The Discrimination Faced By 19th Century Irish Immigrants

Yesterday the country celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a day to celebrate the many contributions that Irish Americans have given to our great country. In this time when Muslim Americans, Hispanics and immigrants are facing much prejudice and discrimination, it is important to remember that the early Irish immigrants of the 19th century faced many of the same problems. Many native born Protestant Americans thought Irish were criminals, were racially inferior, and thought the Roman Catholic faith was incompatible with American democratic values.

Christopher Klein for The History Channel wrote an article about the discrimination faced by Irish immigrants in 19th century America titled When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century’s Refugee Crisis. Klein wrote:

There was a time, however, when the thought of Americans honoring all things Irish was unimaginable. This is the story of the prejudice encountered by refugees from Ireland’s Great Hunger and how those Irish exiles persevered to become part of the American mainstream.

The refugees seeking haven in America were poor and disease-ridden. They threatened to take jobs away from Americans and strain welfare budgets. They practiced an alien religion and pledged allegiance to a foreign leader. They were bringing with them crime. They were accused of being rapists. And, worst of all, these undesirables were Irish…

…The Irish filled the most menial and dangerous jobs, often at low pay. They cut canals. They dug trenches for water and sewer pipes. They laid rail lines. They cleaned houses. They slaved in textile mills. They worked as stevedores, stable workers and blacksmiths. Not only did working-class Americans see the cheaper laborers taking their jobs, some of the Irish refugees even took up arms against their new homeland during the Mexican-American War. Drawn in part by higher wages and a common faith with the Mexicans, some members of the St. Patrick’s Battalion had deserted the U.S. Army after encountering ill-treatment by their bigoted commanders and fought with the enemy. After their capture, 50 members of the “San Patricios” were executed by the U.S. Army for their treasonous decisions…

…In 1849, a clandestine fraternal society of native-born Protestant men called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner formed in New York. Bound by sacred oaths and secret passwords, its members wanted a return to the America they once knew, a land of “Temperance, Liberty and Protestantism.” Similar secret societies with menacing names like the Black Snakes and Rough and Readies sprouted across the country.

Within a few years, these societies coalesced around the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant American Party, whose members were called the “Know-Nothings” because they claimed to “know nothing” when questioned about their politics. Party members vowed to elect only native-born citizens—but only if they weren’t Roman Catholic. “Know-Nothings believed that Protestantism defined American society. From this flowed their fundamental belief that Catholicism was incompatible with basic American values,” writes Jay P. Dolan in “The Irish Americans: A History.”

The Library of Congress has an article describing the political opposition to Irish immigrants:

Ill will toward Irish immigrants because of their poor living conditions, and their willingness to work for low wages was often exacerbated by religious conflict. Centuries of tension between Protestants and Catholics found their way into United States cities and verbal attacks often led to mob violence. For example, Protestants burned down St. Mary’s Catholic Church in New York City in 1831, while in 1844, riots in Philadelphia left thirteen dead.

Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments in the 1840s produced groups such as the nativist American Party, which fought foreign influences and promoted “traditional American ideals.” American Party members earned the nickname, “Know-Nothings,” because their standard reply to questions about their procedures and activities was, “I know nothing about it.”

In the Questions for Admittance to the American Party (1854), inductees committed to “…elect to all offices of Honor, Profit, or Trust, no one but native born citizens of America, of this Country to the exclusion of all Foreigners, and to all Roman Catholics, whether they be of native or Foreign Birth, regardless of all party predilections whatever.” This commitment helped elect American Party governors in Massachusetts and Delaware and placed Millard Fillmore on a presidential ticket in 1856.

Jason Muturi wrote an article for XPat Nation titled 9 Signs of Discrimination Irish Americans Had To Put Up With. If you look at the prejudices that these Irish Americans had to face in the 19th century, these are the same prejudices that Muslim American, Mexican and other immigrants are facing today. Here is an excerpt of Muturi’s article about the “No Irish Need Apply” signs:

The Irish American people faced much prejudice, racism and discrimination after their immigration to the United States because they were poor, uneducated, less skilled, considered disruptive and were Catholics in a land of Protestant dominance.

At the hands of the citizens, the Irish-Americans faced stereotypes that associated men with drunkenness and laziness, and their women depicted as primitive…

…Irish-Americans faced a humiliating job discrimination journey, owing to their quick domination of the labor market. For this reason, they had to put up with placards that contained discriminatory quits such as ‘’Help wanted but No Irish need Apply’’. Some of these slogans were published in local diaries with images of Irish women searching for domestic jobs. Also, a ’No Irish Need Apply’’ song was written to exact further humiliation to the new immigrants.

On St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny made a short speech celebrating immigration in the East Wing of the White House. Here is an excerpt of his speech:

It’s fitting that we gather here each year to celebrate St Patrick and his legacy.

He too, of course, was an immigrant – and though he is of course the patron saint of Ireland, for many people around the globe he’s also a symbol of, indeed the patron of, immigrants.

Here in America, in your great country, 35million people claim Irish heritage, and the Irish have contributed to the economic, social, political, and cultural life of this great country over the last 200 years.

Ireland came to America because, deprived of liberty, deprived of opportunity, of safety, of even food itself, the Irish believed – and four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp – we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore.

We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America.

We came, and we became Americans. We lived the words of John F. Kennedy long before he uttered them. We asked not what America could do for us, but what we could do for America – and we still do.

Here is a youtube video of the PBS series The Irish in America: Long Journey Home: All Across America. The Irish immigrants of the 19th century faced many of the same prejudice and discrimination that today’s Muslim Americans, Hispanics and immigrants face.

A video of Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny at the White House for St. Patrick’s Day: “It’s fitting that we gather here each year to celebrate St. Patrick and his legacy. He too, of course, was an immigrant.” He also says, “The Irish believed, four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp, we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America. In the compassion of America. In the opportunity of America. We came and we became Americans.”

In 1963 President John F. Kennedy visited Ireland. In this video The Lord Mayor of Wexford Thomas Byrne introduceed President Kennedy, who asked how many Kennedys there are in the crowd. The President talked of the importance of freedom for all nations and the mutual respect between the two nations of Ireland and the United States of America.

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About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Since my time in college, my goal has been to be a successful children’s book illustrator. I’ve illustrated 3 books: Two Moms the Zark and Me by Johnny Valentine in 1993; Night Travelers by Sue Hill in 1994; and Cherubic Children’s New Classic Story Book Volume 2 for Cherubic Press in 1998. I’ve painted murals for Lester Shields Elementary School in San Jose, the Berryessa branch of the San Jose Public Library, and Grace Community Church in Los Altos. I’ve had a few illustrations published in South Bay Accent Magazine and I will have an illustration published in the January/February issue of Tikkun magazine.
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