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Life in America

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Most of the new arrivals were from rural districts in Ireland, but their knowledge of farming was usually limited to the tending of impoverished potato patches... Land had so long been associated with oppression in Ireland that the Irish were seldom found felling the forest or turning up the virgin prairie on their own account. The mass of Irish laborers were rootless, unmarried men or husbands who returned in off-seasons to their families & acquaintances in N.Y. & other large cities (after working on canals & RRs). Many remitted their savings to Ireland & later returned to N.Y. to meet wives & children sailing on prepaid passage tickets to happy reunions in America.
The poverty-stricken Irish came to the U.S. as individuals rather than as family groups or bands of colonizers under a leader. The flight from famine did not permit of lengthy advance preparations, & the wretched condition of many who found themselves stranded in N.Y. left them friendless, planless, almost hopeless.
The Irish adherence to the Roman Catholic faith set the children of Erin apart from the Protestant communities in which they lived & placed them on the defensive. Common memories of the Green Isle provided another bond of fellowship. Thriving upon Irish love of people & whiskey, Irish saloons & political clubs maintained local loyalties, as did the fire & police forces, with their large Irish membership. "The Irish are a social people," explained the Irish American, "& require great self-denial to induce them to take up their abode in less-settled locations, even though sure of becoming prosperous by so doing."
- Robt. Ernst, Imm. Life in N.Y. City, p. 63
The immigrant communities provided jobs, not likely occur elsewhere.

Once an Irishman had settled, the _______ routine for his family & friends in the old country began & the remittances went overseas. The cluster, or "bundle" as the Irish called it, was in the making. An old Irishman described the process: "Emigrants from the same village or district usually settled down in the same city or town in the States where their relatives for friends or neighbors had preceded them, thus forming little colonies."
In the larger settlements, boardinghouses catered to emigrants according to their county origins... Outside of the solace of mingling with people from the same county, the emigrant had practical reasons for his choice of boardinghouse. Resident lodgers held themselves under obligation by honored tradition to help the newcomer from their own county to find work & to acquaint him with the ways of the new land. News of friends was likely to be had, & messages left. There he found that Dennis had gone to the Erie Canal and if he followed, he inquired at another county boardinghouse along the waterway of the whereabouts of Dennis. In time, as the emigrants distributed themselves, an Irishman could travel from one end of the country to the other and in each city or town locate an Irish boardinghouse or an Irish family happy to give him shelter.
- Geo. Patton, To the Golden Door, p. 174
The organization of social conscience lay far in the future at the time of the Irish migration, no settlement-houses existed to direct them, no experienced social workers to help them... Only a few overburdened or intermittent emigration societies & head-tax-supported state commissions stood at the head of the piers.
Emigrants in America depended on their own system of social benevolence nurtured in Ireland - the poor helping the poor. They turned to their own mutual benefit societies, vastly expanded by the famine numbers. In N.Y., Tammany Hall gave a helping hand.
- Ibid., p. 511

They instinctively created within the larger city, neighborhood communities where they could practice & sustain their own values. Wherever possible they followed old routes of settlement to neighborhoods where other Irish who had come a few years earlier were already established. Each family tried to live near friends & relatives from the same village. Those already arrived held Saturday-night "kitchen-rackets" to welcome the "greenhorns." These parties were the equivalent of the "American wakes" which the neighbors who had stayed at home gave for the immigrants before their departure from Ireland. The men helped newcomers find work on the same construction project or on the same horsecar-line on which they themselves were employed. For decades these new communities formed a world within a world.
The home, the church, & the saloon were the centers of life in the community. Home might be a shanty or two rooms in a tenement, but the family made it do. The home was a hive of activity. The children were born at home, played & grew up there; meals were eaten together around the table in the kitchen; the mother did the washing & cooking, the neighbors visited, & the father drank his pint of beer & took his ease after a day's labor within these cramped & crowded quarters. There was no privacy or room of one's own. No emotions & no secrets could be kept hidden from the rest of the family within those walls. It was a triumph if they could even be kept secret from the neighbors. It was a warm, gregarious, communal style of life that bred strong family & neighborhood loyalties & permitted the avowal of strong passions.
The Catholic Church played a significant role in the affections of the Irish, for the church buildings in American cities (or on B.I.) were not inheritances from the past. If there was to be a church, & later a parish school, the parishioners had to pay for their construction by contributing small sums each week for many years.
- Wm. V. Shannon, The Am. Irish, p. 34-35

