Encyclopedia of New York City


Throughout most of the nineteenth century and into the 1990s the Irish-born population in New York City was larger than that of any other city in the United States. Although as a proportion of the city's entire population the Irish community during this period steadily declined, Irish ethnicity remained important among the children of immigrants and sometimes in later generations, and its persistence had ramifications for the political and economic well-being of Ireland. The city became the headquarters for organizations devoted to the promotion of Irish nationalism, both political and cultural. Public expressions of Irish ethnicity, including the St. Patrick's Day Parade, had wider significance; the image of the Irish developed in New York City, the capital of American journalism and popular culture, was the one disseminated throughout the country. At the same time a virtually uninterrupted flow of emigrants from Ireland to New York City since the seventeenth century meant that Irish-American identity was continuously evolving.

Colonial and Early Federal Periods

The Irish population in colonial New York was small until the 1720s, when trade with Ireland became more regular. From mid century there was a substantial volume of American commerce in flaxseed carried on between New York City and several Irish ports; emigrants balanced the trade on the westward voyage. This led to an increase in the number of Irish merchants and skilled indentured servants as well as soldiers in the city. Some Irish were also transported as convicts. Until the nineteenth century the Irish in the city were culturally and religiously diverse, including Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Huguenots, and Methodists, who spoke English. Most but not all were from the northern part of Ireland. New York City enforced a rigid penal code against Catholics until 1784, providing for disfranchisement of "papists" and imprisonment or death for "priests and Jesuits." Only a small number of Gaelic-speaking Irish Catholics settled in the city, mainly soldiers and servants. Most concealed their religion or affiliated with established churches until they were granted freedom of worship. Nevertheless an annual parade in honor of the patron saint of Ireland, Patrick, dates to as early as 1766.

After the evacuation of the British the number of Irish arriving in New York City rose, with noticeably more Catholic, unskilled workers. Immigration was particularly heavy in the years following the Napoleonic Wars (there were twelve thousand Irish in the city in 1816) and again during the 1830s, when about 200,000 Irish arrived at the Port of New York. The Catholic church grew at a corresponding pace.

The repeal of the Alien and Sedition Acts cleared the way for the emigration of Irish political exiles of the rebellion of 1798. Among those who played influential roles in the life of the city were Thomas Addis Emmet, attorney general of New York State; William James MacNeven, a physician who also lectured on medicine and chemistry; Thomas O'Conor, who launched the first American newspaper for Irish and Catholic interests, the Shamrock; or, Hibernian Chronicle (1810); and William Sampson, a brilliant jurist who argued the first American cases on behalf of strikers and the free exercise of religion. The city's acceptance of growing numbers of Irish immigrants was eased by these men and by the socially and politically prominent Irish merchants.

Charitable efforts to alleviate the problems that accompanied mass immigration were undertaken by Irish organizations such as the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick (1784), which was nondenominational, and the Irish Emigrant Society of New York (1841-1936). These groups helped Irish men and women to find work, protected them against swindlers, and protested conditions on board ships.

The Irish supported the concept of Catholic schools, partly to ensure ethnic survival and partly because they were sensitive to the anti-Catholic bias stemming from Protestant influence on the city's Public School Society. Archbishop Hughes led Catholic efforts to obtain state funds for private schools between 1839 and 1842. The rejection of these requests and the poverty of the church meant that parochial schools could educate only about 50 percent of Catholic immigrant children as early as 1840, and only 19 percent in 1870. The Irish in New York City also sent their children to the new ward schools after the reform of the public school system. Because these schools were locally run, the Irish often made up most of the teaching staff and pupils.

Although not all Irish who arrived before the famine practiced their faith, the Irish in New York City came to dominate not only the church's laity but also its clergy. From 1825 the leading Irish newspaper in the city was the Catholic Truth Teller. The public began to associate Irish nationality and Catholicism even though Protestant Irish emigrants continued to settle in the city. Continued ties with Ireland were often seen by outsiders as alien or even insular. At intervals during the nineteenth century, nativist swings in popular opinion led to acts against the city's Irish that ranged from discrimination in hiring (typified by the frequently posted sign "No Irish Need Apply") to attacks by mobs on Catholic property. In response to incidents of religious persecution such as the burning of St. Mary's Church on Grand Street in 1831, the Ancient Order of Hibernians was chartered in May 1836 at a meeting in the parish of St. James on the Lower East Side. An Irish Catholic fraternal organization, the order had as its initial purpose the protection of the Mass, the priest, and the church.

