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The Effects of Irish Immigration on New York City

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: History
Wordcount: 3979 words Published: 9th Nov 2021

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In 1892, Fifteen-year-old Annie Moore was the first immigrant to pass inspection and be let through Ellis Island. An Irish Immigrant from Cork, Moore was immigrating in order to meet her family who were already living in New York. She was gifted a gold piece to commemorate the occasion, and after her death, statues were put up in her honor.[1] This story serves as an example of the importance and the scale of Irish immigration within major cities, especially New York.

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Because throngs of Irish were immigrating into the city, their culture and beliefs were rapidly introduced to a new setting. This rapid assimilation of Irish culture allows for a clear picture of what New York City was like before and after the wave of Irish immigrants. The Irish were a vital part of the evolving culture of New York, and they were a catalyst for many social reforms and shifts.  Many Irish Immigrants shared political and social interests, and eventually constituted a large and influential ethnic group in New York. By strengthening and expanding the Roman Catholic Church, engaging unified political interest, and being active members of labor unions, Irish immigrants made a very notable impact on the culture of New York.

In 1846, Ireland’s potato crop failed almost completely. There had already been some failure in 1845, but not as extreme as the year following. The famine lasted about five years, from 1845 to 1850; thus, it has become known as the “Great Famine”. However, even after the famine years were over, the economy was in ruins and the Irish people themselves were devastated from years of near starvation.

The upper class was not as affected, and the poor and working class felt the pinch of the famine.[2] The potato was the major crop, food source, and export from Ireland so the lower class was greatly affected; there was little to no source of income or source of food. Because the famine effected the whole nation, those who were able emigrated instead of relocating.

This is unusual, as most famines only require temporary relocation.[3] The number of people living in Ireland dropped sharply. In 1847 alone, 230,000 Irish emigrated to escape the famine.[4] In addition, those who were able to emigrate must have had the ability to do so. Access to money, or the lack thereof, was the main factor in the ability to emigrate. The poor generally immigrated into neighboring nations, while those who were more fortunate immigrated to the United States.[5]

For the United States, this meant that the Irish immigrating into major cities were not the worst off; however, they were still poor and working-class citizens. During this period in American history, the flow of immigrants into major cities was at an all-time high. New York especially was experiencing a steep influx in the number of immigrants. This generally indicates a healthy economy because the promise of work is a big pull factor for immigrants.[6] The famine was such a big push factor for the Irish that it was relevant years after the famine itself ended. The Great Famine and its aftereffects pushed the Irish back towards the church as they searched for support, and these ties to the church were seen even after they immigrated.

The Irish religious tradition manifested itself into prominent local parishes that taught a more formal, conservative faith. Because the Irish Catholic Church had endured years of hardships, it relied heavily on tradition and discipline for stability.[7] The immigrants arriving in New York were determined to hold on to their beliefs, so they “[reconstructed] their Old World cultures in the new.”[8] Irish immigrants did not adapt to the form of Catholicism that already existed in New York because it did not fit their belief system, so a distinct form of the church began to emerge in immigrant communities. The Irish parish was more traditional, conservative, and discipline-oriented. The famine was a catalyst of the formal Irish church because during that period of hardship, middle to lower class Irish citizens began relying heavily on the church.[9]

They were seeking a sense of normalcy and stability within the chaos of an economic downturn. Because the Irish viewed the church as the center of community, they were incredibly active in both the clergy and the congregation. The Irish controlled the New York diocese almost completely. They controlled other immigrant parishes within New York as well as a vast network of their own. They had such extensive control that other Catholics felt oppressed, watched, and even criticized to a certain extent.[10] Despite negative perceptions, the Irish church was very widespread throughout New York, and it quickly overtook many preexisting parishes in both scale and attendance.

