Anti-Irish Racism in the United States


Like most of you I regret having to present a very truncated version of my paper. It is like trying to pour a pint of Guinness into an eight ounce glass. But that is what we have to do and so on with it. Like Ireland this paper is divided into two parts. In the first part I outlined the evidence which is rather overwhelming for the presence of anti Irish prejudice and racism in the United States. The focus is on the 18th and 19th centuries. The second part of the paper seeks to explain the roots of these attitudes.
 Evidence of anti-Irish attitudes was present in British America throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many colonies enacted laws seeking to limit the immigration of the Irish. In 1704 the Maryland legislature passed a law placing a tax of twenty shillings on Irish servants “to prevent the Importing of too great a number of Irish Papists into this Province.”A South Carolina law of 1716 forbade the immigration of people “commonly called native Irish, or persons of scandalous character or Roman Catholics.” In that same year the South Carolina legislature offered a land grant of 300-400 acres to encourage Irish Protestants over the age of sixteen to emigrate to the colony. Pennsylvania passed a law in 1729 that taxed the importation of Irish servants and three years later Georgia did the same.
 The penal laws of the early eighteenth century have become a key part of Irish historical memory. What is perhaps overlooked is that such legislation was  also enacted in British America. Taking their cue from London, the Maryland legislature passed a series of laws in the early eighteenth century that sought to curb the growth of Catholicism. The Irish were the principal victims of this legislation that even went so far as to deny them the right to vote by requiring all voters to take oaths that were offensive to Catholic belief. As a group of Catholics put it, “by these Laws we are almost reduced to a Levell with our Negros not having even the privilege of Voting... .”
  Today many people regard Boston as the capital of Irish America. It has long been a favorite home of immigrants from Ireland and for much of the twentieth century Irish-American politicians have ruled Boston. But in the first half of the nineteenth century prejudice against the Irish in Boston was unparalleled.
 An historian of the Boston Irish put it this way: “If there had existed in the nineteenth century a computer able to digest all the appropriate data, it would have reported one city in the entire world where an Irish Catholic, under any circumstance, should never, ever, set foot. That city was Boston, Massachusetts. It was an American city with an intensely homogeneous Anglo-Saxon character, an inbred hostility toward people who were Irish, a fierce and violent revulsion against all things Roman Catholic, ... A city that rejected the Irish from the very start... .”  The anti-Irish climate of Boston became most virulent during the 1840s snd 50s when the Know Nothing political party gained power in the state. The Know Nothings were opposed to the immigration of foreigners, especially Irish Catholics, and believed that ”Americans must rule America.” Boston had attracted a large number of immigrants in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Irish in particular. By 1855 it was estimated that one of every three people living in the city were foreign-born Irish, (50,000 of a population of 160,000). It was so Irish that one Bostonian described the city as “the Dublin of America.” Such a large foreign population provided an ideal environment for the rise of the Know Nothing party.
 In Massachusetts the Know Nothing party won a landslide victory in the state election of 1854. Two out of three voters in the state voted for the Know Nothing party, the party of intolerance and bigotry. Once in foffice they passed a series of laws aimed specifically at the Irish Catholic population of Massachusetts. These included mandatory daily reading of the King James Bible in the public schools; disbanding Irish militia units and confiscating their weapons: dismissing Irish state workers; deporting poor Irish back to Liverpool- 295 of them- because they were regarded as a drain on the public treasury. They also sought to deprive Roman Catholics of the right to vote and hold office. The Know Nothing party’s decline was as rapid as its rise. Its candidate suffered overwhelming defeat in the presidential election of 1856 and this signalled the end of the party’s popular appeal.
 In the 1840s and 50s it was common for the Irish to encounter economic discrimination. In his classic study of Boston’s Irish immigrants, Oscar Handlin wrote, that “The tenuous character of their status drove the Irish into a constant search for better jobs and more secure employment. All aspired to skilled positions that would enable them to support their families alone. But the reluctance to employ Irishmen in any but the lowest capacities, added to their lack of captial and of training, rigorously excluded them from such occupations. Early attempts to ban foreigners from certain professions by law had failed, but by 1845 the caption “None need apply but Americans” was familiar in Boston newspaper advertisements. ... While other groups filtered into the city and were accepted, the Irish remained unneeded and unabsorbed.” Irish immigrants in Boston were stuck in an economic cul-de-sac and would remain there for much of the nineteenth century. Indeed, “the traumatic decades of humiliation and discrimination, of ridicule and contempt, of nativist slanders and Know Nothing bruises, became a permanent part of the Irish Catholic heritage in Boston.”
  In the South the prejudice against the Irish took on a different twist. They were often compared with the slaves and were even called “niggers turned inside out” while the slaves were referred to as “smoked Irish.” An English traveller noted that both Irish and African Americans “were viewed as outcasts.” To be called an Irishman, noted the visitor, “is almost as great an insult as to be stigmatized as a nigger feller.” Some jobs were even thought to be too dangerous for the slave population whereas no job was too risky for the Irish. They  were preferred to the slaves when it came to working on the docks because, as one official put it, “The niggers are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard, or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything.”
 In the 1850s anti-Irish prejudice took on a new dimension. Prior to this time the common belief was that despite their ignorance and brutishness, the Irish could become educated and civilized. In the 1850s the element of race entered the picture and it transformed the image of the Irish. The stereotype of the Irish as ignorant, brutal, and depraved was now said to be rooted in their very nature and no amount of education would cure this.
The Roots of Anti-Irish Racism