In addition to nativist incidents there were periodic confrontations between Catholic and Protestant Irish, usually termed Orange-Green or ORANGE RIOTS. These riots stemmed not from simple religious animosities but from complex political and cultural attitudes. The earliest account is of an attack by the Irish Catholics of Greenwich Village, which took place when Protestants marched through their neighborhood on 12 July 1824 to commemorate the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne (1690). Although no one was killed more than one hundred Catholic Irishmen were arrested, charged with rioting, and imprisoned. In September they were successfully defended by their fellow countryman Emmet, a Protestant.

The Period of Increased Immigration

The Irish settled almost everywhere in nineteenth-century New York City, and their residential choices were less ethnic than economic. Many newly arrived Irish immigrants, particularly those who fled repeated famines in Ireland after 1845, lived in the crowded and cheap tenements of the fourth and sixth wards, with blacks and Chinese as their neighbors. Most Irish households took in boarders and needed the wages of their children to make ends meet. Those who could move to better quarters did so as soon as they were able; others succumbed by the thousands to the ill effects of long-term poverty, such as crime, insanity, domestic violence, prostitution, and alcoholism, reducing the areas in which they lived to some of the city's worst slums. As early as 1855 the Irish made up a quarter to a half of the total population in sixteen of the city's twenty-two wards, and more than one quarter of the population in both Manhattan and Brooklyn had been born in Ireland.

The construction of bridges and railroads to connect Manhattan to what later became the city's other boroughs, and the demand for domestic servants, caused the Irish to scatter throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and what is now the Bronx to live near their work. The Crimmins Construction Company had contracts for both the Croton Aqueduct and the High Bridge, for which it employed as many as twelve thousand Irish laborers. By 1855 about 86 percent of the city's laborers and 74 percent of its domestic servants were Irish born. Irish women were also well represented among the city's laundresses and nurses, and more than half the city's blacksmiths, weavers, masons, bricklayers, plasterers, stonecutters, and polishers were Irish-born men. At mid century more than eleven thousand Irish men and women were skilled artisans in the city's expanding clothing industry, working as dressmakers, seamstresses, furriers, hatters, shoemakers, and tailors. Many were employed by successful Irish entrepreneurs like Daniel Devlin, Charles Knox, Hugh O'Neill, and A. T. Stewart. Small businesses such as carting concerns, groceries, and saloons created an Irish middle class as early as the 1850s.

As the nation's principal port of entry, New York City was becoming the most Irish city in the United States. The city's growing Irish population provided not only a large audience for the city's minstrel shows, vaudeville, and theater but also a tempting subject and a supply of performers on stage. One of the most famous blackface minstrel troupes was the Bryant Brothers (Dan, Neil, and Jerry O'Brien), who introduced "Dixie" to New York City and the United States in 1859. Vaudeville hailed Tyrone Power and Barney Williams, but their portrayals of "stage Irishmen" (loquacious, devil-may-care buffoons) were increasingly resented by both Irish and Irish-Americans. A series of plays by Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart about the fictional Mulligan Guard was the first realistic attempt to portray the Irish in New York City.

Irish nationalism thrived in New York City, which became the headquarters for American support of Irish political causes (see Irish republicanism). Important speaking tours, fund raising, newspaper publishing, military action, and even rescues were all coordinated in the city, often in spite of opposition from the Catholic hierarchy. In the 1820s and 1840s various groups such as the Friends of Ireland rallied support for Daniel O'Connell's movements in Ireland to emancipate Catholics and repeal the Act of Union. More than $40,000 in cash was collected in 1848 to support a revolution in Ireland, and in 1854 the Emmet Monument Association relied on Irish militia regiments in the city as the base of its secret revolutionary activities. In 1876 the Clan na Gael successfully orchestrated the rescue of six Fenian prisoners who had been transported to Fremantle, Australia, and landed them in New York Harbor in August, to the chagrin of the British. Newspapers in the city such as the Irish Citizen, the Gaelic American, and the United Irishman were edited by exiled Irish political leaders. In an alternative form of Irish nationalism, the Orange Order revived the tradition of marching on 12 July, leading to serious disturbances in 1870 and 1871 that resulted in deaths and injuries. Irish nationalism in New York City also took other forms. Patrick Ford, who organized the American branch of the Irish Land League, raised more than $300,000 in 1881 for its land reform campaign through his Irish World. The arts, especially the cultivation of the Irish language and the study of Irish literature, history, and music, were the focus of the monthly magazine the Gael, published in New York City from 1881 to 1904. From the 1870s cultural activities were pursued by Philo-Celtic and Gaelic societies in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Yonkers, New York. One of the most visible annual activities of the New York Gaelic Society was its Feis Ceoil agus Seanachas, a festival of music, dance, and song that attracted thousands.

