Read CHAPTER V - THE IRISH INVASION of Our Foreigners, free online book, by Samuel P. Orth, on

After the Revolution, immigrants began to filter into America from Great Britain and continental Europe. No record was kept of their arrival, and their numbers have been estimated at from 4000 to 10,000 a year, on the average. These people came nearly all from Great Britain and were driven to migrate by financial and political conditions.

In 1819 Congress passed a law requiring Collectors of Customs to keep a record of passengers arriving in their districts, together with their age, sex, occupation, and the country whence they came, and to report this information to the Secretary of State. This was the Federal Government’s first effort to collect facts concerning immigration. The law was defective, yet it might have yielded valuable results had it been intelligently enforced.

From all available collateral sources it appears that the official figures greatly understated the actual number of arrivals. Great Britain kept an official record of those who emigrated from her ports to the United States and the numbers so listed are nearly as large as the total immigration from all sources reported by the United States officials during a time when a heavy influx is known to have been coming from Germany and Switzerland.

Inaccurate as these figures are, they nevertheless are a barometer indicating the rising pressure of immigration. The first official figures show that in 1820 there arrived 8385 aliens of whom 7691 were Europeans. Of these 3614, or nearly one-half, came from Ireland. Until 1850 this proportion was maintained. Here was evidence of the first ground swell of immigration to the United States whose subsequent waves in sixty years swept to America one-half of the entire population of the Little Green Isle. Since 1820 over four and a quarter million Irish immigrants have found their way hither. In 1900 there were nearly five million persons in the United States descended from Irish parentage. They comprise today ten per cent of our foreign born population.

The discontent and grievances of the Irish had a vivid historical background in their own country. There were four principal causes which induced the transplanting of the race: rebellion, famine, restrictive legislation, and absentee landlordism. Every uprising of this bellicose people from the time of Cromwell onward had been followed by voluntary and involuntary exile. It is said that Cromwell’s Government transported many thousand Irish to the West Indies. Many of these exiles subsequently found their way to the Carolinas, Virginia, and other colonies. After the great Irish rebellion of 1798 and again after Robert Emmet’s melancholy failure in the rising of 1803 many fled across the sea. The Act of Union in 1801 brought “no submissive love for England,” and constant political agitations for which the Celtic Irish need but little stimulus have kept the pathway to America populous.

The harsh penal laws of two centuries ago prescribing transportation and long terms of penal servitude were a compelling agency in driving the Irish to America. Illiberal laws against religious nonconformists, especially against the Catholics, closed the doors of political advancement in their faces, submitted them to humiliating discriminations, and drove many from the island. Finally, the selfish Navigation Laws forbade both exportation of cattle to England and the sending of foodstuffs to the colonies, dealing thereby a heavy blow to Irish agriculture. These restrictions were followed by other inhibitions until almost every industry or business in which the Irish engaged was unduly limited and controlled. It should, however, not be forgotten that these restrictions bore with equal weight upon the Ulster settlers from Scotland and England, who managed somehow to endure them successfully.

Absentee landlordism was oppressive both to the cotter’s body and to his soul, for it not only bound him to perpetual poverty but kindled within him a deep sense of injustice. The historian, Justin McCarthy, says that the Irishman “regarded the right to have a bit of land, his share, exactly as other people regard the right to live.” So political and economic conditions combined to feed the discontent of a people peculiarly sensitive to wrongs and swift in their resentments.

But the most potent cause of the great Irish influx into America was famine in Ireland. The economist may well ascribe Irish failure to the potato. Here was a crop so easy of culture and of such nourishing qualities that it led to overpopulation and all its attendant ills. The failure of this crop was indeed an “overwhelming disaster,” for, according to Justin McCarthy, the Irish peasant with his wife and his family lived on the potato, and whole generations grew up, lived, married, and passed away without ever having tasted meat. When the cold and damp summer of 1845 brought the potato rot, the little, overpopulated island was facing dire want. But when the next two years brought a plant disease that destroyed the entire crop, then famine and fever claimed one quarter of the eight million inhabitants. The pitiful details of this national disaster touched American hearts. Fleets of relief ships were sent across from America, and many a shipload of Irish peasants was brought back. In 1845 over 44,821 came; 1847 saw this number rise to 105,536 and in the next year to 112,934. Rebellion following the famine swelled the number of immigrants until Ireland was left a land of old people with a fast shrinking population.

