Irish Americans are people who live in the US who came from Ireland. Most came during the 1800s, driven by poverty and famine. Only Britain and Germany have sent more people from Europe.
The Irish were poor, foreign, Catholic. Few could read. They were the “scum of Europe”, but they spoke English and, even better, they had white skin.
By the early 1800s, British landlords had taken over most of Ireland. They used it to get rich by raising cows, pigs and sheep for the British market. Most of the Irish were thrown off their land and out of work. They sank into poverty. They lived in houses made of mud and straw and ate mostly potatoes. Even Irish craftsmen were thrown out of work once factory-made goods started arriving from Britain.
And then it got even worse.
One day in July 1845 the leaves on the potato plants started to turn black. It spread across the island. Nearly half the potato crop failed that year. The Irish Potato Famine went on for nine years. A million people died. The British landlords had enough food to feed half the island but they continued to sell their food to Britain instead.
Over a million fled to the US during the famine. Millions more came in the years that followed because the British did little about the poverty they had created.
In the US the Irish were seen at first as little better than animals. They were compared to blacks: ruled by their passions (as proved by their large families), unwilling to work hard, taking delight in lower pleasures, etc.
They were outsiders, with a strange way of talking and strange religious beliefs. They were Catholics coming to a land that was solidly Protestant.
They found themselves up against blacks and the Chinese in looking for work.
But they had one card that the blacks and the Chinese did not have: their white skin. That meant two things:
- White employers would favour them over people of colour.
- They could become citizens and vote. In the 1800s very few people of colour could vote, despite what the Constitution said.
So most of the maids and dock workers in New York, for example, went from being mostly black to being mostly Irish.
Since they settled mainly in big cities in the north their vote could be used to create and maintain political machines which would tax well-to-do whites to hire the Irish to work for the city – as policemen, firemen, contractors, etc. They also created labour unions to get better pay and working conditions – and to keep out blacks.
So in time the Irish were able to lift themselves from the bottom by taking advantage of White American racism. New York used to have Irish slums. Those are long gone. Now they mostly live in the city’s white middle-class suburbs.
- Ireland: a brief history
- “The Irish had it hard too!”
- white people