Land of the free?

Land of the free?

First-hand accounts reveal the realities for 19th century Irish emigrants to the USA

Andrew Chapman, Editor of Discover Your Ancestors Periodical

Andrew Chapman

Editor of Discover Your Ancestors Periodical

The contribution of the Irish diaspora to the history and culture of the United States is undisputed. Around one in eight Americans today claim Irish ancestry, with about 15% of those specifically as Scots-Irish with roots in Ulster (see our case study bellow, for example). Eight of the 56 original signatories to the Declaration of Independence were of Irish descent, and at least half of the country’s Presidents have had some Irish descent.

Between 50,000 and 100,000 Irish people are estimated to have immigrated to the States in the 17th century, and at least 100,000 in the 18th, but the numbers rocketed in the 19th century. In the 1830s, it was already up to more than 200,000, but the Great Famine of the 1840s saw this rise to more than 780,000 in that decade and more than 900,000 in the 1850s.

Many flocked to the cities to stay close to their own people. Cities with large numbers of Irish immigrants included Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, as well as Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, St Louis, St Paul, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

But it was not always the Promised Land. While those who actually survived the journey may have found more hope than in famine-devastated Ireland, the sheer numbers of immigrants made earning a living wage and finding accommodation that wasn’t squalid a fearsome challenge – and they were inevitably not always welcomed for the social pressures this led to.

Here we present a few first-hand accounts of those harsh realities faced by the Irish community in the mid-19th century.


Advice from experience
Michael J Adams had been in the USA for 12 years, struggling to survive, before he felt compelled to write of his experiences and share his advice with the Cork Examiner. He wrote from Sweet Springs, West Virginia on 26 June 1860, with his letter being printed on 10 August:

Dear Sir,
… I have never written a line upon advice to my countrymen in Ireland since I came out here (now twelve years), but, from past experience, I feel myself bound to do so now, hoping most earnestly it may be attended to. I am at a loss to know what is the cause of such a rush to this country at present… I have been rail-roading ever since I came out here, in the civil engineering department, which has given me an excellent opportunity of seeing the disposition made of Irish labourers…
… the poor, good-natured, confiding Irishman, is reduced to the position of an abject slave…
The treatment they are subjected to makes them utterly careless about themselves; they drink and abuse themselves, so that life becomes burthensome, and death in some horrid shape puts an end to their sufferings. Sectionalism, partyism, bad passions, and everything that can make them a prey to the designing villain is encouraged amongst them, so that the dreadful position that they are placed in, or a great deal of it, is represented as their own doings… it would take more than a mere letter to tell you the despicable, humiliating, slavish life of an Irish labourer on a railroad in the States… [He] can be shot down, run through, kicked, cuffed, spat on – and no redress…
Could I do anything by advice to stop such? Would to God they who purpose coming here would take my advice – and that is: shun railroads, all public works, all steam-boating and wharfs; repair to the West, the great and mighty West; get land; and such as are not married get married, and in two or three years you will be respectable citizens… Congress has passed an act granting lands to heads of families for one shilling per acre, after five years’ residence on it. Just think of land the most beautiful in the world for one shilling, and that, too, in Minnisota [sic], the Ireland of America…
My concluding advice is, if people will come to America having nothing definite in view let their pursuit be after a piece of land somewhere, anywhere – anything but public works or living in cities.

The journalist
Patrick Kieran Walsh (1818-1886) was born in Dundalk, County Louth. He emigrated in 1848 and established himself in Cleveland, Ohio as a journalist, known for defending the cause of the Irish in America. An 1886 book on the struggle for Irish independence observed of Patrick, His tongue and pen were ever ready. The oppressed never called upon him in vain for help. His son Roger (b1859) went on to become Secretary of the Irish National League of America.

On 11 June 1860, the Cork Examiner carried a report by Walsh which offers similar warnings to Mr Adams’ letter:

The peasant who can raise just sufficient to bring himself and his family across the Atlantic, and land here without means, will soon find himself in a wretched condition, as very few wish to hire the ‘green-horn’ labourer; especially when there are crowds of idle men, mechanics, and labourers, seeking employment, as there always are in every city and village I have yet seen in the United States…

He goes on to warn as Adams does about the difficulties of employment on public works, citing an example of employers pushing wages down and down. In one case this was to just 55 cents a day, when a bushel (60 pounds) of potatoes would cost as much as a dollar.

This led to a strike, and inevitable layoffs. He describes the Irish people’s living conditions:

… a scene of suffering presented itself which made the heart sick. In a ‘shanty’, where lived a woman with her three small children, and whose husband, as she said, had surrendered a comfortable farm at home, stood a vessel filled with water the night before, and, though within four feet of the fire, it was frozen solid, and this without means to procure sufficient food to sustain them, or clothing to protect them against this terrible climate. All along for miles was one continued scene of anguish and suffering…

But unlike Adams, he saw little hope in the purchase of land away from the big cities:

… you are always told that land can be procured here for next to nothing… There is not an acre of land within the reach of civilization, or likely to be for many years to come, that is not in the clutches of land-speculators; and woe betide the man who surrenders the destinities of himself and his family into the clutches of these gambling vampires…
A number of speculators will form themselves into a land-company, and without a cent of capital invested, procure from the US Government a large tract of wilderness that is not likely to be settled upon for generations to come; and on this account they are allowed almost any term of years to pay the trifling consderation for which they buy it…

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He then explains how these companies hire newspaper editors to puff the territoryto unsuspecting immigrants, who then become mired in debt.

Patrick Kieran Walsh
The grave of Patrick Kieran Walsh in St Joseph cemetery, Cleveland

A happier view
On 14 May 1850, the London Times ran a letter from an unnamed Limerick emigrant to Wisconsinwho offered a very different account of his new life in America:

I am exceedingly well pleased at coming to this land of plenty. On arrival I purchased 120 acres of land at $5 an acre. You must bear in mind that I have purchased the land out, and it is to me and mine an ‘estate for ever’, without a landlord, an agent or tax-gatherer to trouble me. I would advise all my friends to quit Ireland – the country most dear to me; as long as they remain in it they will be in bondage and misery.
What you labour for is sweetened by contentment and happiness; there is no failure in the potato crop, and you can grow every crop you wish, without manuring the land during life. You need not mind feeding pigs, but let them into the woods and they will feed themselves, until you want to make bacon of them.
I shudder when I think that starvation prevails to such an extent in poor Ireland. After supplying the entire population of America, there would still be as much corn and provisions left us would supply the world, for there is no limit to cultivation or end to land. Here the meanest labourer has beef and mutton, with bread, bacon, tea, coffee, sugar and even pies, the whole year round – every day here is as good as Christmas day in Ireland.

Is this just the good fortune of someone with the means to get beyond navvying and the city shanties? Or was it even English propaganda? We may never know.

A typical immigrant shanty dwelling in New York in the late 19th century. The photograph, along with many others depicting the lives of Irish, German and other immigrants, was taken by Danish-American photojournalist Jacob Riis –his images are often strikingly similar to those of Thomas Annan in Glasgow (see our article Archives of hard lives)

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