 The middle decades of the nineteenth century represent the high water mark of anti-Irish prejudice. The reasons for such intense discrimination against the Irish were rooted in a past that predated the English settlement of North America. One major reason was the English cultural tradition that for centuries regarded the Irish as an inferior people. Evidence for this tradition dates back to the late middle ages.
Historians have written a great deal about this theme in Irish history. I have relied on the essays of Nicholas Canny, Timothy Breen and others to explain this tradition and how it influenced the English settlers in British America. It was part of the transatlantic cultural exchange that the English exported to the American colonies. The best evidence for this was the penal legislation of the eighteenth century.
 A key aspect of this legislation was religion. This was a second reason for anti Irish prejudice. Linda Colley has argued very convincingly about the “absolute centrality of Protestantism to the British experience in the eighteenth century and long after... .” She wrote that “Britons defined themselves in terms of their common Protestantism as contrasted with the Catholicism of continental Europe(and very often in contrast too with Catholic Ireland).” In British America the centrality of Protestantism to the people’s identity was equally evident. This was visible in the penal legislation of the early eighteenth century that endured until the revolutionary war of the 1770s. Each of the thirteen colonies in British America had some type of legislation that discriminated against Catholics, the vast majority of whom were Irish.
 To be Catholic in the United States in the 1840s and 50s was to be portrayed as a menace to national security. To be Catholic was also to be Irish.  At this time they were synonymous. This religious bias against the Irish reinforced the cultural prejudice that the heirs of British America carried with them well into the nineteenth century.
 The popular science of physiognomy, coupled with the art of caricature, represents the third source of anti-Irish prejudice.
 Perry Curtis who has studied the link between the science of physiognomy and the Irish observed that “the net effect of Victorian ethnology ... was to undermine the environmentalist view that Englishmen and Irishmen were fundamentally alike and equally educable. Instead of narrowing the gap between Anglo-Saxons and Celts, the newer forms of evolutionary thought associated with Darwin, Wallace, Huxley, and their disciples, tended to polarize Englishmen and Irishmen by providing a scientific basis for assuming that such characteristics as violence, poverty, improvidence, political volatility, and drunkenness were inherently Irish and only Irish.”
 This was also the era when the penny press became popular. Illustrated magazines became especially popular and a standard feature of this literature was the cartoon. Paddy, as a monstrous Celtic beast, was a favorite object of these artists. “By the 1860s no respectable reader of comic weeklies ... could possibly mistake the simous nose, long upper lip, huge, projecting mouth, and jutting lower jaw as well as sloping forehead for any other category of undesirable or dangerous human being than that known as the Irish.” The congenial, angelic Paddy had become a monster in the popular press.
 By the closing decades of the nineteenth century large numbers of American born Irish were experiencing economic mobility. A middle-class culture was very much in evidence in Irish America and anti-Irish racism was on the decline. New groups of immigrants settled in the United States and they soon became the targets of racism. New racial theories celebrated Anglo-Saxonism and their victims were such groups as Eastern European Jews, Italians, and Chinese. Anti-Irish prejudice never disappeared, but the virulent quality visible in the middle decades of the nineteenth century did vanish. Today the Irish in America are no longer the victims of discrimination. They have abandoned the shanty towns of the old immigrant neighborhoods and moved to the suburbs. Rather than filling the jails and the poor houses, they occupy the board rooms of corporate America. Their journey from the outhouse to the penthouse is an unparalleled success story. When Irish immigrants arrive in the United States in the 1990s, they do not have to confront the racism and discrimination that their predecessors experienced. They are joining a community that is well respected in American society and thus take for granted their favored status. Regrettably Irish immigrants  were not always so well received in the United States.

Jay P. Dolan
University of Notre Dame
August 1997