In the country that was founded and built on religious tolerance, the Irish Catholics found little acceptance. Even though the Irish immigrants began to assimilate into their adopted cities, prejudice against them prevailed in every aspect of life, based on their ties to the Catholic Church. Prior to the massive Irish immigration to the United States, Americans tolerated Catholicism as a minor, insignificant sect of Christianity. The Irish who arrived en masse to the United States gave the Church its numbers and significance in American society. The Church also became the primary element which distinguished the Irish from their Anglo peers who represented most of the non-Catholic Christian sects.(18)
The massive waves of Irish immigration to the U.S. in the mid to late 1800s came at a time when the dominant Anglo-Americans held the Catholics in contempt.
Although the United States had been free of British control for nearly 80 years at the height of the immigration, the residual anti-Catholic feelings which originated in Britain remained part of the American heritage. Religion, therefore, not nationality, relegated the newest Americans to a position of inferiority. The problem did not lie in being Irish, but being Catholic.(19)
In the 1850s anti-Irish Catholic sentiment reached a height and coincided with virulent nativism, institutionalized in the Know-Nothing party, the American Protestant Society and the Republican Party. The greatest prejudice lay along the Atlantic coast in the New England states where most of the Irish had settled.(20) Even Theodore Roosevelt, when he served on the New York state Assembly, in 1882 said, “The average Catholic Irishman of the first generation, as represented in this Assembly, is a low venal, corrupt and unintelligent brute.”(21)
Economic prejudice reflected the prevalent cultural and religious prejudices against the Irish as well. When unskilled Irish searched for jobs, particularly in New York and Boston, notices such as “No Irish Need Apply” greeted them.
In one instance during the winter of 1851-52, railroad contractors in upstate New York falsely advertised liberal wages for twice the number of positions actually available on the railroad. When an excessive number of workers appeared, the company reduced the wage by half and called in the state militia to force their terms. Almost all of the workers assembled were Irish.(22)
“Home” for the Irish immigrants consisted of over-crowded basement apartments and boarding houses in “Irish districts.” In many cases, immigrants from the same areas in Ireland tended to live in discrete neighborhoods. In these neighborhoods they could perpetuate traditional social patterns from the old country, such as Irish wakes and “Paddy funerals.”(23)
They continued old Gaelic customs such as the ceili, a gathering of neighbors in one family’s house, where they would spend the night singing, dancing, storytelling and talking.(24)Although the move from rural Ireland to the industrial and commercial centers of America seemed drastic, the immigrants retained their songs, dances and soirees, and clubs from home. Through these rituals, the Irish maintained much of their culture and the districts they inhabited reflected this. Indeed, the Irish sections of New York City - Greenwich Village and Five Points - seemed just as provincial as rural Ireland.(25)
The center of existence for the Irish in these districts became the corner saloon and the political clubs, usually one and the same place, which suited the Irishman fine. Due to a lack of employment opportunities, the sons of Eire continued to suffer in their new home from excessive spare time and the lack of education to use it wisely.(26) One pastime for many of the transplanted Irish became agitation against the British. They adopted New York City as the overseas capital for the nationalist movement.
A large segment of the Irish population in New York City sympathized with the liberation movement in Ireland. Many of the sympathizers themselves had fled English tyranny and joined Irish nationalist groups in the United States which focused on the history of English misrule in Ireland.
Free speech in America meant that, unlike in Ireland, writers and publishers could express their views about British oppression in Ireland without fear of imprisonment. It also meant that the Irish across the U.S. had an outlet to express their feelings and concerns in regards to matters in the old country. The communication and interest generated by the Irish opinion groups concentrated in New York City which, with Boston, became the main destination for refugees fleeing the British authorities.(27)
In spite of the hardships endured on the journey to America and the hostility encountered once in the New World, the Irish banded together in large community and social groups and survived. They at once revived their old Celtic traditions and created a new Irish-American tradition in the large cities where they dwelled.
