The life of Irish immigrants in Boston was one of poverty and discrimination. The religiously centered culture of the Irish has along with their importance on family has allowed the Irish to prosper and persevere through times of injustice. Boston’s Irish immigrant population amounted to a tenth of its population. Many after arriving could not find suitable jobs and ended up living where earlier generations had resided. This attributed to the “invisibility” of the Irish. Much of the very early migration had been heavily male, but during the famine years, migration was largely a family affair.
Families were arriving serially in “chain” migration while others suffered high mortality rates in these years. The Irish were the first to practice “chain or serial migration” on a large scale. During the famine years males still outnumbered women in migration numbers but not by a large margin. However in the post famine years and especially after 1880 more women came from Ireland than males. The reason for this was that women were always more deprived of work than men in Ireland, and in the post-famine years the position of women got exponentially worse.
In Ireland, contrary to what was happening in the United States, women did not live longer than men. The lives of immigrant Irish women were not easy, but much better than a life back in Ireland. In the 1850’s through the 1870’s 45% of all Irish immigrants were persons in the 15-24 age group with gender evenly balanced. But in the 1880’s to 1920 that same age group made up about 60% of all Irish immigrants. This social class was young and could adapt to working in the harsh conditions. Immigrants who arrived alone often eventually married either someone from the immigrant community in the area.
With each passing year women began taking up a higher and higher percentage of Irish immigrants. By 1921 women outnumbered men 2:1. These women were overwhelmingly concentrated in domestic service. At the turn of the century more than half of all Irish immigrant women were servants. These Irish women learned American housekeeping through first-hand experience, living in the home of the family they served. The Irish usually tended to support the Democratic Party rather than support the Republican Party.
Most Irish had little sympathy for slaves because they feared that if they were given their freedom they would move north and threaten taking the jobs being done by Irish immigrants. One leading Irish-American politician, John Mitchel, wrote in his newspaper, The Citizen in 1856: He would be a bad Irishman who voted for principles which jeopardized the present freedom of a nation of white men, for the vague forlorn hope of elevating blacks to a level for which it is at least problematical whether God and nature ever intended them.
So the Irish tended to be in favor of slavery and against abolition. This was just another reason why many of the people around them did not get along with them, this in turn probably making their lives harder and less enjoyable. However, at the outbreak of the Civil War an estimated 170,000 men born in Ireland joined the Union Army, but only about 40,000 were in the Confederate Army. This occurred because the issue for the Irish was not so much slavery as it was preserving the Union. The church in Boston agreed with Archbishop Hughes that “It is one country and shall be one”.
After the Civil War, attitudes toward the Irish shifted slightly, and the “Irish Need Not Apply” signs on businesses, that had been so common decades before, began to disappear. The Irish had heavily participated in the war: thirty nine Union regiments contained a majority of Irishmen, and the 69th regiment was comprised almost totally of Irishmen. The Irish Americans gained some respect for their involvement in the Civil War and were now more accepted by American society. The Irish Americans in the post-Civil War time period were more economically successful.
Several of the Irishmen that had been manual laborers now held managerial positions in the railroad, iron, and construction industries. Several Irish Americans also became educated and trained professionals. Irish women, although held back by the restrictions placed on all American women around the turn of the century, achieved higher positions in society as teachers, nurses and secretaries. After the Civil War Boston’s population was now made up of more than a quarter Irish born citizens. Because of this it was now possible for Irish voters to get their candidates elected into office.
Hugh O’Brien became the first Irish American mayor of Boston in 1884. Irish immigration escalated after the Civil War was over. The absolute majority of Irish Immigrants came after 1860. The drain from Ireland was fairly constant. In 1850 Irish immigrants made up about 14% of the immigrants coming to America, in 1880 they made up about 13% of the total. But their impact in the United States changed greatly. The Irish immigrants of 1850 were more than a third of all new arrivals, but by 1880 the Irish arrivals had been reduced to less than an eighth.