There is a prevailing notion that this influx after the great famine was the commencement of Irish migration. In reality it was only the climax. Long before this, Irishmen were found in the colonies, chiefly as indentured servants; they were in the Continental Army as valiant soldiers; they were in the western flux that filled the Mississippi Valley as useful pioneers. How many there were we do not know. As early as 1737, however, there were enough in Boston to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and in 1762 they poured libations to their favorite saint in New York City, for the Mercury in announcing the meeting said, “Gentlemen that please to attend will meet with the best Usage.” On March 17, 1776, the English troops evacuated Boston and General Washington issued the following order on that date:

Parole Boston

Countersign St. Patrick

The regiments under marching orders to march tomorrow
morning. By His Excellency’s command.

Brigadier of the Day


Thus did the Patriot Army gracefully acknowledge the day and the people.

In 1784, on the first St. Patrick’s Day after the evacuation of New York City by the British, there was a glorious celebration “spent in festivity and mirth.” As the newspaper reporter put it, “the greatest unanimity and conviviality pervaded” a “numerous and jovial company.”

Branches of the Society of United Irishmen were formed in American cities soon after the founding of the order in Ireland. Many veterans of ’98 found their way to America, and between 1800 and 1820 many thousand followed the course of the setting sun. Their number cannot be ascertained; but there were not a few. In 1818 Irish immigrant associations were organized by the Irish in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore to aid the newcomers in finding work. Many filtered into the United States from Canada, Newfoundland, and the West Indies. These earlier arrivals were not composed of the abjectly poor who comprised the majority of the great exodus, and especially among the political exiles there were to be found men of some means and education.

America became extremely popular in Ireland after the Revolution of 1776, partly because the English were defeated, partly because of Irish democratic aspirations, but particularly because it was a land of generous economic and political possibilities. The Irish at once claimed a kinship with the new republic, and the ocean became less of a barrier than St. George’s Channel.

“The States,” as they were called, became a synonym of abundance. The most lavish reports of plenty were sent back by the newcomers of meat daily, of white bread, of comfortable clothing. “There is a great many ill conveniences here,” writes one, “but no empty bellies.” In England and Ireland and Scotland the number of poor who longed for this abundance exceeded the capacity of the boats. Many who would have willingly gone to America lacked the passage money. The Irish peasant, born and reared in extreme poverty, was peculiarly unable to scrape together enough to pay his way. The assistance which he needed, however, was forthcoming from various sources. Friends and relatives in America sent him money; in later years this practice was very common. Societies were organized to help those who could not help themselves. Railroad and canal companies, in great need of labor, imported workmen by the thousands and advanced their passage money. And finally, the local authorities found shipping their paupers to another country a convenient way of getting rid of them. England early resorted to the same method. In 1849 the Irish poor law guardians were given authority to borrow money for such “assistance,” as it was called. In 1881 the Land Commission and in 1882 the Commissioner of Public Works were authorized to advance money for this purpose. In 1884 and 1885 over sixteen thousand persons were thus assisted from Galway and Mayo counties.

Long before the great Irish famine of 1846-47 America appeared like a mirage, and wondering peasants in their dire distress exaggerated its opulence and opportunities. They braved the perils of the sea and trusted to luck in the great new world. The journey in itself was no small adventure. There were some sailings directly from Ireland; but most of the Irish immigrants were collected at Liverpool by agents not always scrupulous in their dealings. A hurried inspection at Liverpool gained them the required medical certificates, and they were packed into the ships. Of the voyage one passenger who made the journey from Belfast in 1795 said: “The slaves who are carried from the coast of Africa have much more room allowed them than the immigrants who pass from Ireland to America, for the avarice of captains in that trade is such that they think they can never load their vessels sufficiently, and they trouble their heads in general no more about the accommodation and storage of their passengers than of any other lumber aboard.” When the great immigrant invasion of America began, there were not half enough ships for the passengers, all were cruelly overcrowded, and many were so filthy that even American port officials refused a landing before cleansing. Under such conditions sickness was a matter of course, and of the hordes who started for the promised land thousands perished on the way.

Hope sustained the voyagers. But what must have been the disappointment of thousands when they landed! No ardent welcome awaited them, nor even jobs for the majority. Alas for the rosy dreams of opulence! Here was a prosaic place where toil and sweat were the condition of mere existence. As the poor creatures had no means of moving on, they huddled in the ports of arrival. Almshouses were filled, beggars wandered in every street, and these peasants accustomed to the soil and the open country were congested in the cities, unhappy misfits in an entirely new economic environment. Unskilled in the handicrafts, they were forced to accept the lot of the common laborer. Fortunately, the great influx came at the time of rapid turnpike, canal, and railroad expansion. Thousands found their way westward with contractors’ gangs. The free lands, however, did not lure them. They preferred to remain in the cities. New York in 1850 sheltered 133,000 Irish. Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Albany, Baltimore, and St. Louis, followed, in the order given, as favorite lodging places, and there was not one rapidly growing western city, such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago, that did not have its “Irish town” or “Shanty town” where the immigrants clung together.

