio, 8,129; Wisconsin, 3,621; and Missouri, 4,362.
There was heavy recruiting by both sides in Ireland as the war wore on, and immigrants right off the ship were quickly cajoled to take up a musket and fight for a country of which they knew little or nothing. They were remarkably willing to do so, as the statistics show, and a big inducement, apart from the bounty money, was the promise that there would be an Irish priest as chaplain for every regiment.
Since the Irish units on either side never fought as a division, but only as regiments making up a brigade, and the brigade forming part of a corps, it is impossible to point to any particular field won by the Irish—or lost by them, for that matter. Yet they played a critical part in critical battles and frequently supplied the punch and spirit needed to save a wavering line.
Toward the end of the war an Irish color-bearer, Mike Scannel of the 19th Massachusetts (not an Irish regiment), got ahead of his line and was captured on the Jerusalem Plank Road before Petersburg.
“Hand over those colors, Yankee,” a Confederate ordered, pointing a pistol at Mike and reaching for the flag.
“Yankee is it, now,” said Mike in slow wonder. “Faith I’ve been twenty years in this country and nobody ever paid me the compliment before.” And he handed over the flag.
That was it. The Irish had gone into the Civil War the helots of the nation—alien, Catholic, clannish, unlettered, and poor. And now they were Americans: Yankees. A hundred and forty thousand of them had picked up arms and fought for their new country and their country had now adopted them. They had fought to preserve the Union and they now had become part of that Union.
The “Coming of the Green” is over now. The Irish immigrant hordes no longer arrive in Boston and New York with a handful of earth wrapped in a cloth and nothing but hope to sustain them. The old ordeal is finished, and for Irish-Americans of this generation the long lonely road from the sod house to the sea is only a legend remembered from the tales of the old.
When the immigrant Irish swarmed in their hundreds of thousands into the slums and jungles of the coastal cities of America, utterly despised by immigrants of an older day, a writer in the Boston Pilot said, “Out of these narrow lanes, blind courts, dirty streets, damp cellars, and suffocating garrets, will come forth some of the noblest sons of our country, whom she will delight to own and honor.”
That prophecy has proven true. Few immigrant groups have left the mark upon America that the Irish made, and it is a mark in which Americans today take pride.
The great migration is over now, and the Irish-Americans are no longer a distinct class in the American population. They have become completely American and, with the freedom of Ireland finally achieved, the strong links that bound them to the mother country no longer exist. What remains are links of sentiment and nostalgia that bring about the great gatherings of the Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day.
But the significance of the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations lies in the fact that the Wearing of the Green on the feast day of Ireland’s saint is no longer restricted to the Irish. Americans of every racial background will buy a bit of green ribbon, or a harp, or a shamrock in honor of Ireland’s great day. There is something profoundly touching in this. The big parade in New York with the traffic lines painted green for several miles on Fifth Avenue, the police wearing their green emblems, and the dignitaries of city, state, and nation reviewing the parade from the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral are in no small sense an acknowledgment of the gallant struggles of the Irish people for recognition and acceptance in America.
It was a grand battle indeed—the “Coming of the Green.”