Obliged to find housing accommodations that were both cheap & within walking distance of their employment, the majority of urban immigrants crowded into old warehouses or dilapidated mansions which had been hastily converted into tenements. Many others lived in flimsy one-room shanties erected out of whatever materials were available, or sought shelter in attics or cellars. Darkness, damp, & lack of ventilation were almost universal in such dwellings, in which there was only primitive sanitation. The squalid & noisome surroundings proved excellent breeding-grounds for diseases like tuberculosis, smallpox, typhus, & cholera, from all of which immigrants suffered more heavily than the native population. That the immigrant death-rate was also higher than that of the native population was due not only to unfavorable living conditions in American but also to the fact that many emigrants were physically debilitated on arrival, owing to long-continued malnutrition & the hardships of crossing.
- Maldwyn A. Jones, Am. Imm., p. 133

In the 1840s & '50s came a series of new inventions that transformed the productive system of America. The older industries had distained the immigrants, but the new ones were glad to use this fluid labor supply that could be laid off at will.
Whatever branch of the economy entered upon a period of expansion did so with the aid of immigrant labor (canals, RRs, etc...).
In mid-century the immigrants went to dig in the mines that pock-marked the coal & iron fields of Pennsylvania, first experienced Welsh & Cornishmen, later raw Irish & Germans. It cost the immigrants to make this adjustment, the dark, stony pits supplanted the warm, living earth as a source of their daily bread. Year after year they paid the price in innumerable hardships of body & mind.
Not until the 1880s was the 10-hour day an object seriously to be struggled for, & for many years that span was an ideal to be sought rather than a reality. The week was full, seven days were not unusual, & along with Sunday vanished the whole long calendar of religious holidays that had marked the peasant year.
- Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted, chap. III

In the summer of 1817 the English colonizer Morris Birkbeck stopped at a farmhouse outside of St. Clairsville, Ohio, across the river from Wheeling, & talked to an Irish settler. "He came to this place 14 years ago, before an ax had been lifted except to blaze a road... A free & independent American, he owns 118 acres of excellent land & has 20 descendents."
- Walter Havighurst, Wilderness for Sale, p. 207

The move to America was from a monolithic Irish Catholic society, persecuted by and united against a few Protestants who held all the power, to a pluralistic society, diverse & many-faceted, where they were a minority in numbers & where power was fluid and only held & manipulated by combination & compromise. (B.I. a return)

The primacy of the Irish in time & numbers in the 19th century endows their experience with special interest. As the precursors of the other great waves of immigrants, their reaction to the urban world set precedents & institutional patterns.
The assertion that there was little difference between American slums & Irish villages as to living conditions overlooks the opportunities in urban America. The situation was disastrous for those who lived at the extreme lower end of the social scale in Ireland, as did most of the immigrants. Life was hard in the American city but there was more security, freedom, & opportunity to raise the standard of living. [Those who came to B.I. combined the advantages of American opportunity & rural living. -HC]
The development [by] the Irish of their own minority culture in the city (schools, Church, saloons, fire companies, etc...) projected an Irish Catholic way of life that subtly estranged the Irish from many of the city's institutions & advantages. Separate schools, organizations, & traditions perpetuated cultural pluralism. [On B.I. it was not a subculture - only when they went to the mainland did they come in contact with the mainstream of American life. They escaped the pressures entailed in being surrounded by an alien culture. -HC]
A key feature of the urban adjustment of the Irish was the formation, under pressure, of the first large-scale ethnic ghettos in American cities. These sociocultural enclaves would become one of the most persistent American urban institutions. The ghettos had both positive & negative aspects. If they concentrated misery & hostility, they also provided way-stations between arrival & full immersion in the mainstream of American life. If they segregated immigrants from some of the benefits of the mainstream, they also provided a protective solidarity, without which the individual would have been more vulnerable to exploitation by a society that had scant regard for his welfare. The Irish political bosses attended to the needs of the poor for food, clothing, & shelter at a time when other levels of municipal leadership were blind to an evident need.
For the Irish, an ancient people thrust into the 19th century, their emigration introduced them, almost by accident, into 2 related trends, industrialization & urbanization, which ushered them from a folk society into modern life. Prepared for cultural adaptation by their experience in surviving foreign conquest & oppression, [they] were equipped especially well to cope with the contradictions & turmoil of urban life. Steeped in a tradition of ethnic & religious loyalty, they used religious & ethnic ties to promote their own organization & advancement under city conditions.
- adapted from Dennis Clarke, The Irish in Philadelphia, p. 177-83


Edward M. Levine, The Irish & Irish Politicians (W. Coll. Lib.)[1]
This book brings out the fact that because of the religious prejudice against them, the Irish were pressed between middle-class America & the incoming laborers (also Catholic, but with whom they had little sympathy) from Europe. Their differences kept them from entering Protestant middle-class America, & those of their number who did were disliked & distrusted by their fellow Irish & called "Lace-Curtain Irish." This term & "Shanty Irish" are purely American in origin.
It is notable that on the Island this did not take place because of the isolation from middle-class Protestant America. The few Protestants were the outcasts.

