When Charles Dickens first visited the United States in January 1842, the popularity of his books was such that he was mobbed by adoring crowds, feted and dined as the major celebrity that he undoubtedly was, and was guest of honour at a famous Valentine’s Ball in New York attended by 3,000 of the city’s great and good.
At first he was delighted with everything he saw and everyone he met. But the longer he stayed, and the more he travelled around the country, the more he grew sour and critical. He soon tired of the people’s adoration, and he detested slavery, and the violence meted out to slaves.
Later in his American Notes,* he commented that Americans generally were serious, Puritanical, and lacking in humour. He wondered why the ideals of liberty seemed to include the freedom to shoot or knife another American! He loathed the habit of spitting in public, and he was genuinely shocked at the standards of public health and cleanliness.
Visiting the Five Points district of Lower Manhattan, he described them as ‘reeking everywhere with dirt and filth.’ A neighbourhood filled with ‘hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder; and all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.’
Although many immigrant nationalities survived the best they could at the Five Points, four years after Dickens’ visit, the Irish poured into the area. More than one million people died in Ireland during the Great Famine, and in the few years following, another 1.5 million fled to the United States.
Kevin Kenny** describes the newly arrived Irish as mostly unskilled and willing to work for low wages. They were often used as substitute labour to break strikes. Native-born workers feared that their own wages would decline as a result, and that gains made by organised labour would be undercut. Irish emigrants were deeply unpopular. Unable to make the adjustment to American life a ‘greatly disproportionate number of admissions to poorhouses, public hospitals, prisons and mental institutions were Irish. In New York City in 1859, 55 per cent of all people arrested were of Irish origin’.
Equally disturbing to Americans was the religion of the Irish immigrant. Would Irish Catholic immigrants ultimately be loyal to the United States, or to the church in Rome? Why did they insist on their own schools, and what authority did the Pope, and the cardinals in Rome have over them?
Matters had already come to a head before the ‘invasion’ of Irish immigrants after the Great Famine, when in 1934 a mob burned down the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Two years later a book, the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, was published in New York. It described debauchery and infanticide which an emotionally troubled young woman claimed to have witnessed during her stay in a convent. It was a sensation and a best seller.
In 1844 Catholic churches in Philadelphia were burnt by native rioters in a dispute over which Bible was to be taught in public schools, the Catholic one, of the Protestant King James version?
Irish Catholics were generally isolated and marginalised by American society. Both ministers and priests discouraged intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants. In addition the creation of a parochial schools system, and numerous colleges affiliated to the Catholic church tended to compound, rather than alleviate, the anti Catholic discrimination.
The Irish as we know, once they found their feet in America, responded to this discrimination by sticking together. Eventually, by controlling the local Democratic party, the Irish managed to dominate many American cities, including New York, Boston, and Chicago. Some of this control led to the Tammany Hall type of corruption and the shenanigans of people like the legendary James Michael Curley, who was mayor of Boston for four terms, and governor of Massachusetts, and never refused to get a Galwayman a job.
A success story
In the 1920s the Irish began to move on to the national stage when Al Smith became the first Catholic to run for president. Smith had little chance of being elected, but he showed what was possible. When John F Kennedy came forward on the Democratic ticket, he was careful to avoid any association with the Tammany Hall politics of people like Curley, who was greeted with derision by the majority of Americans. Kennedy was also acutely aware of the anti-Catholic bias. He finally laid it to rest by declaring during his campaign: “I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and my church does not speak for me.”
Although it was a close run thing, sufficient number of Americans believed him to elect him the 35th president of the United States.
Extraordinary to think that while we witness the massive movement of migrants into Europe during the past few months, that in the century after 1820, a staggering five million Irish immigrants arrived in the United States. The problems they faced are the same as are being echoed today. Yet now, after all this time, the Irish in America are a success story. Professor Kenny tells us that the Irish are one of the most prosperous ethnic groups, significantly exceeding national averages on education levels, occupational status, income and home ownership. ‘In line with their steady upward social mobility during the 20th century, the American Irish moved out of the tight-knit urban communities of the Northeast and Midwest to settle in suburbs, towns and cities across the United States. They also married increasingly outside their ethnic group, first with other Catholics and then with Americans generally. The result of these developments is a much less cohesive sense of communal identity than in the past. But Irish Americans retain a strong sense of ethnic pride, especially in the realms of politics and culture. To be Irish-Amercan, after all, is to be part of a national success story.’
Next Week: The devastating effect that mass emigration had on the Irish language
NOTES: *Needless to say Americans were furious with his comments. The editor of the popular Courier and Enquirer, James W Webb, described Dickens as ‘a low-bred scullion, who for more than half his life lived in the stews of London.’
Dickens won their hearts again, however, when he returned in 1867, and charmed them with public readings from his novels.
** Taken from Irish Immigrants in the United States (Department of State ), by Kevin Kenny, professor of history, at Boston College, Massachusetts.
Question: Will the present Irish Government, remembering the struggle of Irish emigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, extend a more generous hand to the emigrants now seeking shelter in Europe today?