The Irish famine led to a massive influx of Irish immigrants to New York during the late 1840s and 1850s. As the downtrodden Irish escaped the famine in their home country, however, they came to a place where life was just as tough. Disembarking from coffin ships, Irish newcomers were greeted with a new life of hardship, slums and tough, endless labor.
The Irish quickly made a name for themselves and not always for the right reasons. Cash-strapped and fleeing their country after years of hunger, it appears that some of the Irish in New York turned to crime and violence while women engaged in prostitution to earn money. By the 1850s, over half of those arrested in the city were Irish-born and a staggering percentage of those arrested for being drunk and disorderly also hailed from the Emerald Isle.
Hospital and poor house admissions were high for Irish immigrants during this time, a reflection of the continued poverty of the Irish once they reached the land of opportunity. Many Irish were reduced to begging on the streets and to staying in slums where living conditions bred disease and early death.
According to statistics from Pandodaily:
- 55% of those arrested NYC in the 1850′s were Irish-born
- 35% of the prostitutes arrested in NYC in 1858 were Irish-born.
- 70% of all admissions to Bellevue Hospital (NYC’s public hospital) in the 1850s were Irish
- 85% of foreign-born admissions to Bellevue Hospital (NYC’s public hospital) in the 1850s were Irish
- 63% of foreign-born admissions to the NYC Alms House (Poor House) 1849-1858 were Irish
- 56% of all NYC Prison commitments in 1858 were Irish-born
- 74% of foreign-born NYC Prison commitments in 1858 were Irish-born
- 70% of persons convicted for disorderly conduct in the NYC Courts of Special Sessions, 1859, were Irish-born
- 74% of persons convicted for drunk and disorderly conduct in the NYC Courts of Special Sessions, 1859, were Irish-born
The story was the same for most U.S. cities with a substantial Irish population. The Chicago Post said in the 1850s, "The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses...Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country."
The Irish were, along with the Germans, the first group of immigrants to the U.S. who suffered from systematic discrimination as they settled in East Coast cities from the 1820s onwards. The oppression they felt in the new land inspired the Irish to group together and often resulted in acts of violence against any system they felt was unfair to the Irish.
During the Civil War, this led to a three-day riot in New York following the first draw of the draft lottery. The Irish terrorized the streets because most of the first names drafted were Irish. The riot continued until Archbishop Hughes called for peace.
Violence also came to a head on several occasions on the infamous July 12 as the Orange Order marched through Irish areas in New York to commemorate the victory of William of Orange over the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne, infuriating the Irish Catholics. The Orange Riots in 1870 and 1871 saw an outbreak of Irish political tension on the streets of New York and resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries.
Thankfully these days have passed and today, the title of Irish in New York is not (always) one associated with drunken violence. It is also worth noting that the majority of Irish crimes were for minor offenses. It has been found that the commitment rate for major crimes among the Irish population was half the number of Italians charged with major crimes.
As Orestes Brownson, an activist, preacher, labor organizer, and noted Catholic convert and writer said in 1854, "Out of these narrow lanes, dirty streets, damp cellars, and suffocating garrets, will come forth some of the noblest sons of our country, whom she will delight to own and honor."