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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Irish-Americans: More Than A Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, Part II

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This is part two of a two-part series examining the history of the Irish society as we approach Saint Patrick’s Day. In part one, we examined the plight of the Irish in their home land as their farms were taken, as famine set in and as conditions in Ireland deteriorated, causing millions of Irish to immigrate to America, where they also faced difficult living conditions. In part two, we will examine the history of the Irish-American as they carved out their own place in American society.

Numerous Irish refugees came to the United States as indentured servants. Once in the United States, they had to look for work, leading them to endure hard physical labor for several years to pay off the debt to their lender (the loan shark) before they could be free of this obligation.

Following the War Between the States, there was a period in the United States known as “The Gilded Age”, where substantial advancements in technology contributed to the rapid industrialization of America. As more and more cities and towns were established, the need for more laborers grew. Irish immigrants filled out the workforce for most of the backbreaking jobs.

Since the stagecoach was becoming obsolete, there was a greater need for faster and more comfortable transportation. The railway was critical to the growth of America, solving transportation problems for the people of the far west. Federal subsidies were generously granted to the builders, which helped bring this mammoth project to fruition. Contractors put out the word that they needed hired help at the promised fee of a $2.50 daily wage. This was even a better offer for the Irish immigrants, who were making only.50 cents a day working on the East Coast’s Erie Canal. There was no job too hard for an Irishman to tackle. Strong, strapping Irish men responded to the call, working fast and furious, side by side with other ethnic groups. The Irish immigrants endured horrendous physical labors and living conditions in order to survive and be able to send money back home to their families.

During the years of 1850-1890, the American railway system expanded prodigiously. As a result of the 200,000 miles of railroad track that was laid down by 1890, industries were able to ship their goods to far away public markets at a faster pace, thus encouraging economic growth.

In 1854, there was a riot in New York City which resulted from a fight between the “Know-Nothings” and the Irish, during which some forty or fifty persons were wounded, some fatally. The few policemen who were on hand did their best to quell the violence but couldn’t. The crowds, wild with excitement and out of control, ganged up on the policemen, beating them with clubs and stones. Shot after shot was fired into the air, even into the populace, this eventually brought the riot to an end.

Who were these “Know-Nothings”? They were native-born Americans who resented all immigrants and various ethnicities, especially the Irish who arrived in vast numbers during the 40’s and 50’s. This political party called the “Know-Nothings” was officially known as “The American Party”. The party materialized from secret societies that were against immigrants coming to America, doing whatever they could do to get rid of them. This resulted in strong altercations between both groups throughout all the principal cities. When asked about the organization or who the leaders of this alleged political party were, they were instructed to say “I know nothing.”

Unfortunately, most avenues for economic improvement were closed to these new Americans due to their lack of skills and knowledge. The prejudices that Protestant America formed towards the Catholic Irish only made matters worse. Everywhere the Irish went in response to the want ads anti-Irish sentiment loomed. Employers posted signs, “No Irish Need Apply”. These signs eventually disappeared over the years as new ethnic groups immigrated to America and were targeted by this anti-immigrant sentiment. New prejudice substituted for the old prejudices. Nonetheless, through their persistence, the Irish refugees would find employment in the mills and factories that thrived along the waterways. “The 363 mile long Erie Canal was built from 1817 to 1825 at a cost of $7 million. The digging was largely done by Irish immigrants, attracted to the backbreaking labor by wages of $8 to $12 a month or.50 cents a day.” The Irish immigrants who worked on the canal would normally stay, establishing their presence in that area.

Thousands of unqualified Irish immigrants and unlettered laborers settled in New York City, taking whatever job they could get. They worked as teamsters, day laborers, streetcar conductors, and shipyard mechanics. Others worked as dock-workers, iron-workers, factory-hands, and street cleaners. The women would seek employment in a domestic position as a housekeeper or cook.

As a result of the Irish immigration, which began during the thirties until after the Civil War, the Catholic Church grew rapidly. Although Irish Catholics did exist during the Colonial period, it wasn’t until the 19th century that accomplishments by the Catholic Church became more pronounced. St. Joseph’s Seminary, a Catholic institution, was established in Troy in 1864, the diocese of Rochester was organized in 1866, the diocese of Ogdensburg in 1872, and the diocese of Syracuse in 1886. The first bishop of the Albany diocese also became the first American cardinal in 1875. St. Bernard’s Seminary was established in Rochester and St. Joseph’s was established in Yonkers in 1896.

Irish-American men were highly commended for their outstanding unflinching courage in all of America’s Wars. They were brave warriors during the Revolutionary War and the American Civil War, even in the Vietnam War. During the Civil War, the Irish Brigade comprised of four regiments, New York’s 63rd, 69th and 88th and the 29th Regiment of Massachusetts, became one of the most famous fighting units in the Union Army. Many of these gallant soldiers were Irish immigrants from New York. Their participation in all of America’s military conflicts has helped the Irish-American men gain the respect and admiration of the American people.

In their determination to excel, Irish-Americans no longer wishing to stay at the bottom of America’s economic ladder as unskilled laborers strived toward self-improvement. This strength in character and the pursuit of a higher education has given place to a new role as leading and productive citizens, successful business people, political figures, doctors, nurses, actors and actresses, writers, historians, inventors, defenders of women’s rights, musicians, opera singers, composers, teachers and much, much more. One of the most gratifying moments for the Irish-American community was to witness John Fitzgerald Kennedy as he became America’s first Irish-Catholic president.

Well, my dear readers, I guess we’ve reached the end of this extraordinary history, wherein I have briefly summarized the plight of “Irish Americans: More Than A Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.” I hope it will prove grist for the mill of your inquisitive mind.

Oh, and Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, celebrate the proud Irish-American culture and have a green beer on me!

 

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