It is a truism that for a period in the histories of Britain and the United States the Irish were an oppressed people. They may, on occasion, have made more of their oppression than actually occurred. But there can be no denying the antipathy and enmity, at times amounting to prejudice, which at times they faced. For a generation or two—prior to the famine of the 1840s, and or perhaps two decades after it—rising numbers of Irish immigrants in the industrial cities of Britain and the major urban settlements of north-eastern America were hard-pressed by nativist impulses highlighting their alien religion, foreign culture and low socio-economic status. ‘Outcast’, ‘apart’, communities-within-communities: some have even claimed the Irish were ghettoized—psychologically, at least, if not literally physically.
In the United States, where the passions of exiled Irish nationalism burned most brightly, the total of all of this negative experience ultimately strengthened Irish community-sense and thus aided assimilation. Amidst the realities of victimisation there emerged powerful grievances based not entirely on myths or lies, but on exaggerated claims. Take for example ‘No Irish Need Apply’ (NINA) notices and adverts. Though few in number—much more rare than in Britain, for instance—NINA exclusions became the badge of oppression. Despite slavery, and the harsh realities of anti-black racism, many Irish saw themselves as the hardest done to group in that society. And certainly the most reviled of the white immigrant nations. To suggest that Irishmen may actually have done rather well in the end, and that they may have flexed their muscles very effectively to invert the experience of their cousins in Britain who really were pressed and constrained, is to cut against a powerful group self-image.
Rather than permanent constraints upon the immigrants, Richard Jensen has argued that motifs like NINA were used to strengthen ethnic group solidarity. Other contexts also brought out this same impulse. For example, Irish workers fought the English and Welsh for their piece of the New Republic. With often far superior numbers to the other UK immigrants, the Irish were eventually able to cause the kind of inconvenience to the English or Welsh that they habitually felt imposed on them in England or Wales.
The most obvious case of this type of Irish assertiveness is seen in the work of the Molly Maguires. Part-Ribbonite, part-labourite, the Mollies have been spectacularly rescued from the constricting narrative of primitive Catholic pro-nationalism by Kevin Kenny’s ground-breaking Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. In Kenny’s work, Irish Catholic are seen not as proto-Fenians but as a secret-society trade union resisting the victimisation and summary injustice of an unequal application of the rule of the law. Dominated by Welshman, who were the superintendents and foremen in the Pennsylvania pits, and ignored by skilled Protestant fellow Irishmen from mining regions of the homeland, these Irish bridled and fought back—often very violently, sometimes murderously.
Ribbonism brought in from Ireland was a learnt modus operandi. After all, what were the Molly Maguires of Pennsylvania other than Ribbonmen modified for an industrial experience? These Molly Maguires weren’t invented in America; they were beaten out on the anvils rural and small-town Ireland and reforged in the furnaces of American industry. The Mollies’ struggle for recognition in these tough industrial communities involved a spectacular series of murders, mostly of Welshmen, from the late 1860s to the mid-1870s. Kenny is right to see these men as an Irish group protecting and asserting themselves against Welshmen whose power had often been venally used.
The Irish would correctly maintain that the Mollies (extreme though they were) fitted into a wider ethnic struggle for parity in the new communities. The Welsh and English—the British more generally—were probably surprised to find the Irish so numerous and so assertive. They certainly worried at their achievement of political power in the cities as the century progressed, and were part of that general Protestant-Nativist upsurge in the 1850s that took the form of the ‘Know Nothing’ movement. Such anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic formations could still be seen nearly half-a-century later in the American Protective Association.
Clearly, the British no longer had it all their way. As such, there was an inversion of normal expectations when they and the Irish took landfall in America. At home, the English had been top dogs: numerically superior, socially better off, and so able to exert control. In the US, particularly post-Famine, the Irish out-numbered the English in many towns and cities—with the Germans they were the top immigrant group in all of the USA’s 50 largest cities in 1870. What could Britons do in the face of this, other than organize as the Irish themselves were organising?
Colonial English elites had actually been forming St George’s societies as early as 1733 when the men of Charleston were first off the mark. From the middle decades of the following century, working-class Englishmen followed suit, planting variety of smaller orders and lodges that adopted the ritual and ceremony of the confraterntal orders. In so doing, they clearly showed an ethnic awareness. One of these organizations, the Order of the Sons of St George (also called the Lodge of the Sons of St George), drew negative inspiration from the Irish. Founded in Pennsylvania, in the 1870s, to resist the Mollies’ tyranny, and attracting both Britons and Americans, the Sons of St George sought to mobilize an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ vote against the rising Irish one. This campaign was widespread, drawing support from Chicago to the tidewater.
