Joining the Workforce
Irish immigrants often entered the workforce at the bottom of
the occupational ladder and took on the menial and dangerous jobs
that were often avoided by other workers. Many Irish women became
servants or domestic workers, while many Irish men labored in
coal mines and built railroads and canals. Railroad construction
was so dangerous that it was said, "[there was] an Irishman
buried under every tie."
As Irish immigrants moved inland from eastern cities, they found
themselves in heated competition for jobs. The audio recording,
Laborers in the Early 20th Century, describes how West Virginia
coal operators fired union laborers and gave the jobs to Irish,
Italian and African-American workers because, [the] coal
company owned them. This competition heightened class tensions
and, at the turn of the century, Irish Americans were often antagonized
by organizations such as the American Protective Association (APA)
and the Ku Klux Klan.
often suffered blatant or subtle job discrimination. Furthermore,
some businesses took advantage of Irish immigrants willingness
to work at unskilled jobs for low pay. Employers were known to replace
(or threaten to replace) uncooperative workers and those demanding
higher wages with Irish laborers.
Over time, many Irish climbed occupational
and social ladders through politically appointed positions
such as policeman, fireman, and teacher. Second and third
generation Irish were better educated, wealthier, and more
successful than were their parents and grandparents, as
illustrated by the Kennedy family. The first Kennedy who
arrived in the United States in 1848 was a laborer. His
son had modest success in this country, but his grandson,
college educated Joseph P. Kennedy, made the fortune that
enabled the great grandsons (one of whom became President
John F. Kennedy) to achieve great political success.