There’s something fascinating about the American celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. When people of all ethnicities don green clothes and head out to a local pub for a Guinness or a shot of Jameson, they’re standing in solidarity with the Irish — the first newcomers from overseas to be treated as immigrants in the current sense of the word.
But if today’s Irish-Americans mostly treat the green-beer image of Irishness as benign, that stereotype was once the linchpin of America’s first vicious anti-immigrant campaign. The fact that we now have a holiday centered on Irish culture (and drinking) reveals how one immigrant group became, over time, part of the American establishment.
At first, Irish prospects were grim indeed. In just nine years, from 1846 to 1855, 37,000 people flooded from Ireland into Boston. They sailed across the Atlantic to escape a country in great turmoil, but they arrived in a city unprepared for the influx of so many desperately poor and uneducated foreigners. Lacking services and support, Irish immigrants were herded into ghettos and offered miserable jobs at miserable pay, triggering a cycle of crushing discrimination and poverty that would last for decades.
Boston’s Protestant community regarded the newcomers as an affront. The native-born middle class of the Athens of America fled places where the Irish settled, prompting the development of new Irish-free neighborhoods, including the Back Bay. Protestant antipathy toward this first wave of indigent newcomers was fomented by the relatively recent temperance movement, which equated sobriety with morality.
In less than a decade, the temperance movement merged with the anti-immigration movement to brand the Irish as hopeless drunks — too boozed up to work hard or care for their children. It was a convenient way for native Bostonians to blame the immigrants for their own poverty while validating anti-Irish sentiment. It certainly was easier to take the high moral ground than confront the institutional bigotry that prevented the Irish from benefiting from a rapidly expanding economy which they themselves helped build.
In fact , drinking was deeply woven into colonial, English, and Irish culture values. The typical American colonist drank rum or hard cider with every meal. Even toddlers downed the sugary dregs of their parents’ hot toddies, writes historian W.J. Rorabaugh . In his book “Hair of the Dog,” Richard Stivers describes British coal miners and tailors, as well as judges and clergymen, drinking heavily as a way of affirming their solidarity with one another and commitment to their trades.
Similar habits were entrenched in many other places, including next door in Ireland where alcohol was regarded as a medicine, a symbol of good will among parties in business negotiations, and a substitute for food during fasting days. Whiskey, the “water of life,” was the subject of literature, ballads, and folk songs.
Drinking on the job in Ireland was not just permitted but encouraged in the early 19th century. Historian James Barrett writes in a paper titled “Why Paddy Drank” that employers often gave out liquor to workers every day “in hopes of exacting a greater exertion from their workers, as a part of wages, or simply as a goodwill gesture.” A state of inebriation was desirable, Barrett says: “Laborers or farmers seeing an intoxicated man were apt to view him with envy since he was thought to be in a much happier state than they.”
As the United States and England industrialized and urbanized, drinking habits changed. New jobs working with complicated machines demanded sobriety, while city attractions like libraries and public meeting places provided alternatives to the pub.
Ireland, however, remained largely agrarian. But when the potato crop failed in 1845, causing the Great Famine, Irish society underwent an enormous shift. To control population growth, just one son in each family was permitted to marry and run Ireland’s ailing farms. In a culture where the sexes had been kept separate, a division enforced by clergymen who walked the roads armed with sticks to deter courting couples, the unmarried sons became permanent celibates, while daughters were sent to the cities to find jobs in the mills.
Young Irish bachelors did get a consolation prize: They were allowed to spend long hours in the tavern with friends and were recognized as respectable members of society. “The bachelor-group drinker was the good solid man because, through his sacrifice, the progress of an Irish-owned farm economy was forged,” Stivers writes.
But some fled across the Atlantic for a better life in the United States. Once there, they faced a harsh reality. In Boston, according to the classic history “Boston’s Immigrants” by Oscar Handlin, most worked exhausting, low-paid jobs as unskilled laborers or domestic servants. Many lived in tenements, boarding houses, or hastily built structures squeezed into the gardens and yards of existing homes.
High mortality rates, especially among Irish children, devastated the population. In a particularly horrific example, a cholera epidemic in Boston killed more than 500 immigrants in 1849. Between cold, disease, and hunger, Stivers writes, Irish immigrants in Boston, largely young men and women, lived only 14 years after arrival on average.
