Irish American History
Irish Americans (Irish: Gael-Mheiriceánach) are citizens of the United States of Irish ethnicity who trace their ancestry in Ireland. A total of 36,495,800 Americans (more than 12% of total population) reported Irish ancestry in the 2006 American Community Survey. The only self-reported ancestral group larger than Irish Americans are German Americans.
Immigration to America
Main article: Irish Catholic
Irish Catholics had been migrating to the United States in moderate numbers, even before the American Revolution, some as ordinary domestic servants, some as indentured servants, or as a result of penal deportations; their numbers had increased immensely by the 1820s as migrants, mostly males, became involved in canal building, lumbering and civil construction works in the Northeast. The large Erie Canal project was one such example where Irishmen were the majority of the laborers used. Small but tight communities developed in growing cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, New York City and Providence.
During and after the “Great Irish Famine” (or Great Hunger; Irish: An Gorta Mór) of 1845-1849, millions of Irish Catholics came to North America, primarily Canada and the United States. Many Irish who left Ireland for America during the famine and subsequent years died en route due to poverty, ill health and poor conditions. As a result the ships they travelled on became known as coffin ships.
Nearly a third of all Irish emigrants during this period emigrated to Canada, having a large impact on a smaller population there as many arrived in a disease stricken state. Although the greater portion of these arrivals stayed in Canada, particularly in Toronto and Ontario, a significant number moved on to the United States to join quickly growing Irish American communities, some after staying in Canada for only a few years
Many Irish Catholic immigrants went directly to the cities, mill towns, and railroad or canal construction sites in the east coast. In upstate New York, the Great Lakes area, the Midwest and the Far West, many became farmers or ranchers. In the East, the laborers were hired by Irish labor contractors to work in “labor gangs” as manual laborers on canals, railroads, streets, sewers and other construction projects, particularly in New York state and New England. Large numbers moved to New England mill towns, such as Lowell, Massachusetts,Taunton, Massachusetts, Brockton, Massachusetts, Fall River, Massachusetts and Milford, Massachusetts, where Protestant owners of textile mills welcomed the new low-wage workers. They took the jobs previously held by Yankee Protestant women known as Lowell girls. A large fraction of Irish Catholic women took jobs as maids in middle class households and hotels.
Large numbers of unemployed Irish Catholics lived in squalid conditions in the new city slums.
Although the Irish Catholics started very low on the social status scale, by 1900, they had jobs and earnings about equal on average to their neighbors. After 1945, the Catholic Irish consistently ranked toward the top of the social hierarchy, thanks especially to their high rate of college attendance.
The Irish quickly found employment in the police departments, fire departments and other public works of major cities, largely in the North East and around the Great Lakes. In the 1860s more than half of those arrested in New York City were Irish born or of Irish descent but nearly half of the City’s law enforcement officers were also Irish. By the turn of the century, five out of six NYPD officers were Irish born or of Irish descent. Irish Americans continue to have a disproportionate membership in the law enforcement community, especially in New England, where they continue to have a dominating role. When the Emerald Society of the Boston Police Department was formed in 1973, half of the city’s police officers became members.
Irish in politics and government
After the early example of Charles Lynch, the Catholic Irish moved rapidly into law enforcement, and (through the Catholic Church) built hundreds of schools, colleges, orphanages, hospitals, and asylums. Political opposition to the Catholic Irish climaxed in 1854 in the short-lived Know Nothing Party.
By the 1850s, the Irish Catholics were a major presence in the police departments of large cities. In New York City in 1855, of the city’s 1,149 policemen, 305 were natives of Ireland. Both Boston’s police and fire departments provided many Irish immigrants with their first jobs. The creation of a unified police force in Philadelphia opened the door to the Irish in that city. By 1860 in Chicago, 49 of the 107 on the police force were Irish. Chief O’Leary headed the police force in New Orleans and Malachi Fallon was chief of police of San Francisco.
The Irish Catholic diospora have a reputation for being very well organized, and, since 1850, have produced a majority of the leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church, labor unions, the Democratic Party in larger cities, and Catholic high schools, colleges and universities. John F. Kennedy was their greatest political hero. Al Smith, who lost to Herbert Hoover in the 1928 presidential election, was the first Irish Catholic to run for president. From the 1830s to the 1960s, Irish Catholics voted 80-95% Democratic, with occasional exceptions like the election of 1920.
