Philadelphia Metropolis


Erin Go Bragh

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Famine Couple.jpgIn the mid-1800's, an adult male in Ireland consumed an average of 14 pounds of potatoes a day. Each day.

So, you can imagine the effect it would have on Irish men -- and women and children -- if the potato went away.  But, that's exactly what happened beginning 1845 in Ireland.

A fungus known as the potato blight suddenly appeared.  Infected potatoes rotted in the ground.  Crop yield collapsed in waves between 1845 and 1852.

If you don't have anything to eat, over time you will starve. Historians estimate that one million Irish either starved to death or died from diseases tied to malnutrition.  Another estimated one million emigrated -- fleeing their homeland to save their lives. About 750,000 of them ended up in America.

The Irish held a unique niche among English-speaking peoples.  The bottom rung. They were seen as a low and vicious race "the missing link between the gorilla and Negro," as one English writer put it at the time of the famine.

In 19th century illustrations, the Irish are often portrayed as being apelike.  One newspaper cartoon of a St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City in the 1860's was titled simply "March of the Orangutans."

As one historian put it the Irish -- in Ireland and American -- were "a vast proletariat, ignorant, miserably poor, superstitious and disorderly."

Writing in the 19th century, a University of Pennsylvania historian wrote that Irish immigrants had "revolting and vicious habits.  Being of the lower order of mankind, they are repellant to those who were further advanced in the social scale."

You catch the drift. 

The comparison to apes is not the only parallel between the language used to describe the Irish and blacks.  Both were called ignorant and indolent, prone to violence and drink.  Historian Richard Lebow wrote a book about the time of the famine and the Irish Diaspora that explored this theme. It was titled White Britain and Black Ireland.

Even during the time of the famine, when the Irish were dying by the hundreds of thousands in their homeland, there was a tendency among some in England to blame the victims. As the Times of London put it: "Ireland and the Irish have, in great measure, themselves to thank for their poverty and want of capital." The fact that Ireland was a British colony and many agrarian Irish the equivalent of serfs eluded this writer.

The Irish who fled to America and ended up in Philadelphia weren't exactly the cream of the crop. Most of them were dirt poor, illiterate and rural. As historians have noted, the Irish were, for the most part, a race of farmers who were destined to become urban dwellers in America.

They arrived at an interesting time. Places like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston and New York were rapidly urbanizing. The Industrial Revolution had arrived, upending traditional ideas of crafts and work. In 1840, Philadelphia city and county had a combined population of 258,000. By 1860 the then-consolidated city had a population of 565,000. It had more than doubled. A lot of these new Philadelphians were Irish.

Many of them lived in slums, especially north and south of Center City, in district's such as Kensington, Southwark, Myomensing and the Spring Garden.. Public health officials who ventured there found conditions appalling; the filth and squalor overwhelming.

And they were despised. To begin with, there was the Anglo-Saxon aversion to anything Irish. The shared belief that they were an inferior and dangerous race. Worst of all, especially in Protestant America, they were reviled because they were Roman Catholic.

And so began, in this city and others, a 30-year campaign to control, repress and often beat the hell out of the Irish.

In 1842, 100 of the city's most prominent Protestant clergymen organized into the American Protestant Association and warned in ominous tones against the "Rise of Popery."

In 1844, a request by the city's Catholic bishop to allow use of the Catholic version of the Bible in public schools -- along the St. James version for Protestants -- sparked widespread anti-Irish riots that could not be controlled by the local constables. The militia had to be called out.

In the 1850's, Philadelphia became an epicenter for the Know Nothing Party, nativists who sought to halt immigration of "undesirables" and delay citizenship for those already here. The natives feared ruination of America is these Catholic vermin were allowed to vote.

For many decades, the Irish were the city's underclass, using their wiles to survive, a path that often led to crime. As late as 1865, according to historian Dennis Clark, 35 percent of all persons arrested for crimes in Philadelphia were Irish born.

How did the Irish survive this onslaught of repression?

Essentially, they withdrew from the larger society. They self-segregated themselves. They established their own schools, their own hospitals, militias, volunteer fire companies, fraternal organizations and marching societies. The local Catholic Church, dominated by Irish clergy, preached resoluteness, strict adherence to doctrine -- along with temperance. Catholic parishes became the anchor of Irish neighborhoods and provided a range of social services, such as feeding the poor.

After the Civil War, the growing wealth of America lifted even the Irish boats. More and more emerged into the settled working class and some made it to the middle class. "Lace-curtain Irish," as they were called by my great aunts, a status they strove for.

In the 19th and into the 20th Century, St. Patrick's Day Parade held a special significance for the Irish. It was the day they emerged from their neighborhood redoubts and into the broader world, to assert their place as Americans and as Philadelphians. (In a sign of the times, the banners of temperance groups often outnumbered the contingents of other fraternal, social and religious groups.)

The Irish emerged from their crucible intact. In the region, people of Irish descent remain the largest single ethnic group and Catholicism is the majority religion.

St. Patrick's Day has become an excuse to get drunk and a day when other ethnics get to pretend they are Irish so they can get drunk, too, wearing green plastic derby's and drinking green beer.

But, the journey from Ireland in the 1840's to the Philadelphia of today was a long and arduous one that involved overcoming hatred and prejudice, horrid living conditions and lives that were, to quote Hobbs, often "nasty, brutish and short."

The journey the Irish took is the same as other ethnic and racial groups have taken, not just in the past, but even today. My neighborhood is filled with Mexicans, recently arrived, taking their first steps from alien to American. Each year, the city sees influxes of Asians and South Asians, Africans and Latinos.

It's important for the Irish and other assimilated ethnic groups to know the truth about their past -- in part to commemorate the sacrifices of previous generations, in part as an antidote to the reflexive prejudice old timers have for the new.

We owe to our forbearers. We owe it to our children.

Happy St. Patrick's Day.

-- Tom Ferrick

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