THE IRISH IN AMERICA
A review of our March talk - by Mary Champion
On St Patrick's Day, Tuesday 17th March, Mike Murphy gave a talk to the Gateacre Society on the Irish in America. He is a former Head of History at Francis Xavier School and part-time lecturer at the University of Liverpool.
In the 16th century Ireland and the British mainland were in disharmony - Protestant England and Catholic Ireland. The north and south of Ireland were also in conflict: Scottish Protestants had settled in Ulster and the Catholics, mostly tenant farmers, were penalised by harsh laws and had no rights. The Northern Irish immigrants were, however, also subject to discrimination: they were mostly Presbyterian, and many of them went to the New World. By the late 17th century there was already quite a large Catholic presence in America. In the 18th century more Catholics went over, and also Irish Protestants some of whom became prosperous farmers and plantation owners.
In 1843 there were riots in Philadelphia because of fears of increased Catholic immigration. In 1845 and 1846 the Irish potato crop failed, and over the next few years hundreds of thousands of people died. Many of the poor Irish came to Liverpool and sailed on, in appalling conditions, to the New World: mainly to Boston and New York. The Catholics had few skills to offer and settled in places like New York's Lower East Side, New York - where Gaelic speakers were packed into squalid rooms and population densities reached 300,000 per square mile.
One child in four didn't live beyond infancy. Many priests went and ministered to the people and set up welfare organisations. Corruption was widespread in local government. Tammany Hall, the New York City headquarters of the Democratic Party, became involved with dishonestly giving jobs to Irish immigrants. Boston was also corrupt - and little was done to improve the living conditions of the poor.
Eventually, however, Irish Catholics in America forged ahead. In the cities they became a force to be reckoned with. Teddy Roosevelt did not approve of the distinction between Americans and 'Irish-Americans', but in the cinema in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, films showed Irish-Americans as they liked to see themselves.
The Irish also became State Governors, and stood for Congress. To this day they remain a force in American politics. Altogether this was a most interesting talk, and full of facts.