In the census of 1850 the nearly one million Irish born were almost 43% of all foreign born, while in 1890 almost twice that number made up only 20% of the foreign born. This is important because the arrival of even larger numbers of immigrants from elsewhere helped to mask the coming of the large numbers of Irish immigrants. There were just enough Irish to take the places of the immigrants of an earlier generation that had died. Even though the Irish faced discrimination, they had many advantages over other immigrants.
The biggest advantage was that the Irish were able to speak English, this was a luxury not enjoyed by almost every other immigrant group. Also, the Irish did not suffer any form of culture shock, because the American and Western European cultures were very similar. But the similarities between Americans and incoming Irish men and women did not help stop the strong anti-Irish sentiments. Boston itself was not really a magnet for immigrants. The Irish were, in a way trapped there in large numbers.
The Irish outnumbered the Massachusetts natives 14,595 to 13,533. Most of the Irish stayed in the eastern cities where they landed because many of them were too poor to afford moving anywhere else. And if they did acquire enough money to move west, by that time they were already accustomed to their surrounding and did not want to move again. This is why Boston and New York were such hot spots for Irish communities. This is so because the Irish arrived as peasants and did not have any money to go anywhere else.
Often the Irish immigrants in Boston were forced to consider any work available, and even then they were often barred by prejudice. The slogan “None need apply but Americans” was already very popular by this time period making it very difficult for the Irish, or any immigrant group to find good work. One of the reasons why the Irish were regarded as inferior was because of their lack of skilled laborers. The men went into “construction gangs” that were poorly paid for very rough manual labor.
These Irish construction gangs performed work on turnpikes, canals, and railroads. The women began to predominate in the textile mills, which were large, noisy, unsanitary and often very dangerous places to work. In this type of labor, Irish immigrants found opportunities to make money, often more than they could at home, and to buy material goods. But the work was long and hard, and the Irish’s standard of living was among the lowest in the country. And so, Irish immigrants tried to save money to protect themselves against unpredictable unemployment.
They also saved money to send or eventually bring home, as many Eastern Europeans originally intended to make enough money in the U. S. to return to their native land and live well. Most of the Irish lived in “flimsy shanties” in very grim conditions that endangered the health and well being of heir families. Because of the conditions they lived in the prejudices toward the “shanty Irish” was reinforced. Inadequate housing, lack of exposure to the healing sun, and “inescapable” filth took their toll on the Irish by causing sickness and death.
The impoverished and in despaired Irish immigrants that arrived in Boston initially tended to settle along the waterfront. Disease became so endemic to the overcrowded neighborhood that by 1845 the neighborhood suffered a communicable disease rate twice that of the rest of Boston. “Children in the Irish district [North End],” wrote Bostonian Lemuel Shattuck, “seemed literally born to die. ” Diseases thrived in places that had poor drainage, ventilation and were crowded, perfectly describing the Irish districts.
During the cholera epidemic of Boston in 1849-50 a health committee was sent in to investigate. The committee reported that the disease had badly affected the majority of the Irish community of Boston: The average age of Irish life in Boston does not exceed fourteen years. In Broad Street and all the surrounding neighborhoods, including Fort Hill and the adjacent streets, the situation of the Irish is particularly wretched. During their visits last summer, your committee were witnesses of scenes too painful to be forgotten, and yet too disgusting to be related here.
It is sufficient to say, that the whole district is a perfect hive of human beings, without comforts and mostly without common necessaries; in many cases, huddled together like brutes, without regard to sex, or age, or sense of decency: grown men and women sleeping together in the same apartment, and sometimes wife and husband, brothers and sisters all in the same bed. During this epidemic more than 500 out of the 700 fatalities were Irish. Many times the supply for work exceeded the demand and because of this, some immigrants worked for as little as 50 cents a day.
The lives of many Irish families were very poor and in some occasions some families sold gin without license illegally out of the house. Much of the anti-Irish hatred in America came from fears and allegations that an Irish Catholic conspiracy would eventually take over the country. Because of this, protestant mobs in Boston rampaged through poor Irish neighborhoods, while native groups condemned the Irish for stealing away jobs because of their desperate willingness to work in terrible conditions for low wages.
