Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Immigration
Native American
Cuban - Puerto Rican
Polish - Russian
picture of the world
Picture of clock - click to view global immigration timeline
Picture of clock - click to view global immigration timeline
Immigration Irish
Spacer Home G of ImmiGration Introduction Potluck Interviews

Irish Identity, Influence and Opportunity

Even as violence threatened the stability of many cities, there was cause to celebrate American self-reliance and Irish-American spirit. John Francis Maguire’s The Irish in America (1868) proclaimed the immigrant to be "… the architect of his country’s greatness, the author of her civilization, the miracle-worker by whom all has been or can be accomplished."

For centuries, though legally free, the Irish lived as a conquered people in their own nation. Britain controlled the politics, economics and religious life of Ireland. Subjugation and strife gave rise to an unmistakable Irish identity, a sense of cohesion, and an ability to organize to accomplish goals. The Irish often met their economic, educational, religious and social needs through clandestine means that frequently involved their trusted village priests.

Their organizational ability coupled with the large number of Irish living in U.S. cities, made the Irish a powerful political force. They literally transformed politics in American cities by putting local power in the hands of men of working class origin. Building on principles of loyalty to the individual and the organization, they built powerful political machines capable of getting the vote. Though remembered most for their perceived corruption, these political machines created social services long before they were politically mandated by national political movements.

Political machines controlled major American cities into the 20th century. From New York to San Francisco, the Irish dominated big city politics. New York's Tammany political machine was under Irish control for more than fifty years.

Irish influence resulted in increased power for the Democratic Party as well as the Catholic Church. William R. Grace became New York City’s first Irish-Catholic mayor in 1880. Four years later, Hugh O’Brien won the same position in Boston.

Irish-American political clout led to increased opportunities for the Irish-American. Looking out for their own, the political machines made it possible for the Irish to get jobs, to deal with naturalization issues, even to get food or heating fuel in emergencies. The political machines also rewarded their own through political appointments. In 1855, "...nearly 40% of New York City's policemen were immigrants, and about three-fourths of these immigrants were Irish."[Wittke, The Irish in America]

Previous page Next Page