While some Irish immigrants enjoyed their freedom from themisery in Ireland, many faced harsh racial discrimination and prejudice.
Mostnotably, the Irish were compared to African Americans who were known to be at the bottom of thesocial hierarchy. A cartoon by Thomas Nast shows the direct comparison of thetwo groups. An African American man and an Irish man are sat on a sort of scaleon which they are level, representing their equal statuses in American society.The Irish man is clearly depicted to look ape-like, a feature seen in manyanti-Irish cartoons. Unsurprisingly, Harper’sWeekly, the publisher of the cartoon, was “vehemently opposed” to “theincreasing political and social influence” of the Catholic Church.1 Although compared, the Irishand African Americans did not unite; instead, they felt the need to compete inorder to climb up the social ladder to be accepted by Americans. In the Southduring the antebellum period, masters often prohibited slaves from doingdangerous work out of fear of losing a valuable worker. These jobs were thentaken up by the Irish.
The duties included the building of canals and railroadsas well as working in coal mines. Thousands of Irish workers lost their livesin improving America.Religious discrimination against the Irish was prominent asthey were almost exclusively Catholic. Many Americans saw the religion as athreat to Protestantism. Nathaniel Currier expressed the feelings of the nationin an anti-Catholic cartoon from 1855.
The drawing depicted several Catholicbishops and a leading pope attempting to anchor themselves on American land.One of the bishops is portrayed threatening to burn bibles and “elevate thiscountry to the same degree of happiness and prosperity,” that Catholicism hasto other European countries.2 The Church leaders have been villainized andshown as being forceful and assertive, shoving their religion onto Americans.Brother Jonathon, a personification of New England, even refers to Catholicismas “the mark of the Beast.”3 The Irish faith was also symbolic of lowerclass, poor, and therefore dangerous and dirty people. Americans, specificallyupper class citizens, were afraid of accepting such people into society.
Anti-Catholicfeelings were also violent at times. St. Mary’s Catholic Church was burned downby angry Protestants in 1831 and thirteen people died in Philadelphia whenriots broke out in 1844. Apart from religious and racial discrimination, the Irish weregenerally excluded from American society.
Like the African Americans, white Americansdespised the immigrants for taking their jobs. The Irish “entered the workforceat the bottom of the occupational ladder” and were only able to get low paying,unskilled work.4Many immigrants, not just Irish, found work at textile factories like LowellMills in Massachusetts. Immigrants were often hired as strikebreakers while Americanmill workers demanded higher wages and reduced hours. Wages were rather loweredand hours lengthened as immigrants were desperate for work. This led to risingtensions and anti-immigrant feelings by mill workers and other working classAmericans alike. Anti-immigration and anti-Catholic nativists formed theKnow-Nothing-Party in the 1850s which sparked further discriminatory sentimenttowards non-Americans and at one point, after 1855, halted immigration to thecountry.
The Party was especially successful throughout the North where manyIrish immigrants settled. Members wanted to prevent the Irish from becomingnaturalized American citizens and from gaining political power but the CatholicChurch as well as the Democratic Party gained power through the support ofIrish immigrants. The Irish only had each other in a country where they were sounwelcomed. Their loyalty to each other helped the immigrants to “get jobs…dealwith naturalization issues, and even to get food or heating fuel inemergencies.”5The Irish also supported fellow Irish-American political candidates such asWilliam R. Grace who was elected mayor of New York City in 1880; the first tobe Irish-Catholic. The immigrants used politics to voice their opinions andconcerns as they were ignored anywhere else.
Although some employers enjoyedhiring Irish immigrants at such low wages, some employers did not want anyIrish workers at their stores and businesses. Some began to hang “Positively NoIrish Need Apply” signs on their doors as a notice to those seeking jobs.6Irish immigrants faced cruel treatment by Americans informs of racial and religious discrimination as well as social exclusion.
Anti-immigrationgroups made it difficult for Irish immigrants to enjoy their new lives byharassing and mocking them while anti-Catholic groups made it difficult forIrish-Catholics to practice their faith peacefully. The Irish were ridiculed 1nast2currier3currier4Joinging the workforce5Irish ID6History plcce