New York City was filled with Irish social, benevolent, military, and religious organizations. Among their favored meeting places were Hibernian Hall and Montgomery Hall, both on Prince Street, which were also the headquarters for several Irish volunteer militia companies, for the 69th Regiment (the Irish Brigade that served with distinction during the Civil War), and for the Convention of Irish Societies, the first coordinating organization for the St. Patrick's Day Parade. One of the most enduring forms of organization was the county society, based on place of origin in Ireland, the earliest known in New York City being the Sligo Young Men's Association (1849). The county societies initially operated as benevolent associations, providing disability and death benefits to members, as well as fostering social and employment networks. Some small counties, like Longford and Westmeath, sent surprisingly large numbers of emigrants to New York City. There were Irish literary and debating clubs in the city from about 1834; the Sadlier brothers began publishing Catholic books in 1837 and from the 1850s catered to Irish audiences with novels like The Blakes and the Flanagans. About forty Irish and Irish-Americans founded the New York Catholic Library Association in 1856, and in 1860 a branch of the Ossianic Society of Dublin opened in New York City to promote the translation and publication of manuscripts in the Irish language.

In politics the Irish in New York City were influenced by anti-alien, anti-Irish, and anti-Catholic party platforms. They were Jeffersonian Republicans because the party was pro-French (anti-British) and repealed restrictive naturalization laws. Irish immigrants were courted by politicians associated with Tammany Hall once suffrage was extended in 1827, and soon men like the labor radical Mike Walsh aspired to political careers. As early as 1844 an estimated 90 percent of enfranchised Irish Catholics in New York City voted Democratic. Their vehement opposition to the Republican implementation of the federal draft in 1863 escalated into a full-scale race riot. But the Irish did not come to dominate Tammany Hall until the 1870s, when Honest John Kelly took over as its leader after the Tweed Ring was exposed by Charles O'Conor. Then a succession of Irish bosses made the local Democratic organization into perhaps the foremost urban political machine in the United States. Despite a reputation for corruption, Tammany Hall was popular with the Irish for very basic reasons. Big Tim Sullivan's career was built through a political club that offered localized social welfare and organized entertainments in exchange for the loyalty of voters in his district on the Lower East Side.

Tammany Hall was behind the election in 1880 of the city's first Irish Catholic mayor, the businessman William R. Grace, and prepared men such as Alfred E. Smith, James A. Farley, and Robert F. Wagner (i) for state and national politics. By 1900, when 22 percent of the city was still Irish by birth or descent, the membership of the Žlite Friendly Sons of St. Patrick was dominated by men connected with Tammany Hall. As candidates backed by the organization occupied municipal offices and immigrants continued to pour into New York City, the Irish benefited the most from employment on public works projects and made important inroads into the civil service (notably the police and fire departments, the post office, the courts, and the transit system). Aside from political influence, this hegemony was due to a literacy rate of 95 percent among Irish immigrants and to Irish-American educational levels that were reaching parity with the national average by the turn of the century. In 1908 about 21 percent of schoolteachers in New York City were the daughters of Irish immigrants.

As American popular entertainment evolved from stage shows to motion pictures, the image of the Irish being manufactured in New York City was transformed. Although plots remained essentially the same regardless of the medium, Irish characteristics as depicted by Dion Boucicault and Chauncey Olcott changed between 1870 and 1920. Irish heroes lost any embarrassing vices, and their once fiery nationalism was softened into a sentimental longing for freedom. After 1900 the concerted efforts of the Ancient Order of Hibernians against the stage Irishman generally succeeded in improving the image of the Irish. In 1911 there were even protests against a local production by the Abbey Theatre of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World for its alleged slander of the Irish character. At the same time the growing affluence of the city's Irish-American community provided a ready market for the producers of light Broadway musicals and for the sheet music of Tin Pan Alley composers like Ernest R. Ball. Many of the songs written in this genre were full of social and historical inaccuracies about the Irish; nevertheless some transcended their origins on Broadway to achieve immense popularity on the Irish cabaret and ballroom circuit, notably "Mother Machree" (1910), "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" (1912), "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That's An Irish Lullaby)" (1914), and "Little Bit of Heaven, Sure They Call It Ireland" (1914). The Irish in New York City were also prominently associated with sports like baseball, boxing, and horse racing.

