“I am not a Know-Nothing – that is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
~Abraham Lincoln, in a private letter to Joshua Speed, written August 24, 1855. (Lincoln never publicly denounced the Know Nothings, since he needed their votes.)
Discriminated against in jobs and housing, attacked and murdered in the streets by fearful, hate-mongering nativists, the Irish immigrants of the mid-19th Century had a tough time of it. But, as Lincoln’s thoughts demonstrate, not everyone born in America hated the Irish Catholics. Although they started at the bottom of the social and economic ladder, time and events provided them opportunities to climb.
Even though letters home more often spoke of “tyrannical bosses” than “golden opportunities” those Irish with the means kept arriving by the boatload. A $1 a day daily wage in the States still beat the average wages and “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination in England. Many were eager to escape the continued British oppression along with memories of the potato blight and ensuing famine that left millions starving in the streets. In all, two million Irish left their homeland and settled in North America.
The Irish arrived at a time of need for America. The country was booming, and needed laborers to do the backbreaking work of creating infrastructure in the cities and through the westward expansion. “Under each railroad tie lay a dead Irishman,” became a common saying amongst the railroad workers.” Growing in numbers, the Irish began to push back. The Molly Maguires were a secret sect in Liverpool, and become a vengeful force in the States, especially in Pennsylvania coal country where Irish (after replacing higher-paid native white miners) were exploited by their wealthy bosses. The Molly’s brutal, murderous retribution definitely helped to level a crooked and lawless playing field.
This sense of loyalty to kin and ability to discretely organize which was honed in Ireland, also bore fruit in their new home. They built political machines which, although corrupt, provided services and elevated the Irish through every level of society.They also played a role in organizing some of the first unions, which would change the face of labor relations, and further launch them into politics.
The outbreak of the Civil War may have been the tipping point the Irish acceptance into American fabric. They both enlisted, and were drafted, in overwhelming numbers on both side of the conflict. Seven Union generals were Irish born, and there were enough Irish soldiers to form their own Brigade.
Likewise, Catholic nuns (mostly Irish) provided nursing care for the military and their families. After proving themselves on the battlefield, this shared experience carried over into the post-war years as the nation rebuild. The post-war years also saw the social fabric of the country change, as the black slaves were now freed and competed for low paying jobs, and a new influx of immigrants from Italy, Russia, and the Slavic countries arrived, providing a new scape-goat for the nation.
Fierce loyalty, hard work, ability to organize, political connections, contributions to the arts, and sheer numbers boosted the Irish climb through American society. This can be personified by the story of one family; A poor laborer named Patrick Kennedy arrived in Boston in 1848. His first son died of cholera, and two years later, after giving birth to a second son, he also succumbed. That second son, also named Patrick, grew up to eventually own a whiskey import house and three saloons, including the East Boston Maverick House. His son, Joseph, became a wealthy investor and raised children of his own. One of whom became our 35th President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone. Slainte!