Their brogue and dress provoked ridicule; their poverty often threw them upon the community; the large percentage of illiteracy among them evoked little sympathy; their inclinations towards intemperance and improvidence were not neutralized by their great good nature and open-handedness; their religion reawoke historical bitterness; their genius for politics aroused jealousy; their proclivity to unite in clubs, associations, and semi-military companies made them the objects of official suspicion; and above all, their willingness to assume the offensive, to resent instantly insult or intimidation, brought them into frequent and violent contact with their new neighbors. “America for Americans” became the battle cry of reactionaries, who organized the American or “Know-Nothing” party and sought safety at the polls. While all foreign elements were grouped together, indiscriminately, in the mind of the nativist, the Irishman unfortunately was the special object of his spleen, because he was concentrated in the cities and therefore offered a visual and concrete example of the danger of foreign mass movements, because he was a Roman Catholic and thus awakened ancient religious prejudices that had long been slumbering, and because he fought back instantly, valiantly, and vehemently.

Popular suspicion against the foreigner in America began almost as soon as immigration assumed large proportions. In 1816 conservative newspapers called attention to the new problems that the Old World was thrusting upon the New: the poverty of the foreigner, his low standard of living, his illiteracy and slovenliness, his ignorance of American ways and his unwillingness to submit to them, his clannishness, the danger of his organizing and capturing the political offices and ultimately the Government. In addition to the alarmist and the prejudiced, careful and thoughtful citizens were aroused to the danger. Unfortunately, however, religious antagonisms were aroused and, as is always the case, these differences awakened the profoundest prejudices and passions of the human heart. There were many towns in New England and in the West where Roman Catholicism was unknown except as a traditional enemy of free institutions. It is difficult to realize in these days of tolerance the feelings aroused in such communities when Catholic churches, parochial schools, and convents began to appear among them; and when the devotees of this faith displayed a genius for practical politics, instinctive distrust developed into lively suspicion.

The specter of ecclesiastical authority reared itself, and the question of sharing public school moneys with parochial schools and of reading the Bible in the public schools became a burning issue. Here and there occurred clashes that were more than barroom brawls. Organized gangs infested the cities. Both sides were sustained and encouraged by partisan papers, and on several occasions the antagonism spent themselves in riots and destruction. In 1834 the Ursuline convent at Charlestown, near Boston, was sacked and burned. Ten years later occurred the great anti-Irish riots in Philadelphia, in which two Catholic churches and a schoolhouse were burned by a mob inflamed to hysteria by one of the leaders who held up a torn American flag and shouted, “This is the flag that was trampled on by Irish papists.” Prejudice accompanied fear into every city and “patented citizens” were often subject to abuse and even persecution. Tammany Hall in New York City became the political fortress of the Irish. Election riots of the first magnitude were part of the routine of elections, and the “Bloody Sixth Ward Boys” were notorious for their hooliganism on election day.

The suggestions of the nativists that paupers and criminals be excluded from immigration were not embodied into law. The movement soon was lost in the greater questions which slavery was thrusting into the foreground. When the fight with nativism was over, the Irish were in possession of the cities. They displayed an amazing aptitude for political plotting and organization and for that prime essential to political success popularly known as “mixing.” Policemen and aldermen, ward heelers, bosses, and mayors, were known by their brogue. The Irish demonstrated their loyalty to the Union in the Civil War and merged readily into American life after the lurid prejudices against them faded.