With the growth of an Irish middle and upper class in the city, the maturing of the Catholic church was reflected in the dedication (1879) and consecration (1910) of St. Patrick's Cathedral at 5th Avenue and 50th Street. Wealthy Irish-Americans were important supporters of Catholic social welfare organizations, such as the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin (1881), which aided homeless Irish newsboys, and the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls (1883), which was affiliated with Castle Garden. By the beginning of the twentieth century such efforts were coordinated by the Archdiocese of New York under the auspices of Catholic Charities. The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, the Catholic Club (1871), and the American Irish Historical Society (1896) attracted prominent and professional men such as lawyers, judges, doctors, journalists, and businessmen. The close partnership of such Irish and Catholic networks enabled many of these men to influence municipal politics and business; 10 percent of white-collar occupations in the city were held by the Irish in 1900. The clergy and religious of the city's Catholic church were dominated by Irish men and women, both immigrant and second-generation, who served in parishes but also as teachers, social workers, and administrators. Controversial priests in the diocese were censured from Rome: Edward McGlynn for his support of the radical politician Henry George, and Francis P. Duffy for publishing the New York Review, an intellectual journal that sought a modernist revision of Church philosophy and theology.

The docks, railroad yards, and factories of Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen provided steady employment for generations of working-class Irish-Americans, but in general Irish settlements proceeded uptown on both the East and West sides of Manhattan. With the extension of elevated railroad tracks north to Harlem in 1880, the Irish penetrated the Upper East Side, where they became the second dominant element after the Germans until about 1910; then better housing in Washington Heights and Inwood attracted Irish immigrants and their children. The nearness of Brooklyn encouraged many Irish to settle there, especially around the Navy Yard, in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, and after 1890 in the ninth ward near Prospect Park, and in Flatbush, Sunset Park, and Bay Ridge. Irish settlements in Queens on the eve of the First World War included Long Island City, Astoria, Woodside, Sunnyside, and Rockaway Beach; in the Bronx Irish parishes were common in Mott Haven, Melrose, Morrisania, Highbridge, Fordham, and Kingsbridge.

New York City was the place of residence of more than 275,000 natives of Ireland in 1890 and of 203,000 in 1920. As transatlantic travel became easier, increasing ties between Ireland and New York City allowed the growth of a social network based on Irish customs and cultural activities. John Quinn, a lawyer in the city, was the liaison for Irish writers, artists, and statesmen touring the United States, such as William Butler Yeats. The county societies banded together in 1904 under the rubric of the United Irish Counties Association to coordinate their events. From 1897 to 1914 the Irish American Athletic Club operated Celtic Park at 43rd Street in Woodside, and members competed in track and field events across the country and abroad. Gaelic sports, particularly football and hurling, became a dominant expression of cultural nationalism after the formation of the Gaelic Athletic Association of New York in 1914.

Robert Ernst: Immigrant Life in New York City, 1825-1863 (New York: King's Crown, 1949; rev. Port Washington, N.Y.: Ira J. Friedman, 1965)

Jay P. Dolan: The Immigrant Church: New York's Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975)

Ronald H. Bayor: Neighbors in Conflict: The Irish, Germans, Jews, and Italians of New York City (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978)

Joshua B. Freeman: "Catholics, Communists and Republicans: Irish Workers and the Organization of the Transport Workers Union," Working-class America: Essays on Labor, Community, and American Society, ed. Michael H. Frisch and Daniel J. Walkowitz (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983)

Michael F. Funchion: Irish American Voluntary Organizations (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1983)

Dennis J. Clark: Hibernia America: The Irish and Regional Cultures (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1986)

Steven P. Erie: Rainbow's End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1985 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)

Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher, eds.: The New York Irish: Essays toward a History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming)

-Marion R. Casey

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