Boston Irish History courtesy of:
Throughout the Famine years, nearly a
million Irish arrived in the United States. Famine immigrants
were the first big wave of poor refugees ever to arrive
in the U.S. and Americans were simply overwhelmed. Upon
arrival in America, the Irish found the going to be quite
tough. With no one to help them, they immediately settled
into the lowest rung of society and waged a daily battle
The roughest welcome of all would be in Boston, Massachusetts,
an Anglo-Saxon city with a population of about 115,000.
It was a place run by descendants of English Puritans, men
who could proudly recite their lineage back to 1620 and
the Mayflower ship. Now, some two hundred thirty years later,
their city was undergoing nothing short of an unwanted "social
revolution" as described by Ephraim Peabody, member of an
old Yankee family. In 1847, the first big year of Famine
emigration, the city was swamped with 37,000 Irish Catholics
arriving by sea and land.
Proper Bostonians pointed and laughed at the first Irish
immigrants stepping off ships wearing clothes twenty years
out of fashion. They watched as the newly arrived Irishmen
settled with their families into enclaves that became exclusively
Irish near the Boston waterfront along Batterymarch and
Broad Streets, then in the North End section and in East
Boston. Irishmen took any unskilled jobs they could find
such as cleaning yards and stables, unloading ships, and
And once again, they fell victim to unscrupulous landlords.
This time it was Boston landlords who sub-divided former
Yankee dwellings into cheap housing, charging Irish families
up to $1.50 a week to live in a single nine-by-eleven foot
room with no water, sanitation, ventilation or daylight.
In Boston, as well as other American cities in the mid-1800s,
there was no enforcement of sanitary regulations and no
building or fire safety codes. Landlords could do as they
pleased. A single family three-story house along the waterfront
that once belonged to a prosperous Yankee merchant could
be divided-up room by room into housing for a hundred Irish,
bringing a nice profit.
The overflow Irish would settle into the gardens, back yards
and alleys surrounding the house, living in wooden shacks.
Demand for housing of any quality was extraordinary. People
lived in musty cellars with low ceilings that partially
flooded with every tide. Old warehouses and other buildings
within the Irish enclave were hastily converted into rooming
houses using flimsy wooden partitions that provided no privacy.
A Boston Committee of Internal Health studying the situation
described the resulting Irish slum as "a perfect hive of
human beings, without comforts and mostly without common
necessaries; in many cases huddled together like brutes,
without regard to age or sex or sense of decency. Under
such circumstances self-respect, forethought, all the high
and noble virtues soon die out, and sullen indifference
and despair or disorder, intemperance and utter degradation
The unsanitary conditions were breeding grounds for disease,
particularly cholera. Sixty percent of the Irish children
born in Boston during this period didn't live to see their
sixth birthday. Adult Irish lived on average just six years
after stepping off the boat onto American soil.
Those who were not ill were driven to despair. Rowdy behavior
fueled by alcohol and boredom spilled out into the streets
of Boston and the city witnessed a staggering increase in
crime, up to 400 percent for such crimes as aggravated assault.
Men and boys cooped up in tiny rooms and without employment
or schooling got into serious trouble. An estimated 1500
children roamed the streets every day begging and making
There were only a limited number of unskilled jobs available.
Intense rivalry quickly developed between the Irish and
working class Bostonians over these jobs. In Ireland, a
working man might earn eight cents a day. In America, he
could earn up to a dollar a day, a tremendous improvement.
Bostonians feared being undercut by hungry
Irish willing to work for less than the going rate. Their
resentment, combined with growing anti-Irish and anti-Catholic
sentiment among all classes in Boston led to 'No Irish Need
Apply' signs being posted in shop windows, factory gates
and workshop doors throughout the city.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of
the Irish Famine, Boston's Irish community unveiled a $1
million memorial park on June 28,1998.
Located in downtown Boston, the park is
sited along the city's Freedom Trail, and is visited annually
by over three million people.
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