"We love this country," wrote Thomas Thorley from C__kland, Ohio (in a letter published in 1849). "I have lost the fear of ever wanting! Or my children! We have been here at this house 7 weeks, during that time one quarter of veal, three quarters of sheep, two pigs, the one weighing 18 score, 9 lbs. (369 lbs.), the other small, about 40 lbs.; so much for starvation! And then there is liberty. I can take my rifle down & fetch me a brace of squirrels to make a first-rate pie, or a wild duck; these I fetch in 10 minutes."
- Guillet, The Grt. Mig., p. 229

In most parts of America during the great period of immigration the distinctions of wealth & poverty were not apparent (true on [Beaver] Island -HC). While some were well-to-do, there were none living either on parish relief or in ostentatious wealth. Bitterness was frequently present in the minds of those who believed that the distress which led to their enforced emigration had been due to the class system.
- Ibid., p. 227

"The old race is passing away to other lands, & in the vast working world of America, with all the new influences of light & progress, the young generation, though still loving the land of their fathers, will scarcely find leisure to dream over the fairy-haunted hills & lakes & raths of ancient Ireland."
- Lady Wilde, in her introduction to Ancient Legends of Ireland (1888)

Government policy & regulation (Boston, 1851)

Government action reflected the community's attitude toward immigrants. They were still welcome. Since the care of aliens was charged to the Commonwealth, the problem of poor relief aroused less hostility within Boston than outside it. Yet nowhere was pauperism transmuted into a pretext for discrimination against the Irish. Legislation aimed only at barring the dependent, the insane, & the unfit, & shifted to newcomers part of the cost of those who could not support themselves. The function of the Municipal Supt. of Alien Passengers under the Act of 1837 was merely to prevent the landing of persons incompetent to maintain themselves, unless a bond was given that no such individual become a charge within 10 years, & to collect the sum of $12.00 each from other alien passengers as a commutation for such a bond. All subsequent changes in the law only modified it to conform with a decision of the Supreme Court. Attempts to extend these restrictive provisions failed, partly because of the pressure of shipping firms which profited by the immigrant traffic, but primarily because successive administrations recognized that "the evils of foreign pauperism we cannot avoid," & it is "wise to avail ourselves of the advantages of direct emigration which increases the business of the state."
- Oscar Handlin, Boston's Immigrants, p. 183


Fourth of July

(when 1866 party got to B.I.)
Capt. Marryat in N.Y., July 4th, 1837:
"Pop-pop-bang. Mercy on us! how fortunate it is that anniversaries come but once a year. Well, the Americans may have reason to be proud of this day, & the deeds of their forefathers, but why do they get so confoundedly drunk? Why on this day of independence, should they become so dependent upon posts & rails for support?"
After describing the day - booths of food on Broadway, the military parade of militia, flags everywhere, on the river steamers & sailing vessels going in every direction covered with flags, he ends:
"There is something grand in the idea of intoxication. In this world, vices on a grand scale dilate into virtues; he who murders one man is strung up in ignominy; but he who murders 20,000 has a statue to his memory... A staggering individual is a laughable & sometimes a disgusting spectacle; but the whole of a vast continent reeling, offering a holocaust of its brains for mercies vouchsafed, is an appropriate tribute of gratitude for the rights of equality."
- Diary, p. 87


Sending money back

Thousands of individuals earning only 50ยข a day or, in the case of domestic servants, $1.00 a week, were methodically saving pennies & quarters to send to dependents in the old country. The Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank of New York, chartered by the Irish Emigrant Society in 1851, opened with 2,300 depositors, whose average savings was $238.56. In the next 30 years this bank alone sent $30,000,000 in remittances to Ireland.
- Wm. V. Shannon, The Am. Irish, p. 39

Man craves companionship & associates with people of similar interests.
Love of liquor, fostered by the hardships of life in the Green Isle, led Irishmen to the myriads of barrooms of N.Y., or to the more respectable Green Tavern of Malachi Fallon, Daniel Sweeney's House of Refreshment, or to John O'Keefe's Restaurant.
- Robt. Ernst, Immigrant Life in N.Y., chap. XI



(1830s) -
Housing - the homes of the poor were small, generally of one story, & built of wood, with inflammable shingle roofs. They possessed few conveniences, but usually held not more than one or two families. Multiple dwellings were slow to develop because of the cheapness of land in the less-desirable areas. The great tenement house, therefore, was unusual in Boston of this period. There were of course no sanitary provisions for the very poor, but because of the avoidance of overcrowding, living was not unhealthy. Boston at this time was one of the healthiest of 19th-century municipalities.
The prospective settlers who could be at all selective would pass Boston in favor of its younger & more flourishing sisters. In this community there was no room for strangers, space was lacking. Boston offered few attractions in either agriculture or industry. The far greater opportunities elsewhere combined to sweep the currents of migration in other directions.
McCanns - James went to N.Y...