While it is tempting to put these sectarian tensions down to the peculiar conditions of the economy and labour force in these mining districts, it is interesting that the middle-class officers of the St George’s Society also occasionally revealed anti-Irish anxieties. They did so at about the same time that Scranton and other coal towns crackled with sectarian tension. For instance, on hearing of the imprisonment of a number of English immigrants for sleeping rough in the city, the secretary of the St George’s Society of Baltimore, in January 1874, let go with an intemperate broadside that is worth recounting in detail:
The boast “Britons ever shall be slaves” will be a mockery when any Fenian policeman or Magistrate can incarcerate an Englishman as a felon to “feed fat his ancient grudge” imported from the Emerald Isle, where prejudice and bigotry and religious animosity warp men’s minds and bend their reason […] The acts of the Society have been in a great part to advance the prosperity of the United States by enabling immigrants to turn their skill and labor into profitable channels. The St George’s Society is essentially an American society. But it is a Benevolent Society and one important duty is to guard the friendless immigrant from oppression by petty tyrants.
Comments like these were not isolated. In the 1880s the new British-American Association of the State of New York was founded by Englishmen intent, said the New York Times, on bringing all naturalized ‘Britons’ together in order to make good American citizens of immigrants. The Association promoted ‘good feeling and harmony between the governments of the United States and Great Britain’ and sought, in New York City, ‘to aid in the election of good men to political offices.’ What this meant in reality was ‘good’ Britons, not ‘bad’ Irishmen.
The same theme was still being mentioned to gatherings of Englishmen in the next decade. The New York-based Canadian businessman and socialite, Erastus Wiman, brought a classic mix of negative emotions to bear, in August 1890, in an address to ‘a large assemblage of English workingmen and their wives and children’ in New York state. For him ‘the duty and power of the Englishmen in America are epitomized in two words—naturalize and organize.’ Furthermore: ‘it is difficult to conceive what higher duty or nobler purpose could animate an Englishman than to participate in the government of such a country as this’. And he finished by, once more, damning the Irish for their political success. The terms were hardly flattering:
The impression made by the Irish people in America is greater than that of any alien race. It is a strange study that a people who are practically unable to govern themselves should without previous experience or without the slightest knowledge of practically govern the greatest nation under the sun.
In New York, Boston, Cincinnati, and other cities, Irish bosses were rising. The Democratic machine rang with the noise of Irish political industry. City offices and jobs had been tied up. But was it so bad for the English? Had they become a reduced race held in thrall by Irish overlords? Or was their social status too agreeable to merit the great political energy Irishmen had found it practically impossible to avoid?
In the 1900s, when the Dillingham Commission began to produce its massive reports into every imaginable aspect of immigrant life, the English (often alongside the Germans) seemed to have a monopoly on highly-paid skilled jobs, and dominated managerial positions and foremen roles in many industries: textiles, engineering, extraction, and others. Moreover, the Irish community contained more rootless single men and so a lower proportions of family groups; it looked socio-economically more like Greeks or Lithuanians than like the English, Scots or Germans. The English fears described here were ultimately fanciful, in socio-economic terms. For on the factory floor, where most people were—and whether in Massachusetts, New York State, or Pennsylvania—the Englishman and his family looked much the more comfortable.
It was in politics that the English could remain more ostracized than the Irish. Moreover politics was a sphere with dangers for Englishmen that Irishmen did not face. The Civil War was the pivot upon which this swung. Then, Irishmen could prove their loyalty by forming prominent Irish units. With Queen Victoria’s declaration of neutrality, loyal British subjects could not do the same. The English in particular felt the ire of Americans with the British Consul in New York noting that it was unsafe to describe oneself “as British or English.” The furore over the Trent affair and the Alabama claims, along with the open activities of the Fenians, increased feelings of British alienation in America. The quick Irish adaptation to American politics and their growing influence on it in the late 19th century, only exacerbated these feelings. The growth of American empire and President McKinley’s support for Britain in the Boer War eased anti-British attitudes, but it would take the First World War to reverse the popular antipathy toward England and Britain and begin the so-called “Special Relationship.”
All this Irish activism against Britain both on the micro and macro level in America points to the reality of British feelings of diaspora in America. Their assimilation was not automatic or easy. It also indicates that the Irish could often give as good as they got and more in the ethnic conflicts of 19th-century America. Rather than being overwhelmed by the modern, industrial United States, Irish immigrants combined cultural legacies from Ireland with a direct engagement in American politics to integrate themselves better into the American scene better and may explain why, between 1880 and 1930, despite their better economic position, as Mark Wyman has shown, English immigrants were almost twice as likely (1-in-5 versus 1-in-10) as the Irish to leave America and return home.