Because of strong ties with their heritage, Irish immigrants were very active in the Catholic Church, leading to its natural expansion. The influx of pious immigrants entering New York kickstarted the growth of the city’s dying Catholic Church. Irish society in New York was heavily associated with and centered around their parish.[11] This association with the Catholic Church increased the demand for places of worship, especially in and around immigrant neighborhoods. One of the first Irish parishes established was St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Prior to the building of St. Patrick’s, the New York Catholic Church had been stagnant for about thirty years.[12] The Irish-American Church continued to grow rapidly, leading to the Transfiguration Church being named the largest church in New York for a period of about twenty-five years. It was eventually surpassed by St. Peter’s church, another Irish parish.[13]

Because Irish Immigrants made up a large percentage of churchgoers, Irish parishes remained the largest in the city. The churches themselves could only be surpassed in attendance by others in the same community. In addition, the number of churches that were identified as Irish was about twenty-three out of thirty-two, or seventy-two percent.[14] Since Irish Immigration was the first major change to the Catholic Church in New York, the number of parishes must have grown significantly in a relatively short period of time to reach such great heights.

Eventually, Irish influence also made its way into the clergy. Immigrants took jobs as priests in their communities, and the New York diocese was eventually made up of mainly people of Irish descent.[15] The number of priests overall also increased dramatically from about one priest for every 3,000 people to one for every 900.[16] This substantial growth was largely due to the Irish and their consistent activity within the church. It could also be credited to the type of jobs that Irish immigrants tended to be drawn to. In addition to jobs in the clergy, Irish Immigrants were also drawn to jobs involving politics. While Irish immigrants were incredibly active within the church, they were also well known within New York’s political circle.

The Irish had convenient advantages over other immigrant groups along with support from the Democratic party that allowed for them to heavily influence New York’s political circle. Irish Immigrants were already familiar with the form of government that existed in the United States.[17] With this knowledge and experience, they were able to quickly adapt to New York’s political scene. In addition, Irish immigrants were drawn to politics in general because they were already familiar with the structure. At the same time that the Irish were immigrating into New York there was a slight shift in the way government was structured, and modern local governments started to become more prominent.[18]

The newly developing system allowed for newcomers, or those who would not have generally been allowed or accepted into the traditional political system, to enter in and gain political influence. New York’s Democratic party supported these immigrants’ political power and opportunity. The Democratic party already had the support of previous generations of Irish Immigrants.[19] Therefore, the generation immigrating because of the famine were inclined to support the same party.

The overwhelming Irish support also influenced the values of the Democratic party. The party began to support common people over the elite, and the trust of professional politicians began to decline.[20] Because this mindset directly benefited the immigrants who supported the party, it would have increased the influence of immigrants in power. Those representing the city began to reflect the diversity of the city itself, and Irish immigrants especially were at the forefront of this.[21] The increase in Irish power can also be seen on a nationwide scale through the election of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was a Catholic of Irish descent. This was a huge step for the Irish, who’s influence had grown significantly from the small communities in New York. [22] This increase in power and influence was seen especially in New York’s Democratic machine, Tammany Hall.

The political machine Tammany Hall was heavily supported and run by Irish Immigrants, and the association between them allowed for the Irish to quickly gain political power. The Tammany Hall machine controlled virtually the entirety of the New York political circle despite the fact that it was not a part of the official city government.[23] The Irish had a firm foothold in politics already, and the machine only served to make it stronger. It was a system that allowed for the Irish to directly impact the political circle. Because Tammany Hall relied heavily on the support of Irish Immigrants, the machine’s anti-immigrant ideology was abandoned in order to accommodate the Irish community.[24]

This shift in ideology was similar to that of the official Democratic party. With the Irish controlling both the official and unofficial government, New York City’s political circle was shifted in vital ways. The Irish who supported Tammany Hall had as much influence as those who ran it. Boss Tweed, Tammany Hall’s most infamous and openly corrupt boss, created thousands of jobs to give to immigrants who supported the machine.[25] This would effectively assist immigrants in need while simultaneously growing the support for Tammany Hall, and spreading the ideology.