(1849) -
(From Terence A. Pulsky - here with Kossuth in 1852)
25,000 paupers in Mass. - 91% foreigners
1,500 vagabond children in Boston between 6 & 16, unfit to be in public schools -
90% foreigners
25,000 applied for employment to Boston Society for the Prevention of Pauperism in
last 5 years:
15,000 females - 90% foreigners
8,000 males - 58% foreigners
In Boston Dispensary - 88% of cases foreigners
In Boston Almshouse - 97% of cases foreigners

3/4 of all arrests in Boston & almost 3/4 of commitments were foreigners.
- Oscar Handlin, This Was America


Coal Mining

The boom in anthracite came in the 1820s, with the usual boomtown results. First, shallow mining by amateurs.
1827 - arrival of the 1st 16 English miners. A large number of English & Welsh miners came, encouraged by high wages.
The Irish soon found their way. Mining had many unskilled jobs to be done. Each miner had one or more laborers assigned to him, & there were other underground workers (mule drivers, RR operators), & a host of unskilled jobs aboveground. The total of these far exceeded the skilled jobs.
If the Irish had harbored any hopes that ethnic tensions had been left back on the shores of Ireland they were quickly disabused. The English & Welsh held most of the skilled jobs. The Irish were relegated to low-status positions. All past hatreds & slights came welling up again, & the mine patches were quickly divided, physically & socially, along ethnic lines. Soon the Irish turned to protective societies.
The heavy influx of Irish into the anthracite region from famine-ridden Ireland compounded tensions. What had been a minority became a majority. This brought changes to attitudes toward the Irish & "Native Americanism" became the here as in the rest of the country.
By 1857 the St. Patrick's Day paraders in Pottsville2 were startled to see an effigy of the saint hung on a telegraph pole with a string of potatoes around its neck. This same year the Miners' Journal in Pottsville accused the perpetrators of election frauds in 1856 of being "Molly Maguires."
The first allegations linking the M. Mag. with terrorism came with the Civil War. The draft ordered by Lincoln in 1862 brought anti-war sentiment to a head.
Alexander McClure, in charge of Penn. draft: "In several mining districts there were positive indications of revolutionary disloyalty, & it was especially manifest in Schuylkill Co., where the Molly Maguires were in the zenith of their power." The Molly Maguires gathered a mob in Cass Township to resist the draft. Finally, in order not to have armed conflict with the militia, the authorities said that twp.'s quota had been met by volunteers.
In 1863 the draft became a federal affair & was enforced by armed troops in Cass Twp..
- Wayne G. Broehl, Jr., The Molly Mag., chap. 4

The reign of terror instituted by the "Molly Maguires" in the anthracite coal regions of Penn. is usually described as one of the worst examples of mob rule & blackmail in the history of labor relations, for which the Irish coal miners are held responsible. Viewed from the longer perspective, the incident is but another illustration of the battle for better working conditions in the coal-producing areas, although the movement fell under the control of criminals & ended in a number of executions. The anthracite coal regions of Penn. had a mushroom growth in the 1830s, with immigrant labor, poor housing facilities, & all the evils of company towns & company stores... The region suffered from the evils of overdevelopment & frequent business slumps, which weighed especially heavily upon the Irish coal miners. Working conditions in the mines were terrible, with no safety requirements, inspection, or proper ventilation. From 1848-49 wages were $1 or $1.25 a day for miners, & .82 for ordinary laborers. In 1869 a peak of $18.20 was reached, but by 1877 the wage had declined to $9.80. "Breaker boys," age 7 to 16, worked like slaves in the mines under bosses whose character left much to be desired. The Boston Pilot (May 24, 1862) exposed conditions in the coal mines - the inadequate pay, the "murderous neglect" of ventilation, the "rancid provisions" available at high prices at company stores, the explosions in the firedamp caverns in which Irish & Welsh miners were blown to pieces, and the "scandalous ungenerosity" subsequently shown by the operators toward their mutilated workmen - and concluded by denouncing some of the owners as men with "the conscience neither of the Christian nor the Pagan."
Irish benevolent societies were formed to deal with some of these problems. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, a semi-secret organization, became the backbone of the miners' unions. In a very long story of real class war, the responsibility for violence in the Penn. coalmines seems to be pretty well divided. By 1860 the Molly Maguires terrorized the whole anthracite region, elected sheriffs & constables, and resorted to arson, blackmail, & murder. The organization was not finally broken up until 1875, when 19 were hanged after trials held in an atmosphere of great excitement & prejudice. The incident for a long time blackened the record of the Irish-Americans, & many refused to see the industrial conditions which had provoked such criminal action. Furthermore it must be added that the better elements among the Irish population denounced the Molly Maguires, particularly the Church, which threatened the leaders of this organization with excommunication.
- Carl Wittke, We Who Built America, p. 139-40

