Irish Immigrants in Society


The experiences of Irish who arrived in the U.S. during the 1840s and 1850s was one which did not begin on the best of terms. Over time, these immigrants were able to find a place for themselves. In almost every aspects of their new lives in the U.S., from their jobs to their interactions with native-born whites, these Irish were situated near the bottom of the social hierarchy. In Alexandria, Irish immigrants experienced the same pattern; however, by the 1870s, they had become skilled workers and members of the growing middle class. By the end of the nineteenth century, most Irish immigrants were able to overcome economic and social barriers and become full members of the community.

One of the first barriers the Irish encountered upon their arrival in the 1840s and ‘50s was the job market. Because of their largely agricultural backgrounds, many immigrants who came to the U.S. came without marketable skills and were forced to take on whatever job was available to them. As a result, the most common jobs for the Irish were unskilled work and domestic servitude. Some of the highest numbers of unskilled Irish can be found in New York City, Philadelphia, and Jersey City, where upwards of 56% of Irish immigrants were seen as unskilled in 1860.[1] As for women, those who worked outside of the home often worked as domestic servants, though they might also have worked as “bookbinders, peddlers, storekeepers, makers of umbrellas and paper boxes, or in the needle trades…”[2] In the American South, the newly arrived Irish were still placed in mostly unskilled work, but they were also recognized for bringing some skills and entrepreneurs to the region by the 1850s.[3] However, among this new group of Irish, most were still unskilled laborers.

One of the largest apparent differences between the immigrant experience in the North and the South was the potential for economic mobility. In northern states, “the Irish-born were disproportionately concentrated in menial labour until at least 1890.”[4] In the South, on the other hand, not only was there a significant representation of Irish who were able to enter into the white-collar professions, but also those who did remain in labor positions were—at least until the Civil War—able to use the value and importance of slaves in the plantation system to argue for better wages in exchange for doing those jobs seen as a danger to the lives of slaves.[5]

The labor experiences of the Irish in Alexandria, Virginia appear to follow at least part of this overall narrative, but only prior to 1870. During the 1850s and 1860s, there were a significant number of Irish immigrants who worked as common laborers or in a wide range of unskilled or semiskilled jobs. [6] In the 1850 U.S. Census, 84 Irish immigrants were employed; of those 40, or 47%, were listed as laborers. There were also a good number of Irish listed with skilled positions such as baker, shoemaker, or blacksmith.

In 1860, the population of Irish immigrants recorded living in Alexandria skyrocketed, as did the percentage of those working as laborers. Of the 330 Irish immigrant males who were employed, 220 were listed as laborers. However, what is interesting about this particular census is that it shows the beginnings of wealth among the Irish. Although the percentage of Irish laborers had increased between 1850 and 1860 (to about 67% of the Irish-born workers), there was also an increased number of Irish working as skilled craftsmen or in merchant trades. At the same time, there are several immigrants listed with a recorded wealth of over $1,000 and even some with wealth over $10,000. Women also appeared as working in the 1860 U.S. Census (NOTE: no occupations were listed for women in the 1850 U.S. Census).  Most of these women were single and worked as domestics.  At least one, however, was a grocer and was quite well-to-do.  Thus, a noticeable change seems to have occurred in a span of only ten years. Irish immigrants, though still relegated mostly relegated to the bottom of the labor pool, seem to be moving up the social and economic ladder.

While Irish were able to make some noticeable strides by the 1860 U.S. Census, it was by 1870 that a large shift occurred in which it can be said that they gained a significant position within the Alexandria’s white society. Once again, the population of immigrants had increased dramatically; however, unlike in 1860, the number of Irish-born listed as laborers plummeted.  For the first time, the majority of Irish immigrants worked as grocers or as another type of merchant. With this shift in their economic position in Alexandria, a great number of Irish were able to enter into white, middle class society. Part of this shift may very well be attributed to the end of the Civil War; without the need of southern planters to hire unskilled Irish laborers to do jobs deemed too dangerous for slaves, the number of those jobs dwindled and Irish working in those positions had to move elsewhere or find a new kind of employment. It is also possible that those immigrants who showed loyalty to the Confederate cause (see Irish in the Civil War) broke down many of the negative stereotypes about Irish and were embraced as white southerners. Regardless, the Irish had gained significant headway within white society of Alexandria by 1870.

