Given this century’s numerous Middle East wars and terrorist attacks, it’s not hard to fathom the intense Irish immigrant bigotry of the mid 1800’s. The great Irish Potato Famine lasted from 1845 to 1855 and brought massive numbers of starving Irish refugees to America’s eastern shores. Ireland’s strict landlords evicted poor tenant farmers who could no longer pay rent with their blighted crops. So, faced with starvation or death, hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrated across the Atlantic to the US, a nation which boasted freedom, liberty and opportunity above all else.
To say they immigrants were not welcomed by the American public of the time is a vast understatement.
Irish bigotry included many different stereotypes like the belligerent Irish drunkards, thieving criminals, dangerous drunken hooligans, certainly not to ever be trusted. Newspaper cartoons of the day depicted a prehistoric species to bolster claims the Irish were an inferior, servant race compared to white Protestant, Anglo-Saxons of English decent. The common derogatory terms tossed about loudly were ‘Micks, Paddies or Biddies,’ based on common family names. Irish Catholic culture and customs were particularly open to ridicule by the wealthy, politicians, and the press alike.
Immigrant refugees were subjected to distortions of their Catholic religion and ostracized simply because of their faith. Catholics were labeled as barbaric pagans, papists, not being ‘real Christians.’ Some Protestant ministers forbid association with the heathen Catholics. Intermarriage was strictly forbidden. Many Protestants distrusted a religion that in their eyes was highly suspicious with its rosary beads for the Virgin Mary and Latin prayers to long dead Saints. The sheer number of families coming across the Atlantic ocean caused wide spread fear and even led to attacks on Catholic churches, some being burned to the ground.
Many poor Irish came ashore with few skills besides farming, but just enough to be low paid servants or factory workers. The Industrial Revolution was still running strong in the 1800’s. The poor Irish monopolized the lowest-paying jobs, creating growing resentment as they were seen by the public as taking work away from ‘Real Americans.’ It became common practice for those with Irish names or brogues to be barred from public buildings and employment opportunities.
“NO IRISH NEED APPLY” signs were common in the windows of U.S. businesses and even newspaper advertisements for work.
It was felt in the mid 1800’s that the Irish hated America’s patriotic way of life and its ‘purer’ form of Christianity. Irish were considered illiterate, hot-tempered, tended to congregate by suspiciously themselves, and perhaps most shockingly bred like rabbits, having far more children than was common back then. The ‘pure’ or ‘real’ Americans felt that this ‘reckless, slothful, and superstitious race‘ certainly had no place in the U.S. society and should all be packed on ships and deported back to where they came!
During the Civil War, the Irish immigrants found some bit of respect of sorts as willing Yankee soldiers that could help outnumber the Southern Confederacy and win battles. Many Irish Americans fought at Gettysburg, Antietam and ??? However, after the war, that camaraderie did not change the opinion of most Americans for decades. By the 1880’s, many Irish still occupied the poorest slums of major U.S. cities like Boston, New York and Chicago.
Of course, we know today that the Irish were eventually embraced by the U.S. and in fact became a vibrant, healthy part of America’s melting pot culture. Just imagine a March without St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Irish Americans eventually became a force to be reckoned with in the police, unions and politics. President John F Kennedy was of Irish decent, as was John Wayne and Henry Ford.Just imagine the US without pizza, beer, nachos or egg rolls.
Unfortunately, the same foul treatment was true for subsequent waves of immigrants that have arrived after the Irish, whether from Eastern Europe, China, or India. Bringing strange languages, religions and customs to our shores. Each wave, like the Irish before them, faced their own decades of bigotry and racism at the hands of the established Americans, including ironically Irish Americans. That is until their descendants too were ultimately considered Americans.
And the cycle continues with our latest wave of immigrant refugees from places like Central America and the Middle East.
I leave you with this line from Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem in the Statue of Liberty:
BRING US YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR, YOUR HUDDLED MASSES YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE! THE WRETCHED REFUSE OF YOUR TEAMING SHORES. SEND THESE, THE TEMPEST-TOST TO ME.
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