Home Diocesan News Irish in America make for ‘remarkable story,’ historian tells First Friday Club
Irish in America make for ‘remarkable story,’ historian tells First Friday Club Print E-mail
Written by Pete Sheehan   
Friday, 09 March 2018 15:00

BOARDMAN –  The Irish in America is “a remarkable story” that plays a part in America, the Church, and Ireland itself, historian Dr. Dermot Quinn told a First Friday luncheon audience here March 1.

Speaking to the monthly luncheon lecture series at The Georgetown here, Quinn, professor of history at Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J., detailed the Irish presence in America over several centuries – from a small number that faced discrimination and exclusion to a growing segment that successfully sought integration into the large U.S. society.

The result was that the Irish became influential in the Church, entertainment, sports, the arts and especially politics, said Quinn, a native of Derry, Northern Ireland.

Quinn began by evoking the legend of St. Brendan the Navigator, who, according to sixth century stories, made a voyage with other monks, that took him to what is now Newfoundland, Canada, but later to what is now New Jersey and as far south as what is now Florida.

“He had gone to find the Garden of Eden but ended up in New Jersey,” Quinn quipped, “which must have been something of a disappointment.” If the tales of St. Brendan are to be believed, Quinn suggested, perhaps America should be known as “Brendania.”

The more conventionally accepted dates of the first Irish in America, Quinn pointed out, are in the 16th and 17th centuries. At varying times there were influxes of Catholics and Protestants, who were mostly Ulster Scots from what is now considered Northern Ireland.

Yet as more Catholics came, Quinn explained, they were more often subject to discrimination. In New Jersey, for example, laws from 1662 guaranteed religious freedom for Catholics. By 1702, Catholics were the only religious group in New Jersey that had no protection.

Still, not only were Irish and Irish Catholics present but in many cases, “they were doing well for themselves,” Quinn said. Probate court records from the 1670s showed names like Murphy. “They must have had something because they were leaving something behind.”

Catholics generally lacked legal protection in the colonies with the exception of Pennsylvania and to an extent in Maryland. In fact, in places like Boston there were such annual celebrations as “Pope Night,” when effigies of the pope were held up for ridicule, Quinn said.

In 1734, reports of a priest celebrating Mass on St. Patrick’s Day led to riots. Riots on Pope Night were also common, Quinn said.

Still, an Irish-Catholic middle-class was emerging. For example, Charles Carroll of Maryland, whose grandfather was from County Offaly, Ireland, was one of the richest men in the American Colonies and was the only Catholic who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Charles Carroll’s cousin, John Carroll, became a Jesuit priest. After the Jesuit order was suppressed for a time, he became a diocesan priest and eventually the first Catholic bishop of the new United States of America, Quinn said.

“It was still a small Catholic population,” Quinn said.

The 19th century saw a much larger influx of Irish immigrants – especially later in the century. “Between 1840 and 1920, there were 4.5 million Irish immigrants” – mostly poor and Catholic.

Many fled the devastating potato famine of the 1840s. Poverty persisted even later in the 19th century, when many Irish struggled under an oppressive  rental system and many were evicted from their homes.

Archbishop John Hughes, the first archbishop of New York and himself an Irish immigrant, Quinn continued, described the wave of Irish immigrants as “the scattered debris of the Irish nation.”

Yet the Irish who came over here were not only poor but came from rural backgrounds and faced urban poverty and often discrimination over here. Quinn showed a N.Y. Times hiring ad with the line “No Irish need apply.”

Quinn cited anti-Catholic nativist attacks such as the burning of St. Augustine in Philadelphia in 1844, riots in Newark in 1854 and in other cities along the East Coast.

Prominent cartoonists like Thomas Nast, whose cartoons often attacked Catholicism, also created insulting images of the Irish as violent and stupid. Their Catholicism was also held against the Irish as more evidence that they were foreign, not American, Quinn said.

There were pockets of sympathy among Irish immigrants for the Fenian Brotherhood, a movement aimed against British control of Ireland, Quinn explained. The Fenians in the United States even staged a series of raids on British posts in Canada.

Still, the more dominant strain among the Irish immigrants was a desire to integrate into U.S. society. Irish joined the military, such as the “Fighting 69th” out of New York – also known as the Irish Brigade – during the Civil War.

More importantly, the Catholic Church fostered integration of the Irish immigrants both in cites and in encouraging them to move to rural areas.

Quinn explained that the “Irish who came over here in the second half of the 19th century were more Catholic than those who came in the first half.

With the repeal of some of the English Penal Laws, which restricted Catholics from teaching and practicing their faith, in the 1770s and beyond, the Church was better able to effectively pass on the faith to its people in the second half of the 19th century.

Through the Church, the Irish got involved in various societies, fraternal orders, schools, and institutions,_ which tied them in more closely with the larger society.

“The paradox,” Quinn said, is that “because they were Catholics, the Irish became better Americans.”


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