Today, most Irish Catholic politicians are associated with the Democratic Party, although some became Republican leaders, such as former GOP national chairman Ed Gillespie, former House Homeland Security Chairman Peter T. King and the late Congressman Henry Hyde. Ronald Reagan boasted of his Irishness (the son of an Irish Catholic father, he was raised as a Protestant). Historically, Irish Catholics controlled many city machines and often served as chairmen of the Democratic National Committee, including County Monaghan native Thomas Taggart, Vance McCormick, James Farley, Edward J. Flynn, Robert E. Hannegan, J. Howard McGrath, William H. Boyle, Jr., John Moran Bailey, Larry O’Brien, Christopher J. Dodd, Terry McAuliffe and Tim Kaine. The majority of Irish Catholics in Congress are Democrats; currently Susan Collins of Maine is the only Irish Catholic Republican senator. Exit polls show that in recent presidential elections Irish Catholics have split about 50-50 for Democratic and Republican candidates; large majorities voted for Ronald Reagan. The pro-life faction in the Democratic party includes many Irish Catholic politicians, such as the former Boston mayor and ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn and senator Bob Casey, Jr., who defeated Senator Rick Santorum in a high visibility race in Pennsylvania in 2006.
Distribution of Irish Americans according to the 2000 CensusIn some states such as Connecticut, the most heavily Irish communities now tend to be in the outer suburbs and generally support Republican candidates, such as New Fairfield.
Many major cities have elected Irish American Catholic mayors. Indeed, Boston, Cincinnati, Houston, Newark, New York City, Omaha, Scranton, Pittsburgh, Saint Louis, Saint Paul, and San Francisco have all elected natives of Ireland as mayors. Chicago, Boston, and Jersey City have had more Irish American mayors than any other ethnic group. The cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Oakland, Omaha, St. Paul, Jersey City, Rochester, Springfield, Rockford, San Francisco, Scranton, and Syracuse currently (as of 2006[update]) have Irish American mayors. All of these mayors are Democrats. Pittsburgh mayor Bob O’Connor died in office in 2006. New York City has had at least three Irish-born mayors and over eight Irish American mayors. The most recent one was County Mayo native William O’Dwyer, elected in 1949.
The Irish Protestant vote has not been studied nearly as much. Since the 1840s, it has been uncommon for a Protestant politician to be identified as Irish (though Ronald Reagan notably did and Bill Clinton claims to have Irish ancestry). In Canada, by contrast, Irish Protestants remained a cohesive political force well into the 20th century with many (but not all) belonging to the Orange Order. Throughout the 19th century, sectarian confrontation was commonplace between Protestant Irish and Catholic Irish in Canadian cities.
Contributions to American culture and sport
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New YorkThe annual celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day is the most widely recognized symbol of the Irish presence in America. In cities throughout the United States, this traditional Irish religious holiday becomes an opportunity to celebrate all things Irish, or faux Irish. The largest celebration of the holiday takes place in New York, where the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade draws an average of two million people. The second-largest celebration is held at Boston’s Southie Parade, which is one the nation’s oldest dating back to 1737. Savannah also holds one of the largest parardes in the United States.
Since the arrival of tens of thousands of Irish immigrants in the 1840s, the urban Irish cop and firefighter have become virtual icons of American popular culture. In many large cities, the police and fire departments have been dominated by the Irish for over 100 years, even after the populations in those cities of Irish extraction dwindled down to small minorities. Many police and fire departments maintain large and active “Emerald Societies,” bagpipe marching groups, or other similar units demonstrating their members’ pride in their Irish heritage.
While these archetypal images are especially well known, Irish Americans have contributed to U.S. culture in a wide variety of fields: the fine and performing arts, film, literature, politics, sports, and religion. The Irish-American contribution to popular entertainment is reflected in the careers of figures such as James Cagney, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, John Ford, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Grace Kelly, Tyrone Power, Ada Rehan, and Spencer Tracy. Irish-born actress Maureen O’Hara, who became an American citizen, defined for U.S. audiences the archetypal, feisty Irish “Colleen” in popular films such as The Quiet Man and The Long Gray Line. More recently, the Irish-born Pierce Brosnan gained screen celebrity as James Bond. During the early years of television, popular figures with Irish roots included Gracie Allen, Art Carney, Joe Flynn, Jackie Gleason, and Ed Sullivan. Today, comedians such as Stephen Colbert, George Carlin, Jane Curtin, Jimmy Fallon, Bill Murray, Kathy Griffin, and Conan O’Brien often reflect humorously on their Irish-American roots.