Across the country, “nativism” took varied forms, from acts of violence and terror to refusal to hire or work with immigrants. Frequent intoxication led to the Irish reputation for crime. Nothing the Irish found in Boston altered their tradition of alcoholic indulgence. Crowded conditions in the home drove men out to the bars where they could meet friends, relax, and forget their anguish in the so called “promised land”. Many Irishmen were frequently drunk and many times arrested for inebriety. The Irish “arrested and turned back” the short lived temperance movement which was making promising progress up to their arrival.
Influenced not only by their Catholicism but by the economic value of many children, large families were normal among Irish families. The perceived economic mobility of America encouraged the large families. While the family was central to the social and economic organization of the Irish, another institution often formed the center of immigrant communities: their church. Most Irish American families, settling in Boston, were Catholic and practiced the Church’s preaching’s against contraception. Because of this many Irish Catholics had very large families.
And to help even more, the economic rise of the Irish immigrants provided families with the money to feed and clothe their large families. In addition, many Irish Americans could now afford to send their children to parish schools to keep their Irish heritage and Catholic background. The life of the entire family often revolved around their parish. The children attended these parochial schools, and the clergy organized activities such as sports and dances to tie the Irish American children to their Catholic community. The Irish were very religious and made a tremendous sacrifice for their Church.
The most important thing that the Irish have done in America is to build up their Church. The Irish Catholic Church had just fewer than 44 million members in 1903. The enormous Irish immigration completely transformed the Roman Catholic Church in America. While suffering from poverty and overpopulation, The Irish also experienced religious and cultural oppression, sometimes through legal measures and sometimes through violence. The anti-Irish sentiment was not restricted to natives and Protestants. James Whitfield, the fourth arch bishop of Baltimore, wrote to a fellow cleric about his thoughts about Irish Bishops:
If possible[e]let an American born be recommended and (between us in strict confidence) I do really think we should guard against having more Irish BishopsThis you know is a dangerous secret, but I trust it to one in whom I have full confidence The church was often the center of social functions and served informal measures like meals and holiday traditions. This was done to preserve and transmit the Irish culture. The church was one of the few familiar institutions that followed the Irish across the Atlantic. If an Irish man married outside of his church the woman followed her husband to his church after marriage.
By 1860, there were three and a half million Catholics in the U. S, making it the largest single denomination in the United States. The Irish dominated the American Catholic church. Irish priests and theologians rose from the ranks of the people, surrounded by popular influences that inevitably affected their later work. The Irish in America were so devout because of the ability of the clerics to adjust to the ideas of those they served. The conclusions that the catholic religion derived from its theology were the same ideas that were happening in the lives of the common peasant worker.
This was also another reason why the church was so appealing to many Irish families. There was plenty of resentment towards the Catholic Church especially the Protestants. The Protestant denominations urged their ministers to resist the spread of “Popery. ” But this expression of religious differences did not suggest that the Protestants were intolerant. The congregation pushed their ministers to labor “in the spirit of prayer and Christian love” The Christian Alliance and Family Visitor was founded to “promote the union of Christians against Popery. ” But they were not attacking the Catholics (and the Irish) directly just the religion.
After a small riot ensued between an Irish funeral procession and a volunteer fire company and many of the firemen were disbanded, the first anti-catholic newspaper in Boston was founded. The American was founded by the firemen that were disbanded and the newspaper was published for about a year. During this year the newspaper constantly attacked the Irish and the firemen who had replaced them. Most of the Irish population was Catholic simply because Catholicism was the religion of their homeland. Many Irish were ignorant of the “basic tenets” of their religion. But this ignorance did not mean that the Irish were indifferent to their Church.
This ignorance almost always went hand in hand with a very strong loyalty. The Irish viewed and attack on their church as an attack on them, and an attack on them was an attack on the church. Loyalty to the church was placed very highly among the virtues of the Irish. Through all their hardships the Irish persevered because they viewed the church so highly. This along with strong family ties kept them together. Without both of these things blending together the Irish would not have had motives to stay in Boston. And so because of this the Bostonian culture was shaped greatly because of the Irish church and family.