Changed perceptions of the Irish in America

 

LAST Sunday bagpipers played the President, Mrs Robinson, into the plush Boston Park Plaza Hotel to receive this year's award of the Irish Immigration Centre. The hundreds of Irish Americans present were clearly successful business and professional people.

Access to the immigrant centre run by Sister Lena Deevy on Tremont Street, which the President also visited, is through the marble foyer of the headquarters of the property firm of Thomas Flat Icy, a multimillionaire who emigrated from Co Mayo. A host of welcoming hands and services are available for today's immigrants' material and spiritual needs.

But in New York, the excellent "Gaelic Gotham" exhibition of how the Irish immigrants have fared in the city from the 18th century shows a different picture. There were no centres or helping hands but huge anti Irish and anti Catholic prejudice.

George T. Strong wrote in 1863: "I am sorry to find that England is right about the lower class of Irish. They are brutal, base, cruel cowards, and as insolent as base . . . My own theory is that St Patrick's campaign against the snakes is a Popish delusion. They perished of biting the Irish."

An 1840 advertisement for "an English or American woman that understands cooking" added "IRISH PEOPLE need not apply nor anyone who will not arise at 6 o clock, as the work is light and the wages are sure." Theodore Roosevelt, later to become president, said in 1882: "The average Catholic Irishman of the first generation, as represented in this Assembly, is a low, venal, corrupt and unintelligent brute."

Tensions were so high in the 1840s in New York between the Catholic Irish and the native born Protestants following the burning of Catholic churches in Philadelphia that Bishop John Hughes called out the Ancient Order of Hibernians to defend St Patrick's Cathedral on Mott Street.

Today when the AOH organised St Patrick's Day parade proudly marches on Fifth Avenue past the magnificent newer St Patrick's Cathedral, it is hard to imagine the besieged situation of the Irish of 150 years ago. And sadly, there was another side to the Irish struggle to survive nativist American prejudice against them.

Competition for jobs with the newly freed African Americans raised fears among the Irish, fears which were heightened by the threat of conscription into the Union armies to fight for the abolition of slavery. The 1863 draft riots ended in the lynching of 11 blacks and the burning of the Coloured Orphan Asylum.

Irish priests and police were also praised, however, for trying to restrain the rioters. Slowly the Irish were climbing out of the lower depths, such as the hovels where they kept pigs on what is now Central Park.

The Gotham exhibition in the City Museum on 103rd Street shows how the immigrants and their children slowly advanced to prominence in the police, the labour unions, nursing, business and, of course, the church. But for many it was service as domestics and the harsh work of building the Brooklyn Bridge, the tunnels under the rivers and the new streets which kept them alive.

The exhibition records that "on both a symbolic and real level, Irish dominance in the fields of teaching, nursing, police work, firefighting, general civil service, political office, sports and theater marked their transition into the mainstream of New York City life. As a result, anti Irish sentiment declined."

Irish Catholics now became regarded as "preferred" ethnics as the prejudice of the American nativists focused more on the large numbers arriving of Russian Jews and Italian Catholics.

The later stages of the exhibition portray the New York Irish as having arrived and as a power in Democratic politics, albeit with a tinge of Tammany Hall corruption. By 1963, Glazer and Moynihan could write in Beyond The Melting Pot that "the Irish are now about the most evenly distributed group in New York in terms of economic and social position . . . In this respect, they are unique among the major ethnic groups in New York."

In 1990 historian William D. Griften hailed "the abundant signs that Irish Americans, secure now in the American nation, are ready to look honestly at all dimensions in making that nation.

"Their historical consciousness seems to have matured to the point where they are interested in facts rather than self justification. They are ready to learn about the villains as well as the heroes."

The exhibition has a room for visitors' comments about what they learned from it. "What a shame that today we are all praying and fighting for our complete freedom from the overlord, England - shame on them for their evil and hate of us. But as your display shows, we will surely survive.

Another comment: "As you can see from pictures/printing we were described as common apes. But we raised (sic) above and proved our worth - so stop crying and do for yourself. Make your heritage proud." Another wrote: "I didn't know my great-grandparents had it so hard. I now understand NINA No Irish Need Apply".

The hardship of the immigrants is often linked with British "oppression" in the comments. "The same old story but true. Get Britain out once and for all. Politically. It made me aware I must work to bring about a free and united Ireland without the rule of English oppression."

Was this what the organisers intended? Hardly.