The to escape the hunger, poverty, and

The market revolution was a time of great improvement in
communication and transportation in America during the 19th century. These
improvements were made possible by the many non-Americans who migrated to the
country. Many immigrants, specifically from Europe, came to America in search
of jobs, wealth, and a better life in general. Of these immigrants, the Irish
were an important group that made major contributions to American society. The
Irish came to America to escape the hunger, poverty, and disease in their home
country. The situation in Ireland is described by William Dunne in a letter in
which he stated that “there is neither employment nor food” and that “people
are going out to America half naked.”1 Immigrants were eager to
get to the land of the free and experience life like one unidentified immigrant
did and illustrated his experience as every day in America being “as good as
Christmas day in Ireland.”2 Many were males going
alone to practice chain migration or the practice of sending portions of their
wages home to support their families and hopefully send them to America. The
immigrants took jobs for low wages and spread their Catholic beliefs. In doing
so, they were discriminated against by Americans, especially Nativists, who
were opposed to immigration. Irish immigrants were met with racial
discrimination, religious persecution, and ostracism when they arrived in

While some Irish immigrants enjoyed their freedom from the
misery in Ireland, many faced harsh racial discrimination and prejudice. Most
notably, the Irish were compared to

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African Americans who were known to be at the bottom of the
social hierarchy. A cartoon by Thomas Nast shows the direct comparison of the
two groups. An African American man and an Irish man are sat on a sort of scale
on which they are level, representing their equal statuses in American society.
The Irish man is clearly depicted to look ape-like, a feature seen in many
anti-Irish cartoons. Unsurprisingly, Harper’s
Weekly, the publisher of the cartoon, was “vehemently opposed” to “the
increasing political and social influence” of the Catholic Church.3 Although compared, the Irish
and African Americans did not unite; instead, they felt the need to compete in
order to climb up the social ladder to be accepted by Americans. In the South
during the antebellum period, masters often prohibited slaves from doing
dangerous work out of fear of losing a valuable worker. These jobs were then
taken up by the Irish. The duties included the building of canals and railroads
as well as working in coal mines. Thousands of Irish workers lost their lives
in improving America. Racial discrimination by Americans against the Irish also
included stereotypes of the immigrants being dirty, lazy, drunks. These characterizations
came from the fact that most Irish immigrants lived in larger numbers in “tiny,
cramped spaces” that were originally single-family houses.4 Immigrants had little or
no money when they arrived in America so unsanitary living conditions were all
they could afford. These environments often led to disease “including cholera,
typhus, tuberculosis, and mental illness.”5 This also led to others
trying to avoid the Irish out of fear of contracting said diseases. The
stresses of trying to assimilate into American society caused many immigrants
to turn to alcohol, earning them the negative image of being constantly drunk
and lazy.

Religious discrimination against the Irish was prominent as
they were almost exclusively Catholic. Many Americans saw the religion as a
threat to Protestantism. Nathaniel Currier expressed the feelings of the nation
in an anti-Catholic cartoon from 1855. The drawing depicted several Catholic
bishops and a leading pope attempting to anchor themselves on American land.
One of the bishops is portrayed threatening to burn bibles and “elevate this
country to the same degree of happiness and prosperity,” that Catholicism has
to other European countries.6  The Church leaders have been villainized and
shown as being forceful and assertive, shoving their religion onto Americans.
Brother Jonathon, a personification of New England, even refers to Catholicism
as “the mark of the Beast.”7  The Irish faith was also symbolic of lower
class, poor, and therefore dangerous and dirty people. Americans, specifically
upper class citizens, were afraid of accepting such people into society. Anti-Catholic
feelings were also violent at times. St. Mary’s Catholic Church was burned down
by angry Protestant mobs in 1831. Thirteen people died in Philadelphia when
riots broke out in 1844.      

Apart from religious and racial discrimination, the Irish were
generally excluded from American society. Like the African Americans, white Americans
despised the immigrants for taking their jobs. The Irish “entered the workforce
at the bottom of the occupational ladder” and were only able to get low paying,
unskilled work.8
Many immigrants, not just Irish, found work at textile factories such as Lowell
Mills in Massachusetts. Immigrants were often hired as strikebreakers while American
mill workers demanded higher wages and reduced hours. Wages were rather lowered
and hours lengthened as immigrants were desperate for work. This led to rising
tensions and anti-immigrant feelings by mill workers and other working class
Americans alike. Anti-immigration and anti-Catholic nativists formed the
Know-Nothing-Party in the 1850s which sparked further discriminatory sentiment
towards non-Americans and at one point, after 1855, halted immigration to the
country. The Party was especially successful throughout the North where many
Irish immigrants settled. Members wanted to prevent the Irish from becoming
naturalized American citizens and from gaining political power but the Catholic
Church as well as the Democratic Party obtained influence through the support
of Irish immigrants. The Irish only had each other in a country where they were
so unwelcomed. Their loyalty to each other helped the immigrants to “get jobs…deal
with naturalization issues, and even to get food or heating fuel in
The Irish also supported fellow Irish-American political candidates such as
William R. Grace who was elected mayor of New York City in 1880; the first to
be Irish-Catholic. The immigrants used politics to voice their opinions and
concerns as they were ignored anywhere else. Although some employers enjoyed
hiring Irish immigrants at such low wages, some employers did not want any
Irish workers at their stores and businesses. Some began to hang “Positively No
Irish Need Apply” signs on their doors as a notice to those seeking jobs.10

Irish immigrants faced cruel treatment by Americans in
forms of racial and religious discrimination as well as social exclusion. Anti-immigration
groups made it difficult for Irish immigrants to enjoy their new lives by
harassing and mocking them while anti-Catholic groups made it difficult for
Irish-Catholics to practice their faith peacefully. The Irish were ridiculed but
rose to success through their hard work and devotion to their new country. President
John F. Kennedy is a prime example of an Irish-American descendent whose
ancestors had to work for acceptance. The success and prominence of the
renowned Kennedy was built on the hardships and sufferings of industrious Irish


      1. William Dunne, “There is
neither employment nor food,” Letter to John Curtis,

(April 25, 1846),
(Accessed                   December 11,

Letter, “Letter to the
London Times from an Irish Immigrant in America,” (1850),
(Accessed December 11, 2017).

      3. Thomas Nast,
“The Ignorant Vote.” Cartoon. Harp Weekly. (December 9, 1876),
cartoon-1876-Medium.asp?UniqueID=26&Year=. (Accessed December 11, 2017).   

Diller, Paul, Hagen, and Wesson. “Adaption and Assimilation.” Library
of Congress.
presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/irish4.html. (Accessed December
11, 2017).

Diller, Paul, Hagen, and Wesson. “Adaption and Assimilation.” Library
of Congress.
presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/irish4.html. (Accessed December
11, 2017).

Nathaniel Currier, “The Propagation Society, More Free than Welcome.”
Cartoon. YAWP. (1855),
(Accessed December 8, 2017).

Nathaniel Currier, “The Propagation Society, More Free than Welcome.”
Cartoon. YAWP.
(1855), (Accessed December
8, 2017).

Diller, Paul, Hagen, and Wesson. “Joining the Workforce.” Library of
presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/irish4.html. (Accessed December
11, 2017).

Diller, Paul, Hagen, and Wesson. “Irish Identity Influence, and
Opportunity.” Library of Congress.
presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/irish4.html. (Accessed December
11, 2017).

History Place. “The Irish Potato Famine: Gone to America.” The History Place.
(2000), (Accessed
January 10, 2018).