The Divide Between Blacks and the Irish

From our archives: A St. Patrick's Day primer on how two groups of Americans who were once close parted over slavery.

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St. Patrick’s Day is not usually associated with African Americans. In fact, to African Americans it has often been a reminder of the great political divide between themselves and the refugees from the Irish potato famine who came to the United States. What explains the divide between two groups that were once in very similar circumstances?

The Irish who immigrated to America in the 18th and 19th centuries were fleeing caste oppression and a system of landlordism that made the material conditions of the Irish peasant comparable to those of an American slave. The Penal Laws regulated every aspect of Irish life and established Irish Catholics as an oppressed race. Anticipating Judge Roger B. Taney’s famous dictum in the Dred Scott decision, on two occasions officials with judiciary authority in Ireland declared that “the law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic.”

When they first began arriving here in large numbers, the Irish were, in the words of Mr. Dooley (a character created by journalist Finley Peter Dunne), given a shovel and told to start digging up the place as if they owned it. On the rail beds and canals, they labored for low wages under dangerous conditions; in the South they were occasionally employed where it did not make sense to risk the life of a slave. As they came to the cities, they were crowded into districts that became centers of crime, vice and disease.

They commonly found themselves thrown together with free Negroes. Blacks and the Irish fought each other and the police, socialized and occasionally intermarried, and developed a common culture of the lowly. They also both suffered the scorn of those better situated. Along with Jim Crow and Jim Dandy, the drunken, belligerent and foolish Patrick and Bridget were stock characters on the early stage. In antebellum America, it was speculated that if racial amalgamation was ever to take place, it would begin between those two groups. As we know, things turned out otherwise.

In 1841, 60,000 Irish in Ireland issued an address to their compatriots in America, calling upon them to join with the abolitionists in the struggle against slavery. Six months after the address, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote what may be the saddest words ever written about the Irish diaspora: “Even to this hour, not a single Irishman has come forward, either publicly or privately, to express his approval of the address, or to avow his determination to abide by its sentiments.”

What explains the attitude of people whose experience in Ireland and the United States one might have thought would predispose them to sympathy with all victims of slavery and racial oppression? It was not the inevitable consequence of blind historic forces, still less of biology, but of choices made among available alternatives.

In 1834 a mostly Irish mob in Philadelphia rampaged through the black district. By the time they subsided, two black people were killed and many beaten. Two churches and upwards of 20 homes were laid waste, their contents looted or destroyed. A committee appointed to investigate the riot identified as a principal cause the belief that some employers were hiring black workers over whites.

Such events were common at the time. No less a witness than Abraham Lincoln warned in 1837 that “accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the everyday news of the times.”