The Irish in New York City 1850
Irish Famine Emigrants and their Life in New York
Christiane Evelyn Köppe
2 The Great Irish Famine and the Mass Migration to New York City5
2.1 The Great Irish Famine 1846 18505
2.2 Mass Migration to America and New York in the mid 19th century 6
3 The New World – Irish Immigrants in New York City 1850.7
5 Bibliography and List of References13
Irish migration caused one of the biggest problems of mass migration during the mid 19th century. For the period of the fifties more than two million aliens arrived in New York, most of them were Irish people. Forced to leave their homeland by the “Great Famine”, many Irishmen tried to begin a new life in the New World.
As we can imagine, this was not always easy. I am very interested in the Irish history that is why I have chosen a text, wrote by James Burn. The headline of the text is: “James Burn Describes Irish and German Immigrants in New York City, 1850”
This text is taken from Burns book: Three Years among the Working Classes in the United States during the War, published in London in 1865. I have worked with this text, but I have left out the German immigrants. In this paper, I have focused on the Irish immigrants in New York City in 1850. Due to this, some questions have arisen:
Which circumstances in Ireland forced the Irish people to come to the United States? Did they have to leave? After arriving in New York, how was living there in 1850? Where did they live? Where did they work and what did they do to earn their living? Were they accepted by the natives? At all, where they a minority, in spite of they had such an immense percentage of all inhabitants of New York?
Others maybe would ask why I have chosen the year 1850. Not only because Burn speaks about this year, also because this was the last year of the “Great Famine” in Ireland and it’s still a precise date in the mass migration to the United States. It is clear, that not only Irish migrated to the USA, but they were next to the Germans, the dominating group in immigration.
To work on this topic, I have consulted several encyclopedias like the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups and the Encyclopedia of American History. These books offered me a short but very good overview over the American history and the Irish in the United States of America. To find out, why the Irish emigrated, I have taken different books regarding the topic of the “Great Famine”: David Hollet’s “Passage to the New World” and Cormac Ó Gráda’s “The Great Irish Famine”. There’s also a book that helped me very much to find out how Irish people lived in New York City in 1850. This book was written by Robert Ernst and has a very defined title: “Immigrant Life in New York City 1825 – 1863”
A few articles from the internet also helped me to work on the topic of Irish immigrants in New York.
With the help of these books and articles, I have soon found the structure of this paper. At first, I speak about the “Great Famine” in Ireland 1846 – 1850. The famine years caused one of the greatest mass migrations to the United States and because of that, it’s important to clarify what the famine was and why their effects were so tragically, that thousands of Irish people had to emigrate.
After this, I give some facts about the mass migration to the United States and of course, New York. Afterwards, I deal with the biggest issue of this work: living in New York in 1850. According to James Burn’s text, I concentrate on three main issues: At first the life of Irish immigrants; second, their work and in addition to this their upwardly professional development; at least, how the Irish adapted themselves to the Americans and their culture or as Ignatiev says: How the Irish became white. The book of the same name helped me to deal with this question.
Of course, I also try to reveal the problems the Irish had in New York, problems with racism and the anti-Irish sentiments.
I have chosen this structure to show in a chronological sequence the immigration of Irish people to the USA, their life and their problems in New York City in 1850. In my opinion that is a suitable structure to introduce people in Irish immigration to the United States in the mid 19th century.
2. The Great Irish Famine and the Mass Migration to America and New York City
2.1. The Great Irish Famine 1846 – 1850
The Irish Famine of 1846-50 was the greatest disaster in the 19th century of the Irish history.
