Greenwaves on the cusp of the twentieth century

Immigrants entering the United States through ...

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There were two major phases of immigration to the United States between 1830 and 1910. The first, between 1830 and 1870, saw a large influx of people from western and central Europe, especially Ireland and Germany. The green wave caused by The Great Famine exodus had abated, and further waves of Irish lapped up on to the shores of the US in marginally fewer numbers. The late nineteenth century saw a different surge of immigration to the US. Within this second wave was a tidal wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. This second phase of immigration became a boon to the earlier immigrant groups pushing them up the rungs of society while simultaneously diverting nativist fears from the earlier immigrants to these new groups. The ‘new’ Irish off the boats found the established ethnic enclaves in the US made it easier to get work and a place to live with those who felt a loyalty to the idea of being Irish. Most importantly these cultural allegiances were multi-generational. These older immigrants held on strongly to their traditions, and chose to identify themselves not as American, but instead, as proud hyphenated Americans. The Irish led this charge by firmly resisting Protestant hostility and successfully establishing the Catholic Church in the United States which was soon dominated by Irish-American clergy.

By the turn of the century native-born Americans were more sympathetic to the ‘older’ immigrants than to the ‘newcomers’. Woodrow Wilson, the future president, commented in his book History of the American People (1902), ‘The immigrant newcomers of recent years are men of the lowest class from the South of Italy, and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy, nor any initiative or quick intelligence.’

Nativist-leaning Americans were now familiar with the older immigrant groups and they seemed less alien than the newer waves of people after decades in American society. Certain groups were perceived as culturally distinctive and alien as ever, and the refusal to Americanize (or the perception within the general public that they were refusing) for groups such as the Chinese, meant they became greater targets for continued discrimination. The important distinction between them and the Irish was that they lacked the influence of the Irish, who, by the turn of the century, had taken control of vast swathes of American politics and public service, especially within the major cities.

The Immigration Commission of 1911 has some interesting observations about the perceived contrast between these two waves of immigration to the US:

The older immigrant labor supply was composed principally of persons who had training and experience abroad in the industries which they entered after their arrival in the United States. English, German, Scotch, and Irish immigrants in textile factories, iron and steel establishments, or in the coal mines, usually had been skilled workmen in these industries in their native lands and came to the United States in the expectation of higher wages and better working conditions. In the case of the more recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe this condition of affairs has been reversed. Before coming to the United States the greater proportion were engaged in farming or unskilled labor and had no experience or training in manufacturing or mining.

– S. Doc. 747, 61st Congress, 3rd session, Immigration Commission Report, Volume I, p. 494.

For many English, German and Scottish coming to the US the statement may be true, but for Irish immigrants it was totally incorrect. The poorer Irish Catholics usually arrived to the US as unskilled labourers, and often had little or no prior experience in ‘iron and steel establishments’, or worked in mines, or textile factories. In 1900 only 7 percent of Irish immigrants to the US were skilled (Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 582). While this figure had risen to 20 percent by 1920, it was still a fraction of the overall Irish immigrant pool. So, the statement of the Immigrant Commission is actually an example of the acceptance of the Irish by wider American society, through positive perception vis-a-vis other immigrant groups.

The pinnacle of the Irish acceptance in US society was the nomination of Al Smith for President. His nomination also unleashed popular anti-Catholic sentiment; Anti-Smith election badges released with the phrase ‘A Christian in the White House’ on them (Thomas Streissguth, The Roaring Twenties, (Eyewitness History Series, Infobase Publishing, 2007), p. 293). It would be almost thirty years before America would elect a Catholic – who, like Al Smith, also had Irish ancestry – but Smith’s nomination marked the shift which had taken place in American’s perception of the Irish, while also highlighting the lingering prejudice the Irish faced in the United States.


About Alan Noonan

Alan Noonan is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He received his PhD in history from University College Cork, and has experience as a historical consultant and researcher. He has been awarded several fellowships including the Glucksman Government of Ireland Fellowship at New York University, a Mellon Fellowship at the Library Company in Philadelphia, and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History.
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