Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Chit-Chat Over Coffee Swirls (25)

Topic: The Irish-American Community

During the first part of the nineteenth century there was a general movement to divide farms into small holdings. The lands were increasingly held by absentee landlords, who endeavored to obtain the highest possible rents. The large number of middlemen who held land under the lords and acted as their agents made the condition of the peasantry still worse. Many of Ireland's great portions of land were confiscated by the English. The Irish had no desire to improve their farms, since all their efforts would automatically revert to the landlord. The industrial activity of Ireland was largely confined to agriculture.

The Irish people relied heavily on potatoes for their diet and their economy. When disease ruined their crops, they had nothing else to rely on, and the most attractive option was for them to emigrate to America. These Irish refugees faced incredible hardships during the early 1800s. As a result of the potato crop failure during 1845-1847, Ireland suffered from a famine where approximately one and a half million of people died. Between 1847 and 1860 more than 1,000,000 Irish immigrants passed through the port of New York. Those that arrived were fortunate in having accumulated the passage money. They either had a relative to help them or their passage was financed by a "smooth operator."

Because the price of the passage would cost anywhere from $12.50 to $25.00 a head, those who were penniless had to borrow the money from whoever would pay for their transportation. Such poor people started the journey in bad physical condition, worsened by their treatment during their voyage. One ship, referred to as a Coffin Ship for instance, registered more than 200 who died from disease and starvation during the long and perilous trip.

Numerous Irish refugees came to the United States as indentured servants. Once in the United States, they had to look for work, leading them to labor several years to pay off their debt to the lender (the loan shark), before they could be free of this obligation. These Irish immigrants were forced to accept low-paying jobs and live in deplorable conditions, such as lean to shanties and cellars of dilapidated unsanitary buildings in the slum areas .

The potato famine of the 1840s sent a steady stream of Irish immigrants to the U.S., most of whom didn't have money to buy land out west. These immigrants settled in the city of New York, which was the chief port of entry. The unskilled and unlettered Irishmen, pushing aside the American Negroes, their chief competitors in the labor market, went to work on construction gangs, finding jobs building the Erie Canal, which "employed 3000 Irish in 1818, as well as laying railroad tracks."

Everywhere they went in response to the want ads, the anti-Irish sentiment loomed. Employers posted signs, "No Irish Need Apply" which eventually disappeared over the years as new ethnic groups immigrated to America and were targeted by the anti-immigrant sentiment. New prejudice substituted for old prejudice. But through their persistence, the Irish refugees would find employment in the mills and factories that were along the waterways. "The 363 mile long Erie Canal was built from 1817 to 1825 at a cost of $7 million. The digging was largely done by Irish immigrants, attracted to the backbreaking labor by wages of $8 to $12 a month or 50 cents a day." Many times their wages as low as 50 cents a day. The Irish immigrants who worked on the canal would usually remain, establishing an Irish presence in that area.

The Catholic Church grew rapidly as a result of Irish and German immigration, which began in the thirties and forties and reached a peak after the Civil War. St. Joseph's Seminary was established in Troy in 1864 to educate native priests. The diocese of Rochester was organized in 1866, the diocese of Ogdensburg in 1872, and the diocese of Syracuse in 1886, Bishop McCloskey, the first bishop of the Albany diocese, became the first American cardinal in 1875. St. Bernard's Seminary was established in Rochester and St. Joseph's in Yonkers in 1896. Irish immigrants, as they achieved a degree of economic well-being with accompanying leisure, gave vent to their love of sports and recreation.

Between 1820 and 1920 more than 5,000,000 Irish immigrants reached American shores. In 1860 alone more than 46,000 Irish immigrants went to Boston to work in the copper and brass foundries, locomotive works and factories.

"Thousands of Irish immigrants settled in New York City to work as teamsters, day laborers, streetcar conductors, and shipyard mechanics. Others pushed up the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys to the brick kilns at Haverstraw, the iron works and quarries at Saugerties, and the mills and factories in Albany, Troy, and Utica. The Irish have made the political field largely their own; they have played a conspicuous part in civil and commercial life. The Irish, with their genius for politics, have, since the succession of Irish governors-Dongan, Bellomont, Cornbury, Cosby-in Colonial days, played an active part in the evolution of our particular brand of democracy." (14)

The Irish fiercely loved America but never gave up their allegiance to Ireland and most of all their hatred of the English. Though many were ridiculed and discriminated against in this country because of their Catholic religion, the Irish learned to laugh and joke even amid the most painful circumstances of their lives. The Irish -Americans, often despised, heroically fought in many of our wars, always moving forward in this country, undaunted by poverty, illiteracy and severe hardships. They have gained respect and great admiration from the American people as they give place to a new image of leading and productive citizens, successful business people, political figures, doctors, nurses, actors and actresses, writers, historians, inventors, defenders of women rights, musicians, opera singers, composers, teachers and much more. John F. Kennedy was the first Irish Catholic president that the United States ever had.

Sources Utilized to Document A Little Taste of History

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