Unfortunately, a great deal of this prejudice was revived when the secret workings of an Irish organization in Pennsylvania were unearthed. Among the anthracite coal miners a society was formed, probably about 1854, called the Molly Maguires, a name long known in Ireland. The members were all Irish, professed the Roman Catholic faith, and were active in the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The Church, the better class of Irishmen, and the Hibernians, however, were shocked by the doings of the Molly Maguires and utterly disowned them. They began their career of blackmail and bullying by sending threats and death notices embellished with crude drawings of coffins and pistols to those against whom they fancied they had a grievance, usually the mine boss or an unpopular foreman. If the recipient did not heed the threat, he was waylaid and beaten and his family was abused. By the time of the Civil War these bullies had terrorized the entire anthracite region. Through their political influence they elected sheriffs and constables, chiefs of police and county commissioners. As they became bolder, they substituted arson and murder for threats and bullying, and they made life intolerable by their reckless brutality. It was impossible to convict them, for the hatred against an informer, inbred in every Irishman through generations of experience in Ireland, united with fear in keeping competent witnesses from the courts. Finally the president of one of the large coal companies employed James McParlan, a remarkably clever Irish detective. He joined the Mollies, somehow eluded their suspicions, and slowly worked his way into their confidence. An unusually brutal and cowardly murder in 1875 proved his opportunity. When the courts finished with the Mollies, nineteen of their members had been hanged, a large number imprisoned, and the organization was completely wiped out.

Meantime the Fenian movement served to keep the Irish in the public eye. This was no less than an attempt to free Ireland and disrupt the British Empire, using the United States as a fulcrum, the Irish in America as the power, and Canada as the lever. James Stephens, who organized the Irish Republican Brotherhood, came to America in 1858 to start a similar movement. After the Civil War, which supplied a training school for whole regiments of Irish soldiers, a convention of Fenians was held at Philadelphia in 1865 at which an “Irish Republic” was organized, with a full complement of officers, a Congress, a President, a Secretary of the Treasury, a Secretary of War, in fact, a replica of the American Federal Government. It assumed the highly absurd and dangerous position that it actually possessed sovereignty. The luxurious mansion of a pill manufacturer in Union Square, New York, was transformed into its government house, and bonds, embellished with shamrocks and harps and a fine portrait of Wolfe Tone, were issued, payable “ninety days after the establishment of the Irish Republic.” Differences soon arose, and Stephens, who had made his escape from Richmond, near Dublin, where he had been in prison, hastened to America to compose the quarrel which had now assumed true Hibernian proportions. An attempt to land an armed gang on the Island of Campo Bello on the coast of New Brunswick was frustrated; invaders from Vermont spent a night over the Canadian border before they were driven back; and for several days Fort Erie on Niagara River was held by about 1500 Fenians. General Meade was thereupon sent by the Federal authorities to put an end to these ridiculous breaches of neutrality.

Neither Meade nor any other authority, however, could stop the flow of Fenian adjectives that now issued from a hundred indignation meetings all over the land when Canada, after due trial, proceeded to sentence the guilty culprits captured in the “Battle of Limestone Ridge,” as the tussle with Canadian regulars near Fort Erie was called. Newspapers abounded with tales of the most startling designs upon Canada and Britain. There then occurred a strong reaction to the Fenian movement, and the American people were led to wonder how much of truth there was in a statement made by Thomas D’Arcy McGee. “This very Fenian organization in the United States,” he said, “what does it really prove but that the Irish are still an alien population, camped but not settled in America, with foreign hopes and aspirations, unshared by the people among whom they live?”

The Irishman today is an integral part of every large American community. Although the restrictive legislation of two centuries ago has long been repealed and a new land system has brought great prosperity to his island home, the Irishman has not abated one whit in his temperamental attitude towards England and as a consequence some 40,000 or 50,000 of his fellow countrymen come to the United States every year. Here he has been dispossessed of his monopoly of shovel and pick by the French Canadian in New England and by the Italian, Syrian, and Armenian in other parts of the country. He finds work in factories, for he still shuns the soil, much as he professes to love the “old sod.” A great change has come over the economic condition of the second and third generation of Irish immigrants. Their remarkable buoyancy of temperament is everywhere displayed. Bridget’s daughter has left the kitchen and is a school teacher, a stenographer, a saleswoman, a milliner, or a dressmaker; her son is a clerk, a bookkeeper, a traveling salesman, or a foreman. Wherever the human touch is the essential of success, there you find the Irish. That is why in some cities one-half the teachers are Irish; why salesmanship lures them; why they are the most successful walking delegates, solicitors, agents, foremen, and contractors. In the higher walks of life you find them where dash, brilliance, cleverness, and emotion are demanded. The law and the priesthood utilize their eloquence, journalism their keen insight into the human side of news, and literature their imagination and humor. They possess a positive genius for organization and management. The labor unions are led by them; and what would municipal politics be without them? The list of eminent names which they have contributed to these callings will increase as their generations multiply in the favorable American environment. But remote indeed is the day and complex must be the experience that will erase the memory of the ancient Erse proverb, which their racial temperament evoked: “Contention is better than loneliness.”