Population increased rapidly during the 19th century in Ireland2, and for most of the growing population agriculture remained the only means of subsistence.3 The potato was the main food for over half of the people living in Ireland. In August 1845 the fungus Phytophthora infestans reached Ireland and caused the “Great Hunger”. Poor people depended on the income of growing potatoes and three bad harvests in succession made the disaster inevitable.4 Those people could not afford other food than the potato crop; hardly ever seen was food like bread, fish and meat. “They had already reached the lowest point in the descending scale of human existence, and there was nothing beyond but starvation – beggary – or emigration.”5 But there was another problem: without the income of the potatoes, Irish farmers were not able to pay their rents. The result was that thousands left homeless with two options – starve or emigrate from Ireland. Of course, there were also big enterprises still producing potato crops during the years of ‘famine’, but they mainly exported their produce to England. Although people were dying from starvation, the government did not intervene or restrict. Horrible are the numbers of those people who died or were evicted from their homes by landlords. “[B]etween 1.1 and 1.5 million persons dead of starvation or famine-related diseases between 1845 and 1851; at least 500,000 evicted from their homes […].”6 More than a million people were forced due to their circumstances into poorhouses, which were calculated for only a small part of this number.7 For many others only one option was left: leaving Ireland to a ‘New World’ and a land with “milk and honey in abundance” like James Burn describes it.
2.2. Mass Migration to America and New York in the mid 19th century
The ‘Great Famine’ left millions of people homeless and in despair. A solution for this problem had to be found. Ireland was not able to support all people affected by the famine, that’s why it sent large groups of Irish to America.
For most Irish emigrants, the Unites States was the favoured destination.8 The logical consequence was, that “[in] the first half of the 19th century the steady stream of travellers grew into the first of the great mass migrations to the United States.”9 Many Irish took packet ships directly to New York.10 Therefore the numbers of the immigrants are not surprising: between 1820 and 1840 about one in three immigrants were born in Ireland, for the period of the 1840s, 45 percent of all new arrivals were Irish. After 1850 the number of Irish immigrants declined. Nevertheless about 4.7 million Irish crossed the Atlantic after 1820 to the United States, among these more than a million emigrants in the famine years.11 In New York, the famine emigration of 1846-1850 established the basis of Irish domination. There were 133,730 Irish-born citizens by the mid-century, 26 percent of the total population.12 Besides the numbers of immigrants, it is worthy of note which people emigrated. A large percentage of course were impoverished Irish workers,13 so to say “an army of unskilled laborers” 14 and leaders of the catholic church. Most of the emigrants were unmarried and under 35 years old. In the first years of immigration there was a high rate of literacy, but at the mid-century about 75 percent of all Irish immigrants were able to read and write English.15 “By the time of the Great Famine a significant portion of this new generation of literate, English-speaking peasants had turned to emigration […] to the United States […].”16 Final, between 1830 and 1860 Ireland and German states were the homelands of two-thirds of the settlers. James Burn wrote in his Article: “America may looked upon as a sort of promised land for the children of ould Ireland.” One of the greatest mass-migrations to the United States was caused by the potato crises in the 1840s. As lots of Irish starved and many more were pushed off the land, because Ireland could not stand this problem, thousands found their way to the United States.17
3. The New World – Irish Immigrants in New York City 1850
James Burn pointed out: “Though society in New York is made up of almost every nationality on the face of the earth, the Irish and German elements are by far the most predominant.“ As Ialready mentioned, the biggest part next to the Germans in New York were the Irish. During the mass migration many of them found work in the big Cities. America was not only a sort of Promised Land for the emigrants of Ireland, as James Burn describes it, it was also the only chance to escape from hunger and death. By mid-century, New York City was receiving three quarters of the immigrants from Europe. In 1855 over half the inhabitants of Manhattan Island was of foreign origin; 54 per cent of these were natives of Ireland.18 All those Irish had to make a living in the New World. But it was not so easy. Many of them appeared with little or no money, were unskilled and used to work as farmers. Without any money, they were forced to remain were they landed.19 Work was the only need for Irish immigrants, and when they found it, they were able “[…] to exchange their national ‘male of potatoes’ for plenty of good substantial food; their mud cabins and clay floors with fires on the hearth, for clean, comfortable dwellings with warm stoves and ‘bits of carpits on their flures.’”20 As it is normal for most immigrants, also the Irish came together and lived and worked in slums “[…] in the vicinity of the wharves to the pave on the Broadway […]”.21 There were also wards, where immigrants lived. Below Canal Street, there were seven wards with 163.5 people per acre in 1850, compared to 94.5 persons in 1820. The average block density in 1850 was 272.5 persons, compared to 157.5 in 1820. The seventh and tenth ward had a high Irish and German population. It is not surprising, that in these wards the density rose from 54.5 persons per acre in 1820 to more than three times as much.In the years during the mass migration, there was a shortage of housing in New York. The owners of these housings took their chance to rent basements, attics, even roof spaces and stables to immigrants.22
After finding a place to live, they had to look for work. Irish people with money opened their own stores; mostly whisky stores and lager-beer saloons, as Burn tells us. The liquor store line was a business, in which Irishmen generally were successful.
