Preying Upon the Vulnerable
What this means, of course, was that the Famine immigrants were vulnerable. In the aforementioned Annie Reilly by John McElgun, we learn that Irish immigrants were preyed upon at the docks by so-called “runners” or “man-catchers.” James, for example, is swindled by a man who claims he can locate employment – for a price. Some runners might affect a good Irish accent, or even speak Gaelic. On the other hand, there was only so much damage the runners could do. Irish immigrants generally carried very little with them, often having sold valuable possessions back in Ireland. Finally, newly arrived Irish during the Famine often sought out church and political officials. Both offered shelter, food and guidance, asking only for an immigrant’s soul and vote in return. New York’s Archbishop John Hughes swiftly saw that American officials were not going to care for the Irish, so he set about creating a Catholic nation within a nation, providing education and health care. Political machines, meanwhile, gave the Irish a way to fight the nativists at the ballot box – or, if necessary, on the street corner.
So, having survived the traumatic journey, the nativists and scam artists, there is one more thing the Irish developed in the U.S. – a concern for the land they had left behind. This devotion to Ireland would infuse many of the institutions the Irish would come to dominate in the decades which followed the famine – the Catholic Church, City Hall, big-city fire and police departments.
Having risen from the docks to Wall Street, the Irish began building a bridge across the Atlantic. This monumental project is still underway, though its origins stretch back 150 years, to traumatic voyages across the sea, and subsequent simple questions such as the one James O’Rourke is asked by a fellow Irishman in John McElgun’s novel: “How is things [in Ireland] now; any better? … [T]he people an’t [sic] starving as they wor [sic] when I left there?”
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