This is a description of the coalfields in 1873 - probably much the same [as] when Cornelius was there:
"It was a rough, very often brutal environment. Cheap (& often bad) liquor was consumed in large quantities, & there was incessant betting - on cock-fights, on dog-fights, on footraces, even on the frequent barroom fights...
In almost total absence of moral sanctions, violence lurked near the surface. Most of the men he met, commented McParlan, were armed, with a revolver if they could afford it; if not, with "billies" or steel-knuckles... Quarrels & fights - even shootings - were seldom settled by processes of law. Direct retaliation in kind either on a personal basis or through the secret societies was preferred."
- Wayne G. Broehl, Jr., The Molly Maguires, p. 166


Life in the slums was a continual struggle with illness & death. The high incidence of disease in N.Y. City was directly related to the sanitary conditions of the tenement-dwellers. In the crowded immigration quarters, quarantine was impossible & communicable diseases suddenly erupted into epidemic proportions. The sixth ward was a center of contagion, typhoid in 1837, typhus in 1842, & cholera & 1849. Tuberculosis, pneumonia, & bronchitis were common.
Among the immigrants the Irish were the chief victims of disease, & Irish-born patients of the city institutions were nearly always in the majority. Natives of Ireland comprised 53.9% of N.Y.'s foreign-born population in 1855, but at Bellevue Hospital from 1849-1859, 85% of the foreign-born admitted were Irish.
As in the case of other diseases, insanity was higher among the immigrants. Over 3/4 of the admissions to the city's lunatic asylum on Blackwell's Island were foreign-born, & of these 2/3 were Irish.
Insanity was common among newly-arrived immigrants. It was attributed to "privations on shipboard," "the changes incident to arrival in a strange land," & to "want of sufficient nourishment."
Illness could also be traced to impure food, bought because it was cheap, from hucksters or basement storekeepers.
- Robt. Ernst, Immigrant Life in N.Y. City, Chap. V


Cholera struck the U.S. & British N. America in 1832-34, 1848-54 (1849 was the worst year of this sequence), 1866-67, & last in 1873. Respectable people noted that it struck the poor & dissolute hardest, particularly the immigrants. The anti-immigrant feelings, & especially the anti-Irish sentiment which was very strong at the time, derived in part from the fact that they were believed to be carriers of, or sources of, cholera - as in their poverty & unsanitary living conditions they certainly were.
Note in Isabella L. Bird, The Englishwoman in America, p. 471

As late as 1859, more than 2/3 of the city [N.Y.] was without sewers. Asiatic cholera epidemics [in] 1832, 1834, 1849, & 1855.
- Max Berger, The British Traveller in Am., p. 22


Suspicious natives might argue that the Irish press perpetuated old hostilities, promoted dual allegiances, & retarded Americanization, but they constituted the very life-blood of the immigrant community. The newspaper, whether conservative or reformist, was conscious of its task in the field of adult education; & it aided the foreigners' adjustment by fostering community activities, urging naturalization, luring its readers into the arena of domestic politics, & relentlessly waging war upon the Know-Nothings.
Irish papers did not flourish in N.Y. until the middle of the century. The poverty & illiteracy of vast masses of Irish made Irish-American journalism a desperate gamble until the more educated sons of immigrants & the mid-century influx of professionals enlarged the Irish reading public. The one exception was the Truth-Teller, founded in 1825, & the leading Irish newspaper until the 1850s, when it was absorbed by the Irish American in 1855. For its forthright advocacy of Irish political causes, its defense of the Catholic faith, & its encouragement to the immigrant, it gained wide support, claiming in 1833 a circulation of 3,000. It had no serious competitors other than the Catholic papers.
[- no citation given for this entry]