Since the early days of the film industry, celluloid representations of Irish-Americans have been plentiful. Famous films with Irish-American themes include social dramas such as Little Nellie Kelly and The Cardinal, labor epics like On the Waterfront, and gangster movies such as Angels with Dirty Faces, Gangs of New York, and The Departed. Irish-American characters have been featured in popular television series such as Ryan’s Hope and Rescue Me.
Prominent Irish-American literary figures include Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, Jazz Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, social realist James T. Farrell, mystery writer Raymond Chandler, and Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor. The 19th-century novelist Henry James was also of partly Irish descent. While Irish Americans have been underrepresented in the plastic arts, two well known American painters claim Irish roots. Twentieth-century painter Georgia O’Keeffe was born to an Irish-American father, and 19th-century trompe-l’œil painter William Harnett emigrated from Ireland to the United States.
The Irish-American contribution to politics spans the entire ideological spectrum. Socially conservative Irish immigrants generally recoiled from radical politics, and in the early 1950s, a disproportionate percentage of Irish Americans supported Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist “witchhunt”. Nevertheless, two prominent American socialists, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, were Irish Americans. In the 1960s, Irish-American writer Michael Harrington became an influential advocate of social welfare programs. Harrington’s views profoundly influenced President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy. Meanwhile, Irish-American political writer William F. Buckley emerged as a major intellectual force in American conservative politics in the latter half of the 20th century. Buckley’s magazine, National Review, proved an effective advocate of successful Republican candidates such as Ronald Reagan.
There have been a number of notorious Irish Americans, including the legendary New Mexico outlaw known as Billy the Kid, whose real name was supposedly Henry McCarty. Many historians believe McCarty was born in New York City to Famine-era immigrants from Ireland. The infamous cook Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary was an Irish immigrant. New Orleans socialite and murderess Delphine LaLaurie whose maiden name was Macarty, was of partial paternal Irish ancestry. Irish-American mobsters include, amongst others, George “Bugs” Moran, Dean O’Bannion, and Jack “Legs” Diamond. Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of John F. Kennedy had an Irish-born great-grandmother by the name of Mary Tonry. Colorful Irish Americans also include Margaret Tobin of Titanic fame, scandalous model Evelyn Nesbit, dancer Isadora Duncan, and Nellie Cashman, nurse and gold prospector in the American west.
The wide popularity of Celtic music has fostered the rise of Irish-American bands that draw heavily on traditional Irish themes and music. Such groups include New York City’s Black 47 founded in the late 1980s blending punk rock, rock and roll, Irish music, rap/hip-hop, reggae, and soul; and the Dropkick Murphys, a Celtic punk band formed in Quincy, Massachusetts nearly a decade later. The Decemberists, a band featuring Irish-American singer Colin Meloy, recently released Shankill Butchers, a song that deals with the Ulster Loyalists the “Shankill Butchers”. The song appears on their album The Crane Wife. Flogging Molly, lead by Dublin-born Dave King, are relative newcomers building upon this new tradition.
The Irish brought their native games of handball, hurling and Gaelic football to America. Along with handball and camogie, these sports are part of the Gaelic Athletic Association. The North American GAA organisation is still very strong.
Irish Americans can be found among the earliest stars in professional baseball, including Michael “King” Kelly, Roger Connor (the home run king before Babe Ruth), Eddie Collins, Roger Bresnahan, Ed Walsh and NY Giants manager John McGraw. The large 1945 class of inductees enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown included nine Irish Americans. In 2008, Foley’s NY Pub & Restaurant created the Irish American Baseball Hall of Fame to honor contributions to the game by manager Connie Mack; players Sean Casey, Tug McGraw, and Mark McGwire; journalists Red Foley and Jeff Horrigan; actor Kevin Costner; broadcaster John Flaherty; and NY Mets groundskeeper Pete Flynn