Furthermore he writes down, that the labouring Irish can be seen engaged in all the poor jobs from “shouldering the hod to rag-gathering”(Burn). In this way for thousands of public works Irish immigrants supplied the brawn.23 In 1850 Irish male immigrants worked in a moderately small number of occupations.
Unqualified workers found difficult a solid work. Partially skilled workers were generally
employed as bartenders, porters or soldiers. Blacksmiths and carpenters became mostly experienced workers. Clerks, clergymen or schoolteachers became white-collared Irishmen.[…]” 24 and actually the number of Irishmen who were white-collar workers increased during
About 75 per cent of the employed Irish female immigrants in New York worked as domestic servants, the leftovers in mills and factories. Whatever their job was, all these labourers could be sure to be remunerated in such a way, that they were up to live comfortably, tells Burn. In fact, the income of an average Irish family was then among the highest of any foreign-born group.25 It is worthy of note how the more prudent and industrious class of Irishmen succeed in the different walks of life the 19th century. 26
But that is only one component of their life. Not all Irish in New York had a good quality of life. That is a fact Burn doesn’t mention in his description. The least attractive jobs in which they were concentrated brought not enough money to live comfortably. The poor living conditions and their desire for alcohol reflect the mortality statistics. In the mid-century an old Irishmen was hardly ever seen.27 One source speaks of “[…] 80% infants born to Irish immigrants in New York City [died].”28 Life in the slums was a constant struggle with sickness and death, due to many Irish immigrants in the famine years leaving the so called “Coffin Ships” starving and diseased, spread their sicknesses, and shortly after arriving died.29 But the high death rates were compensated by high fertility. Many Irish males married Irish women between 1850 and 1870.
Also important is, that in New York “[…] is scarcely a situation of honour or distinction, from the chief magistrate down to the police, that is not filled by a descendant of some Irishman […]”30 Indeed, many Irish immigrants developed a political knowledge that gained them local and state-wide positions.31 Burn notices, that their political influence is a matter of big value, especially during elections.
However that is not the only development worthy of note. In the mid-century, a progress of fast transformation of young Irish can be experienced. James Burn writes: “The rapid transformation effected both in the manners and personal appearance of the young members of the Celtic family after arriving in this country […]”.
Burn describes the American influence as follows: while indolent behaviour, careless manner and slouching gait characterized Irish at home, the new generation received the proper inspiration of style, learned to walk in a self-consciousness way and adapted themselves to exterior respectability.Irish have a character of a free citizen of the United States. So to say, the more modern group was not influenced that much by tradition, they were more individualistic and oriented to change; their ideals were similar to the communal values in the New World.32 Burn makes circumstances at home responsible for their indolent habits: miserable remuneration, uncertain occupancy and unsteady living as a cotter or small landholder. In their new homes, they tried to break out from bondage of poverty, and unite their chances and affections. What Burn illustrates here can be described as Irish, who became white. Becoming white in America was an important step. It did not mean that all Irish wanted to become wealthy or “middle-class”, because there are still many poor Irish. Becoming white means something different: Labourer wanted to compete for every job as an alternative of being restricted to certain work; entrepreneurs wanted to function outside of an isolated market. Both wanted, and of course, still want to become citizens of a democratic republic, with the right to elect and be elected, live wherever they want to and could afford to live, and to spend their money they acquired for many different things. “In becoming white the Irish ceased to be Green.”33
It was crucial for Irishmen to become white, but difficult as well. There is a very important fact, Burn did not reveal. In 1850 the “Know Nothing” party was founded. This party was against foreign immigration, especially against Irish Catholics.
