Lessons from the rise of America’s Irish

Staff Columnist

“They arrived dirt poor and uneducated in the 1840s.

After decades of struggle, they achieved prosperity.” By Jason L. Riley  The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, March 14, 2018)

I’m usually not an Irish All the Time type of guy.  This is the season of St. Patrick after all  so here we go.

Thanks to Jason Riley of the Journal.

The last O’Connor  (O Conchobair) that I have found in our rather skimpy family archives arrived in Massachusetts in 1846.  My Mother was a Ryan, of New York, and my wife is an O’Shaughnessy, also of New York.  That should satisfy our bona fides.

Now from Jason Riley:  “Every year in the runup  to St. Patrick’s Day, the Census Bureau releases a demographic profile of Irish-Americans.  For anyone familiar with the arduous history of the Irish in this country, the progress report is an annual reminder of America’s ability to assimilate newcomers in search of a better life.

It was the potato famine that began driving large numbers of Irish to leave home in the late 1840s.  This migration, along with mass starvation and disease, would eventually cost Ireland around a third of its population.  Some came to Great Britain, but the majority came to America.  Today the number of Americans of Irish descent (32.3 million) is nearly seven times as large  as the population of Ireland (4.7 million).

“The peasants fleeing Ireland had a shorter life expectancy than slaves in the U.S., many of whom enjoyed healthier diets and better living quarters.  Most slaves slept on mattresses, while most poor Irish peasants slept on piles of straw.  The black scholar W.E.B. DuBois wrote that freed slaves were poor by American standards, ‘but not as poor as the Irish peasants.’

The Irish who left for America were packed into the unused cargo space of wind-driven ships returning to the U.S., and the voyage could take up to three months, depending on the weather.  These cargo holds weren’t intended to carry passengers, and the lack of proper ventilation and sanitation meant that outbreaks of typhus, cholera and other fatal diseases were common.

In 1847, 19% of the Irish emigrants died on their way to the U.S. or shortly after arriving.  By comparison the average mortality rate on British slave ships of the period was 9%.  Slave-owners had an economic incentive to keep slaves alive.  No one had such an interest in the Irish.

The 19th-century immigrants from Europe usually started at the bottom, both socially and economically, and the Irish epitomized this trend.  Irish men worked as manual laborers, while Irish women were domestic servants.  But not all ethnic groups rose to prosperity at the same rate, and the rise of the Irish was especially slow.  They had arrived from a country that was mostly rural, yet they settled in cities like Boston and New York, working ‘wherever brawn and not skill was the chief requirement’, as one historian put it.  In the antebellum South, the Irish took jobs – mining coal, building canals and railroads – considered too hazardous for slaves.”

More from Riley: “ In the 1840s, New York City’s population grew by 65%.  By midcentury, more than half of the city’s residents were immigrants, and more than a quarter of these newcomers had come from Ireland.  At the time, half of New York’s Irish workforce, and nearly two-thirds of Boston’s were either unskilled laborers or domestic servants.  ‘No other contemporary immigrant group was so concentrated at the bottom of the economic ladder,’ writes Thomas Sowell in his classic work, ‘Ethnic America.’

It wasn’t just a lack of education and urban job skills that slowed  the progress of the Irish in America.  So did social pathology and discrimination.  The Irish were known for drinking and brawling.  Irish gangs were common. Political cartoonists gave Irish men dark skin and simian features.  Anti-Catholic employers requested ‘Protestant’ applicants.  Want ads read:  ‘Any color or country except Irish.’

Yet none of these obstacles proved insurmountable.  Charitable organizations , such as the Irish Emigrant Society emerged.  Temperance societies formed to address alcoholism.  The Catholic Church took a leading role in tackling poverty, illiteracy and other social problems through the creation of orphanages and hospitals and schools.”

Finally, Riley:  “According to the Census Bureau, today’s Irish-Americans boast poverty rates far below the national average and median incomes far exceeding it.  The rates at which they graduate from high school, complete college, work in skilled professions, and own homes are also better than average.  What’s so remarkable about this social and economic trajectory among the Irish is how many times it has been replicated among other immigrant groups.

Whether this kind of upward mobility is still possible today given the changes to our economy and culture is an open question.  My guess is that it’s still possible, but more difficult.”

Your Columnist asks: What do you think? Assimilation?  Americanization?  Multiculturalists?

Immigration Policy?  Deportation?

It’s been a long time since 1846.

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