By 1860, over 200,000 Irish-born people lived in New York City and Brooklyn alone. A host of Irish businesses opened to serve their needs and preferences including: hotels, restaurants, dry goods stores, food stores, boot makers, tailors, book stores, importers, bars and liquor stores. Irish cultural, fraternal and nationalist groups formed in large numbers. Irish newspapers reported not only the events held by the Irish groups but also the news from “back home.”(28) The social and economic conditions in the large eastern cities created a need for such social groups and newspapers.
The Irish cultural groups did not take root in the undeveloped frontier, however, because the need for them did not exist. The nationalist groups that thrived in New York did not influence the Irish in small western towns, such as San Diego. There, the Irish immigrants had room to expand without fear of Anglo-American prejudice. They lived a life far removed from the oppression suffered at the hands of the British and from the prejudice experienced in the larger American cities. The opportunities seemed to be unlimited and the immigrants took advantage of the situations presented to them.
Although most of the Irish congregated in the East, they established two colonies of immigrants in Texas as early as 1828, when it was still under Mexican control. James Power and James Hewitson brought 200 families to Refugio and another 200 families settled at San Patricio under the leadership of John Mullen and Patrick McGloin.(29) Although not comparable to the eastern metropolises or San Francisco to the west, these settlements marked the Irish movement westward.
The massive growth and development of the l800s compelled Americans to expand. The western territories provided adventurous spirits with an opportunity to strike out on their own and make their own niche. The lure of unknown territory and possible dangers did not pass up the newly arrived Irish. Just as eager for success in their new home, some immigrants were drawn to continue west, past the crowded eastern port cities where they disembarked the immigrant ships or bypass them completely and head for the distant shores of the Pacific.
The opening of the West provided more than just adventure for the Irish and Irish-Americans. The vast frontier and the unknown relieved the immigrants from the discrimination and overcrowded conditions they encountered in the large eastern cities. The miseries of the old country and the ghetto confinement of the cities back east were lost amidst the bountiful opportunity provided by the challenge of taming the frontier.(30)
The “urban” environment of the west differed greatly from that of the east. While hundreds converged in the slums and ghetto neighborhoods of New York, the western cities, such as San Diego, remained sparsely populated. They lacked the overcrowding, malnutrition, and annual epidemics which characterized life in the east. Caught in the web of poverty, the eastern Irish were surrounded with crime, insanity, alcoholism, despair and rage.(31)
The Irish who left the eastern cities such as Boston, merged quickly into the less structured societies of the west. Optimism and enthusiasm surrounded the expansion of the United States, which also provided great opportunity for the Irish who moved westward.
The frontier communities were the opposite of the well established eastern cities dominated by Anglo-Americans. For that reason, the Irish immigrants could assimilate and improve their status much earlier than their fellow country-men in the east.(32) The Irish reached higher levels of success in the new, rapidly developing urban environments which characterized the West.(33) California represented the epitome of this environment.
(18) Griffin, The Irish in America p. 175.
(19) Marjorie Eallows, Irish Americans:Identity and Assimilation (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1979) p. 6
(20) Miller, Emiarants and Exiles p. 323.
(21) Dennis Clark, Hibernia America: The Irish and Regional Cultures (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986) p. 61.
(22) Miller, Emigrants and Exiles p. 322.
(23) Miller, Emiarants and Exiles p. 3
(24) Liam De Paor, Portrait of Ireland: Ireland Past and Present. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985) p. 154.
(25) Adams, Ireland and Irish Emigration p. 347.
(26) Adams, Ireland and Irish Emigration p. 343.
(27) Clark, Hibernia America pp. 58-59.
(28) Clark, Hibernia America p. 56.
(29) Griffin, The Irish in America p. 15.
(30) Clark, Hibernia America p. 139-40.
(31) Clark, Hibernia America p. 52.
(32) Fallows, Irish Americans p. 70.
(33) Miller, Emigrants and Exiles p. 315.