Though the party did not directly work in New York, it had more than one million members and passed a series of laws, intended in particular at the Irish Catholics population of Massachusetts. The Know Nothings also wanted to deny Irish Catholics their right to take part in an election and hold office. Fortunately the party’s popularity was lost in 1854. In the years after 1850, racial discrimination against Irish declined, other people immigrated to America and caused new prejudices.34
In conclusion: becoming white means to bear all the problems of discrimination through parties or others, means fighting for human rights and not giving up.
Ever since migrations existed, there were problems between natives and immigrants in nearly every part of the life. Until today, the United States is a very popular country for immigration. The first large wave of immigrants in the mid 19th century brought more than five million people to the United States.35 The biggest part of all immigrants had the Irish.
As I have mentioned on the previous pages, serious problems in Ireland caused people to emigrate. The “Great Famine” from 1846 to 1850 made thousands of people homeless, because they could not pay the rent for their land. More than a million people starved from hunger.36 The poorhouses, in which the Irish were forced to, were overfilled. Helping all the poor people in Ireland cost more than paying their tickets to the United States.37 Because they had nothing to risk and everything to gain, millions of Irish tried to find a better life in the USA. Many of them shipped directly to New York. The biggest part of all newcomers stayed in New York at the wharves or in the poor quarters of this town, which was mainly due to their missing money. Irish immigrants mainly had no money and most of them were unskilled. But most Irish people found work either as labourers at the wharves, barkeepers, and domestic servants or even as schoolteachers and politicians.38 Some Irishmen opened their own liquor stores. Though the Irish had a good income and could live comfortably (at least to buy food and clothes) 39 many of them lived in very bad conditions. Hygiene in the back quarters of New York was not good, working conditions for unskilled labourers also not and many Irish were addicted to alcohol. That’s why mortality statistics were high by the mid century.40 The advancement of the Irish progressed in the 1850th. There were white-collared Irishmen with good working conditions; the Irish had an important part in elections and the younger generation adapted to the American values. Despite the fact that Irish people in America in 1850 were free citizens they weren’t accepted everywhere. There were often struggles between black slaves and Irish, the Irish were even called “Black Irish” and of course many Americans had their prejudices against them.
Irish mass migration caused also an anti-Irish sentiment; the “Know Nothing” party was founded in 1850, a party which was against foreign immigration. Nevertheless a lot of Irishmen were able to make a living in New York and the rest of the United States.
Anyone who reads James Burns description of the Irish immigrants in New York in 1850 will get a general idea about the three main parts of living: where the Irish lived, what they worked and how they adapted to the American life.
I hold the view that this description is very accurate, because every fact he mentioned was traceable for me. But there are many facts he does not point out. His report gives in fact the important information about Irish immigrant life in New York, but it does not reveal enough aspects. While working with this text, I got to know so many things; I was not able to put them all in this paper. Burn’s point of view is very positive, but Irish living was not so positive at all. Of course, they did not have to face the same problems like people in Ireland, but many others.
To sum up I would say, that reading Burns description, though it is based on historical facts, is not enough to show the whole spectrum of the Irish in New York in 1850. Further reading is ineluctable to know what immigrant life in New York means at all.
Patrick J. Blessing, “Irish”, in: Stephan Thernstrom/Ann Orlov/Oscar Handlin (Eds.), Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge, Mass./London [et al.]: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 41994, pp. 524 – 545.
Melinda Coréy, “Immigration”, in: Malcolm J. Rohrbough/Gary B. Nash (Eds.), Encyclopedia of American History: Expansion and Reform 1813 – 1855. New York, 2003, pp. 177 – 180.
Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City 1825 – 1863. New York: Octagon Books, 1979.