Saloons provided an escape from the crush of the slum living. Alcohol eased physical pain, provided a cheaper source of calories than food, and kept the body warm. Historian Victor A. Walsh quoted an Irish day laborer who explained his public drunkenness to a Pittsburgh court by lamenting that he had “very little envelopment, in the shape of clothing, to prevent the wind of heaven from visiting me too roughly.”
Unfortunately for the Irish, they arrived in the United States as the temperance movement was gathering force. From about 1825 to 1845, Americans had reduced their average intake from almost 4 gallons of alcohol a year to 1 gallon, write anthropologists Paul E. Reckner and Stephen A. Brighton.
Prior to the Irish migration, the temperance movement had focused on the middle class, notes Catherine Gilbert Murdock in her book “Domesticating Drink.” Sobriety, combined with modesty, hard work, and ambition appealed to this new generation of America’s upwardly mobile. Embracing these refined qualities differentiated them from the “impoverished and degraded” poor as well as upper-class “sumptuary excess.”
As the Irish flooded in, the temperance movement gained a new sense of urgency. Antiliquor reformers were appalled at the growing number of alcohol sellers in Boston, mostly in the immigrant enclaves of the North End and Fort Hill. In response, Reckner and Brighton write, the temperance movement shifted from middle class self-improvement to “curing” the growing ethnic underclass of excessive drinking.
Blaming foreigners’ bad habits for their suffering reinforced the middle-class position that the poor could rise to riches in the face of dramatic, persistent urban poverty, if only they kicked the bottle. After the devastating cholera outbreak of 1849, the city issued a report that lay blame not on the desperate conditions in immigrant neighborhoods but on intemperate Irish “brutes.”
By the late 19th century, anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment became part of American culture. Although “Irish need not apply” signs, contrary to myth, were not ubiquitous, discrimination was. Popular semi-pornographic “exposes” and novels depicted priests and nuns as lecherous, sadistic demons. False evidence became “Irish evidence,” and a reduction in pay was an “Irish promotion,” according to American literature scholar Philip McGowan.
A growing eugenics movement attacked drunkenness, particularly by immigrants, as a cause of defective children. Some posited that drinking would lead to much-feared interracial relationships. In 1908, one temperance writer, McGowan notes, summed up these fears: “Besodden Europe, worse bescourged by war, famine and pestilence, sends here her drink-makers, her drunkard-makers, and her drunkards. . . . with all their un-American and anti-American ideas of morality and government . . . through the ballot-box, flung wide open to them by foolish statesmanship that covets power.”
Outside cities, the Protestant middle class fretted about the immigrant-run urban political machines, which often carried out their business in the saloons.
But slightly less malign depictions of the Irish also began to filter into popular culture. Stivers quotes one sociologist of the day declaring that “the Celtic offender is a feckless fellow, enemy of himself more than of anyone else. It is usually not cupidity nor brutality nor lust that lodges him in prison, but conviviality and weak control of impulses.”
Irish-Americans fought back against these stereotypes, claiming that they were victims of discrimination. Stivers quotes a complaint from the Boston Irish paper The Pilot that “if the native constables and watchmen of this city looked as sharp after natives as they do foreigners,” police statistics would look quite different.
As immigration from Ireland slowed, the Irish no longer made easy targets for xenophobic hysteria. American WASPs weren’t yet ready to acknowledge Irish-Americans as their equals, Stivers writes, but they’d accept them as allies in opposing the new wave of immigrants arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe, whom they now saw as the real threat to the country.
With or without Protestant support, the Irish gained political and economic power, particularly in cities like Boston. As Irish-Americans took over local government, the moneyed WASPs who still ran the State House moved to limit the power of populist Irish-American mayors like John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley. One result was a cap on liquor licenses that still plagues the city.
Ultimately, of course, the national crusade against drinking, with all its anti-immigrant implications, succeeded dramatically with Prohibition in 1919, and failed just as dramatically with its repeal 14 years later. In part, the reversal reflected a shift in the culture’s center of gravity from the “virtuous” Protestant countryside to the rapidly growing, multi-ethnic cities.
Just a generation after the end of Prohibition, Americans elected Fitzgerald’s grandson, an Irish Catholic who indulged in daiquiris and Heinekens, as their president in 1960. Nearly 60 years later, Irish-Americans march alongside their fellow countrymen, recent immigrants, and Protestants on St. Patrick’s Day, and happily down a few beers in tribute to hardships left behind long ago, or just yesterday.
Livia Gershon is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @liviagershon.