Next to the Church as a cultural influence was the Catholic Irish newspaper.
The newspaper stood to the Irishman as school & college in one, his library guide & companion. The impress of the Catholic Irish weekly upon the emigrant cannot be overemphasized. The U.S. introduced the newspaper to the Irishman as a habit, & it had a tremendous effect on his growth & change. Critics have said that the Irish press kept alive Irish sentiments, that it flattered the Irishman instead of telling him the truth, that its results were exclusivist inside the American community. Let the truth of these accusations be granted, & yet the benefit of the Irish press in the pre-Civil War years outweighed its faults. It hammered into the Irishman's head the need & advisability of naturalization without delay. It never ceased preaching to him that while he owed love to his native land, his unshakable allegiance belonged to the country of his adoption. It dwelt, perhaps with Irish excess, upon American patriotism. It fought valiantly the Irish weakness for drink. It crusaded to get the Catholic Irish out of their city warrens & into the country. It encouraged self-improvement and acted as a lyceum to lecture the emigrants on American middle-class standards, which it offered them for emulation. The literature of the Irish emigrant was the newspaper.
Of the numerous Catholic Irish journals in the U.S., many of which had only a brief & fitful life, the best & most important was the Boston Pilot.
- G. Patton, To the Golden Door, p. 598-99

During the height of the public school controversy, the Freeman's Journal was founded in 1840 to "assert the rights of Catholics against the common school system." It was the only Catholic newspaper appealing to immigrants. It claimed 4,500 readers in 1846 & nine years later the N.Y. state census credited it with a circulation of 16,000. Until after the Civil War it was either strongly influenced by, or completely dominated by, Archbishop Hughes. Its conservatism lay deeply-imbedded in the traditional Irish Catholic clergy's reverence for duly-constituted authority, & fear of "despotism of the state over property, industry, & family ties." It battled against all movements of social reform (such as the popular Fowlerism).
- Robt. Ernst, Imm. Life in N.Y. City, chap. XIII


New York

Tenements -
The old buildings near the wharves were the 1st to be converted into tenements. 1st the original owners moved out. Then the following white color [collar?] workers moved out when real estate values in lower Manhattan rose & rents became too high. To meet the demand for rooms & apartments, the owners converted old homes into apartments by erecting partitions for the accommodation of 3 or more families. Unscrupulous owners made room by dividing their space into "the smallest proportions capable of containing human life within 4 walls." Beginning in the '30s the immigrants began pouring into these buildings, the principal occupants were Irish. This was the 1st stage in the development of the modern N.Y. slum.
When owners saw the substantial profit yielded by converted old houses, they began constructing new housing designed for tenements. Normally such a building contained a narrow hall opening from street or court; on each floor two suites of rooms opened into the hall, including the cellar. Front & rear rooms had windows, but the bedrooms in the middle were dark. In most cases there was another tenement in the back yard, frequently accessible only through the alley. Alongside these buildings & in the yards were many little, irregular frame structures serving as sheds & homes for the overflow immigrant population. Such haphazard buildings, front & rear, on the same lot made an intricate array of rear courts & alleys, notoriously dark, foul-smelling, encumbered with accumulations of filth.
In the seven wards below Canal Street the gross density of population per acre climbed from 94.5 persons in 1820 to 163.5 in 1850. In the 7th & 10th wards, largely Irish, [it] rose from 54.5 persons per acre in 1820 to 170.9 in 1840.
The chief figure in rent-gouging was the agent. He leased a house or group of houses from the owner & then charged all the rent he could get. He sometimes made enough to buy the building in a short time. The fear of eviction put rent before fuel & clothing. With eviction went confiscation of belongings to pay back rent.
To the European city-dwelling immigrant the change was not so great, but to those from rural Ireland the adjustment to tenement living was great. Daylight rarely entered many rooms of the poor, & cross-ventilation was impossible.
The deficiency of water was responsible for the filth. Nearly all the old buildings & many of the new had no toilet facilities. Back yard wooden privies were common, & they were too few to accommodate those they were intended to serve. Through overuse & improper care, they were a constant menace to health. As late as 1857 only 137 miles of sewer had been constructed in 500 miles of streets, leaving unsewered "nearly 3/4 of the city, including the most populated areas."
- Robt. Ernst, Immigrant Life in N.Y. City, Chap. V


