Updated: Mar 15
WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne
When you think of the Irish, what do you think? Do you think of leprechauns? Dimly-lit pubs full of chintzy shamrock decor? Perhaps Lucky Charms? Or do you think of a hard-working people, rich in history and lore, who risked their lives for a fresh start in America? The truth is, there’s much more to the history of the Irish than St. Patrick (who, by the way, isn’t even Irish!). Today, we’re going to discuss the treatment of the starving Irish people on Ellis Island—and contrast it with the controversial subject of immigrant conditions today.
January 1st, 1892. An American flag, flying high above Ellis Island, was lowered and raised three times to signal the transport of the first boat full of immigrants. Annie Moore, a young girl of seventeen, stepped onto American soil for the first time with her two younger brothers in tow. She would go down in history as the first Irish immigrant to be registered on Ellis Island. I like to imagine her stepping off that ship, gazing at her future with curiosity and excitement, imagining streets paved with gold and Americans greeting her with open arms. Realistically, she was probably thinking of her safety, and wondering when she and her family could eat next. History doesn’t tell us what Annie was thinking—but we can speculate that she probably wasn’t prepared for the hostility and hatred that the Americans harbored for her people.
Propaganda is an ugly word; sadly, it’s one that the newcomers would come to know well. As ship after ship of starving, diseased Irish arrived in the States, ugly rumors about the nature of the immigrants spread to the newspapers. The Irish were depicted as rapists, villains, murderers, and more. Anti-Catholic articles, protests, and riots set fire to the cities—sometimes literally. Nasty cartoons displayed Irishmen as giant, hairy creatures, intent on stealing jobs and killing families. Across headlines and state lines, the majority of the American people were terrified of the strange-speaking newcomers. Although many families banded together to provide disaster relief and aid to the suffering Irish, many more lashed out in fear and anger.
One instance of this took place long before Annie Moore’s time, in 1854. Jesuit priest John Bapst had just begun circulating a petition around the Protestant town of Ellsworth, Maine, standing up for Catholic beliefs and denouncing the use of the King James Bible in public schools. For the Irish Catholics in the area, it was a powerful petition—but it was a dangerous one. A band of anti-Catholic protesters dragged Father Bapst into the streets and covered him with burning hot tar and feathers.
Other examples of this persecution would include the burning of churches, the beating of innocent men in the streets, and the printing of crude drawings of the “orange men” in local newspapers. But violence wasn’t the only way the American people oppressed the Irish—as seen in the notorious “No Irish Need Apply” signs of old, Irish men were callously looked at as the lowest class of them all, and were thus given the most undesirable and dangerous jobs: railroad builders, trench workers, canal and sewer diggers. These were jobs that offered little pay and high risk. Many Irish women were forced to turn to petty crimes and worse to make ends meet. Irish families were forced to live two- or three-at-a-time in single room apartments, where disease ran wild and running water was not a guarantee.
Some families, however, seemed to be quite lucky. (One could say they found the occupational pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow.) My own family seemed to have been one of the few able to secure desirable jobs. My great-great-grandfather, Thomas Coyne, and his father, Peter, sailed to the land of the free aboard the SS Laconia on May 18, 1915. They were to join Thomas’s brother Patrick “Paddy” Coyne (arrived 1909) and my Sullivan ancestors, Dennis and Ellen (arrived 1884). Previously a railway engine driver back in Dublin, the 1930 United States Census listed Thomas as a boilermaker at the Old Colony Steamship Line in Newport, Rhode Island. Paddy began work at the newly-opened Newport Naval Hospital—and during the Depression, he was the only member of our family left with a job, and thus was forced to provide for the whole Coyne clan on his salary alone.
And yet, through the endless struggle that was their lives, the men recognized their responsibility to their families and to their homeland and worked diligently—producing some of America’s biggest economic booms. Slowly, Americans began to recognize the Irish for what they were: a strong, cultured people. Instead of viewing them as roguish brutes, they began to appreciate their tenacious, fierce personalities and how they contributed to the States. Over the course of about fifty years, the Irish climbed the societal ladder. The once-hateful Americans began to trust the faithful immigrants with better jobs, allowing them better living conditions and healthier lifestyles. The Irish people became a vital part of establishing law enforcement, and (ironically) protecting those that had once persecuted them. My family, for example, went on to grow a long line of fire-fighters, police officers, and high-ranking military officers.
Nowadays, our immigration laws are quite different from those in the 18 and 1900s. On average, the United States only grants green cards to about 150 Irish women and men per year. While an estimated 4.5 million Irish immigrated to the U.S. between 1820 and 1930, now that number is significantly less. However, those that are entering the country no longer have to deal with nation-wide prejudice for the most part. There are organizations that foster the families, help them onto their feet, provide them jobs, and boost the growth of their new lives.
What events spurred on the rush of the Irish to America in the early 19th century? What exactly did life look like for the Irish as they settled in and re-built their lives? And how have the Irish impacted our country and shaped our lives as we know them? For the answers to these questions and more, we invite you to watch Season 2, Episode 3 of Reconnecting Roots: Irish Immigrants: Emerald Isle to Ellis Island, on your local listings. Or, watch anytime, anywhere, for free, at https://www.pbs.org/show/reconnecting-roots/
If you’re proud of your Irish roots, click here to purchase your “Make America Gaelic Again” hat, as seen in the ‘Irish Immigrants: Emerald Isle to Ellis Island’ episode!