(Note: First of two parts)
Founded more than four years before the blight struck Ireland’s potato crop and brought on the Famine, the organization would soon take on an importance few of its founders would have imagined.
The tradition of founding immigrant aid organizations began in the colonial period (the first was the Charitable Irish Society of Boston, established in 1737), but the story of the Irish Emigrant Aid Society founded in 1841 begins in the 1830s when the volume and character of Irish immigration to the United States changed dramatically. We often think of large-scale Irish immigration to America as beginning with the Famine in 1845, but it was already well under way by then, with some 200,000 Irish arriving in New York in the 1830s alone. Before 1830, the majority of Irish immigrants were Protestants from Ulster. More often than not, they arrived with some capital and, equally important, marketable occupational skills. But starting in the 1830s, as the agricultural crisis that would later blossom into Famine worsened, more and more of the Irish who arrived in the U.S. 1830s and ’40s were poor, unskilled Catholics. Whereas only 28 percent of Irish immigrants arriving in 1826 were unskilled laborers, the number hit 60 percent in the 1830s and kept rising to more than 80 percent by 1850.
Newspaper editors, reformers, and others urged them to continue west into the American interior, where a more wholesome life awaited, but few had the resources or inclination to take up farming. Instead, they crowded into rundown sections of East Coast cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and formed large Irish ghettos characterized by substandard housing and the lack of urban services like running water and regular street cleaning. Not surprisingly, rates of disease, crime, violence, and mortality among Irish immigrants rose to unprecedented levels. So too did nativism — the perception among native-born Americans that immigrants in general, and the Irish in particular, were a menace to American society.
Deeply troubled by the sufferings of their fellow Irishmen and the negative impact it had on American’s perceptions of them, several leading men in the Irish community gathered to establish a charitable organization. More accurately, they were reestablishing one, since an earlier Irish Emigrant Association (and several others) existed in the 1810s and ’20s. The meeting was called by Bishop John Hughes, the Irish-born head of the Diocese of New York and the emerging voice of Irish Catholic New York, and Dr. Robert Hogan, president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. Joining them were leading Irish merchants, philanthropists, and politicians, including Tammany leader Thomas O’Conor and Rep. John McKeon.
Like its predecessor organizations, the Irish Emigrant Aid Society endeavored to help Irish immigrants in all manner of ways. Representatives of the society combed the docks where daily hundreds of Irish arrived and dispensed helpful information on housing and jobs, as well as warnings about the many lures and snares that awaited them in the city. It opened an employment bureau to place Irish immigrants in good jobs and helped 1,200 in this way in 1842. For a brief time the IEAS pursued a scheme to resettle Irish immigrants on western lands, an idea eventually abandoned as impractical. It also sent to Irish newspapers published statements warning would-be immigrants of the real hardships that awaited in America, despite the alluring advertisements of the shipping companies.
One of the most pervasive threats to immigrant well-being addressed by the IEAS were the legions of con men and crooks descending upon unsuspecting immigrants. Many of them worked for boarding houses that charged extortionate rates and saddled immigrants with hidden charges. Others offered fraudulent money exchanges or sold bogus tickets for steamers and trains heading west. Worst were the pimps who steered unsuspecting Irish women to brothels. Sadly, as the IEAS annual reports state, these men often used their ethnic credentials — a good Irish accent or, better still, the ability to speak Irish — to ensnare their fellow Hibernians. An eyewitness account by an Irish priest in the 1850s explains the typical scenario:
The moment he landed, his luggage was pounced upon by two runners, one seizing the box of tools, the other confiscating the clothes. The future American citizen assured his obliging friends that he was quite capable of carrying his own luggage; but no, they should relieve him — the stranger, and guest of the Republic — of that trouble. Each was in the interest of a different boarding-house, and each insisted that the young Irishman with the red head should go with him. . . . Not being able to oblige both gentlemen, he could oblige only one; and as the tools were more valuable than the clothes, he followed in the path of the gentleman who had secured that portion of the “plunder” . . . the two gentlemen wore very pronounced green neckties, and spoke with a richness of accent that denoted special if not conscientious cultivation; and on his (the Irishman’s) arrival at the boarding-house, he was cheered with the announcement that its proprietor was from “the ould counthry,” and loved every sod of it, God bless it!”
Not surprisingly, the IEAS pressed city officials to provide more vigorous police protection and to prosecute those guilty of fraud and theft. They also published lists of disreputable establishments and distributed them to newly arrived immigrants. With each passing year, especially as the Famine immigration began, the work of the IEAS became more and more vital to the growing numbers of Irish.
The IEAS scored a major victory for the rights of all immigrants in 1847 when, after months of intense lobbying by the agency, the state legislature of New York created the Commissioners of Emigration of the State of New York. In this era, the federal government exerted no control over immigration (and would not do so until 1890), so the Commission was charged with handling everything related to it, including establishing protections for immigrants, licensing runners and boarding houses, compiling statistics, and collecting a head tax of $1.50 per immigrant to fund these services and charity relief. Eventually the Commission opened and administered the nation’s first immigration depot, Castle Garden at the tip of Manhattan island. Owing to the great numbers of Irish and German immigrants arriving in the city, two seats on the Commission were reserved for the presidents of the Irish Emigrant Aid Society and its German counterpart.
The IEAS could never handle all the needs of the thousands of Irish who flooded into New York in those years, but its efforts certainly diminished the suffering for many of them. Its success soon led to similar organizations being established in port cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New Orleans.
Next week: the story of the Irish Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, founded by the IEAS in 1850.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
March 23, 1847: Moved by news of starvation in Ireland, a group of Choctaw Indians in Scullyville, Okla., raise $170 and forward it to a U.S. famine relief organization.
March 21, 1914: British officers in Ireland stage Curragh Mutiny by threatening to resign if ordered to crack down on Unionist militants.
March 23, 1862: Union Gen. James Shields defeats Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in the Civil War battle of Kernstown, Va.
March 24, 1855: Industrialist and banker Andrew William Mellon is born in Pittsburgh.
March 25, 1848: Nationalist Michael Davitt is born in Straide, Co. Mayo.
March 25, 1925: Novelist Flannery O’Connor is born in Savanna, Ga.