In 1850, 7,000 households were in rear buildings, & 1,500 cellars served as homes. (N.Y.)
Where once had been [seventeenth-century] Mayor [Thomas] Delavall's orchard, Cherry St. ran its few blocks to the East River. At #36, in 1853, stood Gotham Court, one of the better barracks buildings. Five stories in height, it stretched back 150 feet from the street between 2 alleys (one 9', the other 7' wide). Onto the wider alley opened 12 doors, through each of which passed the 10 families that lived within, 2 to each floor in identical 2-room apartments (one room 9x14', one bedroom 9-6'). Here, without interior plumbing or heat, were the homes of 500 people. Ten years later there were some improvements: for the service of the community, a row of privies in the basement, flushed occasionally by Croton Water. But by then there were more than 800 dwellers in the structure (6 per room, 12 per apartment).
That these conditions were usual was shown in the model workman's home put up by philanthropic New Yorkers at Elizabeth & North Streets. Each suite in this 6-story building had 3 rooms, but the rooms were smaller (4x11', 8x7', & 8x7'). There were gas lights in the halls; but the water closets were in sheds in the alleys & well over 1/2 the rooms had no windows at all.
Eventually came the "dumbbell apartments." Attached to its neighbors on either side, it left a vacant strip perhaps 10' deep in the rear. The building was narrowed in the middle by an indentation 2 1/2' wide, varying in length from 5' to 50'. Three rooms had their windows on this 5-foot-wide shaft. These structures were 6 stories high, sometimes 8. Anywhere from 150 to 200 human beings could be housed in this small space. It was not a long block that had 10 such structures on either side of the street, not an unusual block that was a home for 4,000 people.
In these tiny rooms many traditional activities died. Not here could friends be welcomed, festivals commemorated, children taught. Home often crowded even more with strange lodgers became just a feeding & sleeping place, all else moved to the street.
The street became the artery of life, here the children played, dodging traffic; adults sat on the steps.
- Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted, chap. VI

[Population of] New York City:
1825 - 166,000
1845 - 371,000
1855 - 630,000
1860 - 805,000
- well over a million in greater metropolitan area


1835 - great fire destroyed 13A[cres] of old buildings around Hanover Square, William,
Pearl, Water, & Front Streets.
1845 - fire broke out in the vicinity of Wall St. & laid waste the entire district between
Broadway & the eastern side of Broad.
Volunteer firemen unable to cope with the problem [of fires generally];
not until 1865 were professional firemen introduced.
- Robt. Ernst, Imm. Life in N.Y. City, p. 20


Before Municipal Police Act of 1854 -
1. 2 constables elected annually in each ward
2. a small body of men appointed by the mayor - the Mayor's Marshalls
3. a "watch composed of citizens who patrolled the streets at night"
1844 Act -
Abolished the "watch" & established day & night police.
Lawlessness continued, climaxed by the Astor Place Riot of 1849.
1857 -
The State created a Metropolitan Police for the N.Y. area. Mayor Fernando Wood
defied the State, a pitched battle ensued, & the Metropolitan Police won.
- Ibid., p. 22

Irish Quarter

The Irish remained concentrated in the large cities, especially in the East. By 1850 N.Y. had 133,000 Irish, mostly poor & many unemployed, crowded into a distinct foreign quarter. This area stretched between Broadway & the Bowery. It was N.Y.'s first slum. Entire families lived in one room in the dreary tenements that ______ had denounced as dens of inequity back in 1836. The streets were piled high with filth, dirt hills on Center Street rising 4' in height. Yet no garbage carts visited the area for weeks at a time. Little wonder then that the traveler (P. W. Mitchell, lived in Richmond 1848-58) observed that there was "very little Irish fun left in them."
- Max Berger, The British Traveller in Am., p. 167

Poverty & Crime

City almshouse figures before 1849 were unreliable but during the next decade 3/4 of all persons admitted to the almshouse were born outside the U.S.. In N.Y. in 1852 half the persons relieved by the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor were Irish. Then depression struck. In 1854 & '55, & again in 1857, the number of indigent poor reached unheard-of numbers as unemployment rose. In the year of Lincoln's election 86% of the paupers in N.Y. City were of foreign birth.
In 1859, 23% of the persons arrested in N.Y. City were native[-born] Americans, & 55% Irish. Of the total number committed to city prison between 1850 & 1858, 7/8 were "intemperate."
Over half the population of N.Y. City in 1855 was foreign-born; 54% of these were Irish, 29% German.
- Robt. Ernst, Imm. Life in N.Y. City