After the end of the Tweed ring, Tammany Hall was run primarily by Irish bosses.[26] These Irish bosses “embraced the pluralism” of New York, and began to modernize the government.[27] This mindset was quite different from the original way that Tammany Hall was run because, previously, the machine relied heavily on corruption. Because the Irish were aware of how it was to be seen as an “other”, they were able to modernize Tammany Hall and the Democratic party in ways that previous political figures were unable to. By not pushing out much needed support because of background, the Irish Tammany bosses were able to maintain and grow the power of the machine.

In addition, the Irish bosses organized the political machine in a more effective way. Tammany Hall was organized like the Catholic Church, in a hierarchy with Tammany Hall’s boss as the “archbishop” with branches in certain communities. Strict discipline was also prized and encouraged.[28] The Irish brought aspects of their own culture into the machine, and helped it function more effectively. The Irish were very active within the political circle, and they especially brought about major reforms within labor movements.

The Irish, who fought for many reforms in Ireland, were active members of labor unions who helped to popularize boycotting. The Irish who immigrated into New York were in search of quick jobs because the famine had launched most of them into poverty. Because the United States was newly industrialized, there were available opportunities for immigrants to work jobs requiring unskilled labor.[29] However, poor working conditions were common in unskilled or unwanted jobs, especially those left for immigrants or minorities, which pushed Irish immigrants to advocate for reform as they had already done in Ireland.[30]

The Irish had been involved in numerous protests in Ireland in which social ostracization was a popular protesting technique.[31] Thus, the Irish coming into New York were politically experienced, and they were generally aware of how to deal with reform movements.[32] A tactic similar to ostracization already existed in the United States, but the origin of modern labor boycotts can be found in the Irish Land League.[33]

Boycotting is cited as “an adaption- not an adoption- of the Irish practice” by Michael Gordon in his study of labor boycotts in New York City.[34] Americans during the revolutionary period used a form of boycotting for protest. This tactic combined with that used by the Irish gave rise to the modern practice of boycotting. The Irish only updated a practice that already existed within the United States. The large number of immigrant workers willing to protest for reforms also helped increase support and membership for labor unions such as the Central Labor Union (C.L.U.) and the Knights of Labor. Labor Unions utilized boycotts to protest for reforms such as a shorter work day, better working conditions, and a minimum wage. [35] The Irish practice of labor boycotting benefitted workers in New York by offering a peaceful and generally successful way of protesting. Despite these contributions, the Irish were often criticized or looked down upon by those living in New York.

Anti-Immigrant and nationalistic sentiments have been very prominent throughout American history, especially during increases in immigration. However, the case supporting these ideals is quite weak compared to the evidence showing the positive effects of immigrants on the United States. Immigrants, especially in newly-industrialized cities, made up the majority of the unskilled workforce. They worked the jobs that no one else would, and effectively supported the economy without much recognition at the time. Irish immigrants were a vital asset to major cities.

In addition, the view on certain nationalities and identities has shifted dramatically over an objectively short period of time. During the time of rapid immigration, the Irish were seen as outsiders and were targets of many negative stereotypes and anti-immigrant aggression. They were seen as scoundrels, and were viewed as “un-American”. However, in modern-day America, most white people can trace their roots back to the Irish or other immigrant groups that were coming into the United States during the Great Wave. Now, those people are labeled as inherently “American” while, for example, Mexican immigrants, among many others, are can often be labeled as “un-American”.

Many of these views can be traced back to harmful stereotypes steeped in fear. This is to say, if the view on Irish-Americans can change so rapidly because of the dismissal of stereotypes, there is little reason why Americans cannot dismiss the stereotypes of Mexican Americans, or Muslim Americans, among many others. It would greatly benefit American society to be more accepting of non-white immigrants because, in the same way the Irish were, they are a vital part of the United States.