Jon Gjerde (Ed.), Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Nathan Glazer/Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Eds.), Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City. Cambridge, Mass./London [et al.]: The M.I.T. Press, 2d ed.1974.
Cormac Ó Gráda, The Great Irish Famine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Arthur Gribben (Ed.), Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America. Amherst, Mass.:University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
David Hollet, Passage to the New World: Packet Ships and Irish Famine Emigrants 1845 – 1851. Abergavenny, Gwent: Heaton, 1995.
Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White. New York/London: Routledge, 1995.
List of References
“James Burn Describes Irish and German Immigrants in New York City, 1850”, in: Jon Gjerde (Ed.), Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998, pp. 104 – 106.
“Robert Whyte Explains the Irish Migration Following the Potato Famine, 1847”, in: Jon Gjerde (Ed.), Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998, pp. 102 – 104.
1 Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City 1825 – 1863. New York: Octagon Books, 1979 p. 61
2 David Hollet, Passage to the New World: Packet Ships and Irish Famine Emigrants 1845 – 1851. Abergavenny, Gwent: Heaton, 1995, p.13.
3 Patrick J. Blessing, “Irish”, in: Stephan Thernstrom/Ann Orlov/Oscar Handlin (Eds.), Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge, Mass./London [et al.]: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 41994, p.529.
4 Cormac Ó Gráda, The Great Irish Famine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.3.
5 David Hollet, Passage to the New World. p.13.
6 Arthur Gribben (Ed.), Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999, p.181.
8 David Hollet, Passage to a New World, pp.194.
9 Stephan Thernstrom, Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, p. 524
10 David Hollet, Passage to the New World, pp.194.
11 Patrick J. Blessing, “Irish”, in: Stephan Thernstrom, Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, pp.528.
12 Nathan Glazer/Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Eds.), Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City. Cambridge, Mass./London [et al.]: The M.I.T. Press, 2d ed.1974. p.219.
13 David Hollet, Passage to the new World, p.121.
14 Patrick J. Blessing, “Irish”, in: Stephan Thernstrom, Harvard Encyclopedia of Am. Ethnic Groups, p.524
15 Ibid. pp. 529
16 Patrick J. Blessing, “Irish”, in: Stephan Thernstrom, Harvard Encyclopedia of Am. Ethnic Groups, p.530
17 Jon Gjerde (Ed.), Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
18 Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City 1825 – 1863, pp.61.
19 Ibid. p.62.
20 “James Burn Describes Irish and German Immigrants in New York City, 1850”, in: Jon Gjerde (Ed.), Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998, p.105.
22 Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City 1825 – 1863, p.69.
23 Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City 1825 – 1863, p.61.
24 Patrick J. Blessing, “Irish”, in: Stephan Thernstrom, Harvard Encyclopedia of Am. Ethnic Groups, pp.531.
25 Ibid. p.532.
26 Ibid. pp.530.
27 Ibid. p.532.
28 Anti-Irish Sentiment, in:
29 Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City 1825 - 1863 pp.52.
30James Burn in: Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History, p.105
31 Melinda Coréy, “Immigration”, in: Malcolm J. Rohrbough/Gary B. Nash (Eds.), Encyclopedia of American History: Expansion and Reform 1813 – 1855. New York, 2003, p.179
32 Patrick J. Blessing, “Irish”, in: Stephan Thernstrom, Harvard Encyclopedia of Am. Ethnic Groups, p.530
33 Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White. New York/London: Routledge, 1995. pp.2.
34 Anti-Irish Sentiment, in:
35 Malcolm J. Rohrbough/Gary B. Nash (Eds.), Encyclopedia of American History: Expansion and Reform 1813 – 1855, p.177.
36 Arthur Gribben (Ed.), Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America
37 “Robert Whyte Explains the Irish Migration Following the Potato Famine, 1847”, in: Jon Gjerde (Ed.), Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History, pp. 102 – 104.
38 Patrick J. Blessing, “Irish”, in: Stephan Thernstrom, Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, p.531.
39 James Burn in: Jon Gjerde (Ed.), Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History, p.105.
40 Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City 1825 – 1863, pp.52.