In 1820 there were approximately 25,000 Catholics, mostly Irish, in N.Y. City; their numbers doubled a decade or so later; & in 1844 a speaker at an Irish rally called it "the most Irish city in the Union." Cobbett estimated in 1824 they comprised 1/6 of the population, but more faith can be placed in his judgement that the Irish did 4/5 of the hard labor in the city.
Being poor & often without work, the Irish immigrants lived where their small means permitted, jammed into rundown residences, cheaply-built tenements which began to appear in the early '30s, or improvised shanties in alleys & courts, piled into cellars & garrets, with primitive sanitary facilities, without water except from a common pump, the first to suffer from an epidemic, & the most widely-ravaged by fatalities because of congestion[?]. One-third of the entire number of cholera cases in the city in 1832 was in the 6th ward. Increasing immigration tended to fix their hard bonds; the living conditions of the Irish had degenerated in the 1850s from the 1830s. Slums had by then become an institution.
- Patton, To the Golden Door, p. 180-81

The most striking examples of ethnic concentration were provided by N.Y. City. As early as 1830 the 6th Ward, especially the unsalubrious quarter known as the "Five Points," had taken on a marked Irish coloring. From here during the next generation the area of Irish settlement was successively extended until it covered the whole of the Lower East Side as far north as the 14th Ward & as far east as the 7th. ...An equally revealing reflection of group consciousness was the banding together in autonomous social organizations. This development which isolated the newcomer far more exclusively than mere geographical segregation was in most cases due to the exclusive attitudes of the natives, who tended to bar immigrants from existing societies. Most of the numerous Irish military companies came into existence only after Irishmen had been refused admission to native companies.
- Maldwyn A. Jones, Am. Imm., p. 134

N.Y. City theatre

The Irish exerted a great influence on the drama, for their very presence in N.Y. in such numbers made Irish plays popular. Irish & Irish-American actors were in constant demand.
The unfortunate aspect of Irish comedy was the ridiculous light in which the poor & uneducated Irish were cast, as comedians won laughs from American audiences for their portrayal of the ignorant, pugnacious, & drunken Irish buffoon. The illiterate immigrant cared little for what the N.Y. aristocracy thought, but the Irish press showed a just resentment. Many Irish actors depended upon the "grossest caricature & most exaggerated misrepresentation," complained the Irish American. "Even the great Tyrone Power himself could not squeeze out the guffaw 'til he had transcended the boundary of nature & gone over into the province of the ridiculous & the absurd."
- Robt. Ernst, Imm. Life in N.Y. City, chap. XII


Draft Riots

July 13, 1863, the 1st day of conscription, was the signal for revolt & for 5 days the city was besieged by armed mobs. Conscription offices were destroyed, the mayor's residence attacked. Venting their fury not only on Unionists but on the negro, the mob pillaged, burned, raped, & killed. Not until the troops had raked the streets with canon was order restored. The number of rioters killed in the bloody week was variously estimated to be from 400 to 2,000; the exact number could never be known, for the rioters retrieved their dead at night & buried them secretly in the backyards of slum rookeries.
- Wayne G. Broehl, The Molly Mag., p. 91

In the summer of 1863 there were draft riots in many cities, from Maine to Illinois. None, however, reached the proportions of those in N.Y. City. For these outbreaks (N.Y.) the Irish were severely attacked throughout the country, and all rioters were promptly & unfairly classed as Irish. At least 2 of the Irish wards in N.Y. City remained perfectly quiet, & their colored residents were not disturbed. In the 1st ward Irish porters & laborers formed a guard to fight off the rioters.
The fact remains, however, that the Irish were the worst offenders in the riots that held N.Y. in the grip of a terrors so widespread that Federal troops had to be summoned into the city to restore order. The reputation of the entire Irish group was damaged throughout the nation. More than opposition to the draft was involved. There was a feeling held in some quarters, and not without justification, that draft officials had drawn especially heavily upon the Democratic wards in N.Y.. Above all the riot took the form of a huge anti-negro demonstration, and politicians seized the opportunity to stir up their followers against going to war for "niggers," while the rich remained at home. Why, according to the Daily News, should a worker leave his family destitute while he goes out to war to free a negro who [would] then compete with him for a job?
Apparently the governor of N.Y. appealed to Archbishop Hughes... A bulletin was prominently displayed throughout the city summoning "the men of N.Y. who are now called in many of the papers Rioters" to the Bishop's residence to hear an address... The crowd came & heard the Archbishop, who appeared in purple robes and with the insignia of office. According to one reporter, the crowd "was of one nationality." The Archbishop made no mention of the negroes who had been the special victims of the disorder. In the main his address was a plea to the faithful to return to their homes. Peace was restored.
- We Who Built Am., p. 170-71

1 Edward M. Levine, The Irish and Irish Politicians; A Study of Cultural and Social Alienation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.

2 Probably Pottsville, Pennsylvania, a leading center of anthracite mining. Since 1811 it has been part of Schuylkill County.