While these views may be seen as outdated or in the minority, they are still very prevalent in America today especially because of the current presidential administration, which has demonstrated and acted on strong anti-immigration views in the past. Especially because the majority of Americans are of an immigrant background, it is morally right to accept current immigrants into the United States. The majority of American culture has been adapted from immigrant cultures, and the United States would not be the same without the influence of past and present immigrants.

[1].  Jay P. Dolan, The Irish Americans: A History (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2010), 81-82. 

[2].  Arthur Gribben, The Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 68-69. 

[3].  Ibid., 9.

[4].  Dolan, The Irish, 74. 

[5].  Ibid.

[6].  Ibid., 79.

[7].  Hilary J. Sweeney, "Pasture to Pavement: Working Class Irish and Urban Workhorses in Nineteenth Century New York City," American Journal of Irish Studies 11 (2014): 128, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43234382. 

[8].  James R. Barrett and David R. Roediger, "The Irish and the 'Americanization' of the 'New Immigrants' in the Streets and in the Churches of the Urban United States, 1900-1930," Journal of American Ethnic History 24, no. 4 (2005): 17, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27501633.

[9].  Linda Dowling Almeida, Irish Immigrants in New York City, 1945-1995 (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana Univ. Press, 2001), 16. 

[10].  Barrett and Roediger, "The Irish," 17-26.

[11].  Ibid., 21.

[12].  Jay P. Dolan, The Immigrant Church: New York's Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 11. 

[13].  Jay P. Dolan, " Immigrants in the City: New York's Irish and German Catholics," Church History 41, no. 3 (1972): 354-355, https://www-jstor-org.stmarysepiscopalschool.idm.oclc.org/stable/3164221. 

[14].  Dolan, The Immigrant, 22.

[15].  Ibid.

[16].  Barrett and Roediger, "The Irish," 21.

[17].  Dolan, The Irish, 136-137. 

[18].  Ibid., 137.

[19].  Ibid.

[20].  Terry Golway, Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), 45. 

[21].  Ibid., 46.

[22].  Dolan, The Irish, 136.

[23].  Ibid., 138-139.

[24].  Golway, Machine Made, 45.

[25].  Dolan, The Irish, 140.

[26].  Ibid.

[27].  Golway, Machine Made, xxiv.

[28].  Ibid., 110.

[29]. Almeida, Irish Immigrants, 15. 

[30].  Michael A. Gordon, "The Labor Boycott in New York City, 1880-1886," Labor History 16, no. 2 (1975): 190, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asx&AN=4556209&site=eds-live. 

[31].  Ibid., 187.

[32].  Almeida, Irish Immigrants, 18.

[33].  Ibid.

[34].  Gordon, "The Labor," 187.

[35].  Ibid., 194.


Almeida, Linda Dowling. Irish Immigrants in New York City, 1945-1995. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana Univ. Press, 2001.

Barrett, James R., and David R. Roediger. "The Irish and the 'Americanization' of the 'New Immigrants' in the Streets and in the Churches of the Urban United States, 1900-1930." Journal of American Ethnic History 24, no. 4 (2005): 3-33. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27501633.

Dolan, Jay P. The Immigrant Church: New York's Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865. Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

———. "Immigrants in the City: New York's Irish and German Catholics." Church History 41, no. 3 (1972): 354-68. https://www-jstor-org.stmarysepiscopalschool.idm.oclc.org/stable/3164221.

———. The Irish Americans: A History. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2010.

Golway, Terry. Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Gordon, Michael A. "The Labor Boycott in New York City, 1880-1886." Labor History 16, no. 2 (1975). http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asx&AN=4556209&site=eds-live.

Gribben, Arthur. The Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Sweeney, Hilary J. "Pasture to Pavement: Working Class Irish and Urban Workhorses in Nineteenth Century New York City." American Journal of Irish Studies 11 (2014): 125-37. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43234382.


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