Cheers to History Posts

“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.

Illustration shows Molly Maguire victim murdered by gang. Woodcut, 1877. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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.

Charge of the 69th New York Irish 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!



“The Irish Way of Doing Things” by Thomas Nast, famous civil reformer who influenced the outcome of every presidential election from 1864 to 1884.

The immigrant waves continued to crash against the American shores throughout the latter half of the 19th Century. By 1855, one third of every adult in Boston had been born in Ireland. The newly arrived Irish (Germans, and other European immigrants) settled wherever they could find work and lived amongst their own. Soon, these small ethnic pockets grew into enclaves, and the enclaves became communities. Through grit and determination, the once unskilled laborers evolved into merchants, teachers and government employees. They built Catholic churches and breweries that served both as places to gather, and places of solace. These buildings also stood like raised middle fingers to the predominately white, Protestant “nativist” population who felt overwhelmed and threatened by these “dirty, lazy, drunk and ignorant” newcomers. As the editor of the Chicago Post so eloquently stated:

“The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses…Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country.”

This nativist sentiment was especially strong in the cities, but also fanned across the country by fears of a Catholic take-over and installing a Papal State under the rule of the Vatican (This fear continued through JFKs election, 100 yrs later). The Irish were no longer just dirty brutes, but had become “enemies of Republican values, democracy, prosperity, thrift, the railroad, and schools.” Like all fear-mongering rhetoric in history, nativists exploited the core values of their audience for great political effect.

This resistance to the Irish morphed from common discrimination into the political force of the Know Nothing party. Also known as the “Native American Party” or just, “American Party” they were motivated by many issues, foremost being a sense of entitled patriotism, a need to ‘cleanse’ the country of “un-Americans” and a resentment against Catholics and immigrants whose desperation for any work drove down wages for white, working-class men. They packed local elections with their own candidates, systematically fired Irish workers from any positions of influence, and stationed thugs at polling places to beat senseless any Irish Catholics who dared to vote.

Bloody Monday Sketch from the Louisville Herald

This came to a brutal head on Bloody Monday in Louisville, Kentucky. On Election Day, August 6th, 1855 Nativist-instigated brawls broke out across the city. Organized Know Nothings targeted the social and spiritual centers of the immigrant community – including the German Armbruster’s and Green Street Breweries, and the St. Martin of Tours church. (which was spared only by the personal pleadings of the mayor himself). Quinn’s Row, a block of Irish housing structures, was not so fortunate and burned to the ground over the course of the days-long rioting. Anywhere from 20-100 immigrants were killed in all.

No one was ever convicted for the crimes.

Next Up… Kiss me, we’re all Irish.


Coffin Ship
Irish emmigrants sailing to the US during the Great Famine (aka the Irish potato Famine), 1850. Original publication – Illustrated London News – pub 6th July 1850. (Photo by Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Escaping the potato blight, the ensuing famine (An Gorta Mór) and English persecution, those Irish able to scrape together fare to the New World usually found themselves crammed into vermin and disease infested boats where they were lucky if they had enough food and clean water to survive the journey (many didn’t). When they finally pulled into port, some observers nicknamed these craft, “famine ships” or “coffin ships” because of their pitiful cargo. After a cursory stop through immigration, their sea journey ended at the docks – but the misery continued. In New York, Burly “runners” would often board the ships and physically grab the dazed travelers and drag them to run-down tenements, demanding outrageous fees for this “service.”  Broke and often alone, these strangers with their strange clothes, strange dialect and no immediate prospects, would take whatever they could find. Unscrupulous landlords would pack multiple families into old Yankee houses, with each family getting a single room to themselves, or sharing a room divided by a blanket on a string. With no sanitation, building or fire codes, it wasn’t unusual for 100 people to share a house build for a single family. They at least had a dry place to rest their heads. Others took shelter in clap board shanties constructed in gardens and alleys, or windowless basements that flooded with the tides.

Larger Multi-Family Tenement in the mid-19th Century

These conditions bred not only disease and death (3 out of 5 babies died before their sixth birthday) but also desperation, despair and resentment. The luck of the Irish (or family connections) helped some to find work: Women in domestic pursuits, and men in the unskilled, backbreaking, labour-intensive jobs of building the growing country: Digging sewers, mining, lumber-jacking, meat packing, labouring in shipyards, and laying rail road tracks. Desperate for anything, they would undercut the wages of the native workers and work for a fraction of the going rate. This was before the unions and regulations, so men worked long, brutal hours. Letters home no longer gushed about “golden opportunities” but instead of tyrannical bosses and subhuman treatment.
Violent crime sky rocketed in the cities. Without prospects or schooling, violent crime in Boston shot up 400%. Cincinnati alone saw the crime rate triple, and murders increase seven-fold between 1946 and 1953.* Gangs preyed on both the relatively wealthy natives, but also on their own poor brethren. Like today, they would protect their territories and illicit operations (gambling, prostitution, etc..) from each other and the overwhelmed police.

Bandit’s Roost in New York. It was the most dangerous spot in Manhattan. Photo by Jacob August Riis

The poverty and crime only fed the fears and prejudices of white, Protestant Americans who already looked down on these newcomers who dressed funny, practiced a different religion, and spoke an unfamiliar brogue. As more Irish flooded the cities, their shanty towns became communities. Catholic churches were raised in every city, and luck began to turn around a wee bit for the Irish, but it wouldn’t come overnight. And it wouldn’t come easy.

Next up, the No Nothings.


“Immigration numbers are FIVE times greater than just ten years ago! And these aren’t the best and brightest coming over. No, these are poor, uneducated peasants coming from sh*thole famine-ravaged nations, crowding into our large cities and driving down wages. Crime and welfare costs are SOARING folks! Believe me!”

Not an actual quote, but definitely the sentiment of many white, Protestant, native-born Americans in the mid-1800s, reacting to waves of Irish Catholics swarming across the Atlantic in search of a better life. Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish made up about 1/3 of the immigrants to the US. But between 1850-1855, immigration levels were 5x higher than they had been just a decade before. As you can imagine, a pre-Civil War U.S. was not equipped to handle this massive influx of huddled masses. There was only a threadbare safety-net of social services available, so resentment grew quickly, with a strength and voice that hadn’t been seen in America before. As we prepare for St. Paddy’s Day (#PaddyNotPatty) let’s pour ourselves a libation from the Emerald Isles and take a wee glimpse at what life was like for lads and lassies that come over, the ‘warm greeting’ they received, and why we now feel a need to be Irish for a day.