State militia fire at nativist rioters during the Philadelphia violence of 1844.

Historian Irish emigrants were once labelled 'scum' and tormented in the United States

Dr Catherine Healy says Irish people have known harassment and racism and it’s important to remember our history.

IRELAND IS STILL reeling from the tragic and shocking events of 23 November, with its capital city looking like one under siege for a time. After a dreadful attack outside a school, rumours quickly circulated online, culminating in some of the worst violence to hit Dublin in years.

The riots developed in a fog of anti-immigrant sentiment. Protesters rampaged through the streets, attacking gardaí and setting fire to public transport, all in the misguided name of protecting Ireland from ‘others’. Most of us can only imagine how it must have felt to be an immigrant in Dublin that evening.

Such xenophobic rhetoric would have sounded familiar, though, to many who left Ireland in the past. Famine and poverty sent millions of Irish to the United States in the 19th century, but a far-from-universal welcome awaited them across the Atlantic. In language echoing today’s far-right discourse, they were derided as “a horde of foreign barbarians” and “leeches upon our taxpayers”.

‘American-born nativists’

Much of the hostility was driven by American-born nativists, opponents of immigration who exploited deep-seated Protestant fears over Catholic influence. Supporters of the so-called Know Nothing movement deemed the Irish not just a burden to society, but unfit for citizenship: as Catholics, it was alleged, they would only vote in line with orders from Rome. As nativist leader Samuel Morse put it: “Popery is opposed in its very nature to democratic republicanism.”

Image 3 Irish emigrants leaving their home in 1851, during the Great Famine.

In a number of cities, tensions around Irish immigration erupted into violence. One of the first major riots took place in May 1844 in Philadelphia, a key centre of Irish settlement. The unrest was largely sparked by misinformation about Catholic attempts to reform religious education in public schools. Francis Kenrick, the Dublin-born bishop of Philadelphia, had objected to the teaching of the King James edition of the Bible, arguing that children should be permitted to read from a Catholic version.

Soon enough, local nativists were spreading the false claim that he wanted to entirely do away with Bible lessons.

Angry rallies were followed by a three-day campaign of terror against Irish Catholics, with rioters destroying dozens of homes and burning two churches. A contemporary account of the violence told how 200 families had been forced to flee with whatever belongings they could grab.

The writer described the pitiful sight of “men with their wives, and often six or seven children, trudging fearfully through the streets, with small bundles, seeking a refuge they knew not where”.

The thuggery might have been framed as a defence of religion, but anti-Irish bigotry was never far from the picture. At one meeting – one provocatively held in a Catholic-dominated neighbourhood – Irish people were denounced as “scum unloaded on American wharves”. Another wave of violence broke out in the city in July, during which around 5,000 state militia were deployed to restore order.

Image 2 An 1850s cartoon depicts an Irish and a German voter stealing an election, tapping into nativist paranoia over the political influence of immigrants.

Philadelphia’s Bible riots emboldened what was becoming an increasingly organised anti-immigrant movement. By the 1850s, the ironically named Native American Party – or “Know Nothings” – held a number of governorships and city mayorships, along with several dozen seats at Congress. The party’s platform included support for the deportation of poor and sick immigrants and a 21-year waiting period for citizenship.

The economy

Anti-Irish sentiment was hardened in part by economic insecurity. The introduction of mechanisation in many industries had led to deskilling and falling wages, sharpening the alienation felt by working-class labourers.

Some placed the blame on immigrants rather than the economic market.

As the historian Elliot J Gorn has written: “Appeals to ethnic hatreds allowed men whose livelihoods depended on winning elections to sidestep the more complex and politically dangerous divisions of class.”

Image 1 State militia fire at nativist rioters during the Philadelphia violence of 1844.

Catholics continued to be targeted in the years after the Philadelphia riots, particularly when elections were underway. During the “Bloody Monday” riots of 1855 in Kentucky, for instance, Irish and German immigrants were attacked on polling day as part of an attempt to intimidate voters. At least 22 people lost their lives.

The Plug Uglies, a street gang linked to the Know Nothings, also disrupted elections in Baltimore and Washington, DC, assaulting immigrants who turned up to vote.

Gradually, the perception of Irish communities improved. US laws introduced in the 1920s sought to end Asian immigration and severely restrict arrivals from Eastern and Southern Europe. With Irish Americans by then well established in cities like New York and Boston, a much more generous quota was allocated for Irish immigrants. The days of riots against Irish Catholics might now seem like ancient history, but we would do well to remember how our ancestors were often treated when they departed these shores.

Dr Catherine Healy is Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum.

Dr Catherine Healy