In 1880, the number of Irish unskilled laborers became almost insignificant, with a total of only 16 laborers listed among all 4 of the city’s wards. In fact, while the number of merchants were still significant, the variety of occupations Irish held increased and diversified by this census. In each ward, there were a number of Irish listed as railroad workers, sailors and ship builders, police officers, and even doctors. At the same time, Irish women were finding positions outside of domestic work, with many running boarding houses.  Rather than being subjected to jobs that kept them outside of the white social sphere, the Irish were now working and living alongside the rest of Alexandria’s white community.

While Irish social mobility may not seem like much, it becomes much more important when compared to those Irish immigrants living elsewhere, particularly in the North. While the extremely large Irish immigrant communities in cities like New York and Philadelphia continued to be relegated to unskilled labor positions, their Irish counterparts in the South and, especially, Alexandria were able to move beyond “unskilled laborer” by about 1870 and were circulating among the more prestigious members of white community by 1880. Though certainly far from the most successful group living in the city, the skilled and white collar jobs held by a substantial number of immigrants proves that they were able to find some level of economic security. However, despite their victories, the Irish still had many challenges to face throughout the 19th century, many in the form of nationalist groups who wanted nothing to do with Irish immigrants.

American Nationalism

Despite all of the success Irish immigrants in Alexandria enjoyed, there was also a group of native-born whites who wanted to bar immigration from Ireland during the antebellum period. One of the largest of these groups was the American Party—also known as the Know-Nothing Party—which rose to political power in the mid-1850s. The party was founded on the belief that immigrants, especially Catholics ones, were a threat to American society, which they saw as mostly Protestant. Although the Know-Nothings were able to gain some support at the local level in several southern states, for the most part white southerners rejected the party for its nativist, anti-Catholic rhetoric. However, even in cities where the party did not have much public support, party members were able to cause a great deal of problems for immigrants and Catholics alike. Alexandria appears to have avoided the nativist wave that hit other cities in the region, particularly Washington, D.C. and other southern states.

For Irish immigrants, the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic rhetoric voiced by the Know-Nothing Party carried memories of their treatment by English landlords back home.[7] Although the party did have some strong support and even won some local elections in cities such as Richmond, Memphis, Mobile, and New Orleans,[8] for the most part Know-Nothings failed to gain any large support in elections. However, failure in elections did not mean that individual American Party members failed in their attempts to spread the party’s nativist ideologies. In Washington, D.C., for example, a group of Know-Nothings led by the Baltimore gang, the Pug Uglies, attempted to gain a Know-Nothing victory during the 1857 election. The ensuing violence was only stopped by the intervention of the United States Marines.[9] Despite its early support, the Know-Nothing Party lost much of its strength and died out by the end of the decade.

In response to growing nativism, the Irish moved in great numbers to join the Democratic Party, which tended to have a more positive stance towards immigrants generally and protected Irish workers from potential job competition from African Americans. Ironically for nativists, their activities caused Irish to pursue naturalization and then become politically active.[10] From their positions within the party, Irish immigrants were able to gain the access to political power on the local and state level.  Voting information found in a database of Irish households in Alexandria in the 1860s shows that Irish voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the 1859 election. After the Civil War, an Irish immigrant even became mayor of Alexandria. Thus, Irish immigrants in Alexandria–as elsewhere in the U.S.–joined the Democratic Party and became politically active in order to protect their brethren from nativist attacks and job competition.

Alexandria, Irish Immigration, and the Civil War

[1]               Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History (New York: Pearson Education Inc, 2000), 109.

[2]               Kenny 110-111.

[3]               David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 40.

[4]               Kenny 149.

[5]               Gleeson 53.

[6]               In 19th century census records, the occupation of a common laborer was listed as “laborer; “however, there were a number of specific unskilled jobs that are listed as well. For the purpose of this study, data was collected only on those listed as “laborer.” A list breaking down common job categories can be found in Gleeson 195-196.

[7]               Gleeson 108.

[8]               Gleeson 113.

[9]               S. J. Ackerman, “A Riot in Washington,” American History 36, no. 2 (June 2001), 56.

[10]             Kenny 121.

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