This is part one of a two-part series examining the history of both the Irish culture and Saint Patrick's Day. Saint Patrick's Day, named for Ireland's patron saint, will be celebrated on March 17th as it is each year. The Saint Patrick's Day parade has been observed since 1737 and was celebrated in New York City as early as 1762. The first commemorated event was held by the Charitable Irish Society of Boston in 1737, and since then, Saint Patrick's Day has been nationally observed as an ethnic celebration that has achieved primacy. The annual parade, one of the largest in America, travels along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and passes by the Saint Patrick's Cathedral. The wearing of the color green is part of the observance, as it is Ireland's national color. Let's not forget the traditional, delicious corn beef and cabbage, a dish synonymous with the Holiday, which is an American meal that is served on this special occasion. For the Irish-American community, Saint Patrick's Day is a joyous day spent with family, friends, beer (often green beer), whiskey, sentimental songs, and poetry. Once in a while, amongst revelers at the bars and pubs, rowdiness may lead to brawling. Images of the leprechaun and the shamrock are also included in American celebrations. Regardless of what goes on at festivities around the city, due to its immense success, the Saint Patrick's Day parade has served as an example that has encouraged the celebration of other European ethnic groups, as well.
Irish-American communities have been present in the United States for several centuries; to this day their ethnic identity has been particularly meaningful to them. They still brim with tremendous pride and honor due to their Irish heritage despite their passionate love for America.
From my research of the Irish in America, I would like to give a historical review in this article by elaborating on the early immigrant history of Irish-Americans. We will explore their primary reason for immigrating to America, view their struggles and hardships in adapting to the American way of life, and see how they, as an ethnic group, became the focus of prejudice, discrimination, harassment and violence. It is important to note that because the Irish immigrants were a positive minded people, they remained undaunted by poverty, illiteracy and severe hardships that faced them over the years. Irish-Americans have had the resilience to bounce back from all of this hardship, forging ahead to face greater and better horizons, gaining the respect and immense admiration of the American people.
Keeping Irish-Americans, struggles, resilience, pride and ultimate role in shaping America as we know it today in mind, we can start exploring the history of this important part of Americana. That history had originated in Ireland before it immigrated to the United States.
During the first part of the nineteenth century, there was a general tendency to divide family farms and plots into smaller partitions. This was of little use to the Irish farmers when it came to raising and supporting their families. They were subjected as well to the evils of landlordism often facing prejudice from wealthy Anglo-Saxon land owners they were relegated to living in slum like conditions. Since most of the Irish were not landowners; however, they had to lease the property from their English landlords in order to develop their crops. The lands were most often owned by absentee landlords, who attempted to charge the highest possible rents with the least amount of upkeep or service. The large number of middlemen who held land under the lords and acted as their agents made the situation even worse. Large numbers of Ireland's prime portions of land had been confiscated by English aristocracy, which they wanted to use for grazing. As a result, many Irish farmers were evicted from the land which they had been leasing for years. Those that remained had no desire to improve their farms, seeing that all their efforts would automatically revert to the landlord, who would be rewarded for collecting rent and then taking the labor of the Irish tenants. The commerce of Ireland was largely confined to agriculture, due to the natural resources and the environmental conditions of the island itself. In addition to farming, the small number of domestic weaving and spinning businesses that helped subsidize the means of several families all but ended with the explosion of industrialization that dominated the era. Frustrated and stripped of their land and homes, many Irish farmers suffered tremendous hardships. They were justifiably angry with the English for not being able to reap the rewards of their hard work in order to support their families.
The Irish people relied heavily on growing potatoes to both eat and to make money to support their families. As a result of the massive potato crop failure that lasted from 1845-1847, Ireland suffered from a devastating famine that caused nearly one and a half-million people to die.
The gold rush in California began to draw immigrants from every part of the world. America was expanding it offered promise and opportunity and everyone wanted a piece of the action. Steamship companies, railroad companies, manufacturing firms and private enterprises turned to Europe for workers. Ruthless businessmen hired unscrupulous agents to work on commission. They were sent to Europe with an array of irresistible pamphlets, advertisements, drawings and pictures. These smooth operators promised wealth that would prove most often to be an illusion. They convinced the downtrodden that land was cheap, that jobs were plentiful and that some day they could return to their home country as wealthy land owners. If those lies didn't work, as a last resort, the smooth operator would play his final card.
"My employer is willing to loan you the money to pay for your passage and lodgings, and when you begin to work in America you can pay him back out of your wages."
When disease ruined their crops, the Irish had nothing else to keep them in Ireland, and America offered hope, promise, the American Dream. America beckoned.
For those that were destitute, and that was most of them, they had no choice but to borrow money from whomever was willing to pay for their transportation. The price of the passage would cost anywhere from $12.50 to $25.00 a head.
Without further delay, the Irish packed their meager belongings, their household goods and their families and set sea for the land of promise. The steamship agents had booked as many steerage passengers as they could possibly squeeze on deck or in the bottom of the ship, making conditions unbearable, in order to make the trip financially rewarding. The emigrants on deck were subjected to rainy cold weather conditions and the dampness of the sea. Water and food was limited. Starvation, dampness and dirty conditions provided a breeding ground for cholera and death. Diarrhea was prominent among the passengers. Those not strong enough to survive the trip succumbed to death, and their bodies were weighed down and dumped into the tempestuous sea. One ship alone registered more than 200 people who died from disease and famine caused by these horrible conditions during the long and perilous journey.
Between 1847 and 1860, more than 1,000,000 Irish immigrants passed through the port of New York. Those that arrived were fortunate to be alive, having survived the terrible conditions after struggling to accumulate the passage money, either by a relative who helped them or from the so-called "loan shark", also known as the smooth operator.
Many of the Irish that arrived on the shores of America were poor, having exhausted their savings on the journey; those few who had any money left soon fell prey to the waterfront sharper who were trained con men. The Irish, as well as most immigrants who came to New York City during the mid 1800's, ordinarily lived in the tenement district, amid crime, filth and disease. They were forced to live in damp smelly cellars or attics, up to 10 people, men, women and children alike, packed into crowded single rooms where "undisturbed filth for so many years would reign." These tenement buildings were dangerous fire-traps and breeding grounds for murderous rodents that would kill babies in their cribs. Some of the Irish who couldn't find employment to pay rent lived in dirty shanties that surrounded the dumping places. They would sift through the garbage trying to find scraps for food, whether it was decaying vegetables, bread or even bones. Nonetheless, they were here in America, and many would make the most of their opportunity. In part two of this series, we will examine the history of Irish Americans once they settled into America.