My previous post on Irish immigrants centred around the Irish Poor Law and how England attempted to assist Ireland in its struggles but somewhat failed. Britain during the 19th century were very much adherents of laissez-faire, pulling themselves out with little aid from the government, which is why the assistance they provided via the poor houses ended up not assisting the Irish as well as it could have. The problem at hand was that the famine was wiping out the Irish. Approximately 1 million of the Irish population perished because of the potato blights, and another 2 million completely abandoned the land in what became the largest-single population movement of the 19th century.
A drawing in Harper's Weekly with the caption, "The balance of trade with Great Britain seems to be still against us. 650 paupers arrived at Boston in the steamship Nestoria, April 15th, from Galway, Ireland, shipped by the British government," (1883).
Whilst there was a mass movement to England, which was discussed in the previous post on this topic, America was also seen as a prime destination for the struggling population of Ireland. 5,000 boats transported the Irish on a 3,000-mile journey that lasted at least 4 weeks. These boats were known as "coffin ships" because of the poor conditions and the fact that nearly a quarter of those who made the journey did not reach their destination. The rest of the Irish that survived did not step foot onto American soil in good condition, and this is where a lot of unrest was centred. They were not willing workers. They were merely poor, ill, hungry people looking to escape their destitute land. They were also Catholics, which caused a commotion with the mainly Protestant America. However, some reacted with Christian charity, Captain Robert Bennet Forbes, spearheaded America's first major foreign disaster relief effort.
The roles that they played in their new homeland were very similar to those in Britain. The Irish filled the most menial and dangerous jobs, cutting canals, digging trenches for water and sewer pipes. Laid railway lines, cleaned houses, and slaved away in textile mills. Living conditions were dire, and the Irish immigrants lived in slum neighbourhoods. Open sewers lead to diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis plagued the population. Life expectancy after arriving in America was only 14 years.
Political indifference based on religious conflict heightened a bad relationship between the catholic Irish immigrants and American Protestants. So, overall, the picture painted of Irish America is pretty negative, with inner-city slums and political unrest.
Abraham Lincoln was one of those among the Americans who did not like the rise of the nativist movement. He commented on the political situation (which I will not delve into because there is a very political piece up on google already, which, if you fancy reading, is here). However, Lincoln’s comment highlights how bad the relationship became between the Americans and Irish immigrants.
‘As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now read it ‘’all men are created equal, except negros." When the Know-nothings (anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant American party) get control it will read "all men are created equal, except negros and foreigners and Catholics."'
The Irish were clearly not taken in by America with open arms. America deported many Irish back to England and Ireland based on treasonous crimes, and due to draining the public treasury. And the same happened in England, with Liverpool being the main port. Housing issues and illness became an issue, and again many of the Irish were shipped back to Cork or Dublin. Wherever the Irish went, people did not welcome them with open arms. And the history behind this time is very much painted negatively towards them, which is a shame because they were real people whose lives were in obvious turmoil. The history of the Irish is not a subject that can easily be searched and followed, and I hope that if you did not know of what happened, you might now have a better understanding. The next post will, after some deep archive searching, be all about the lives of these Irish immigrants, from their perspective.
By Ellie Cossar