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Irish American Working Class

Summary and Keywords

Between the 1790s and the 1990s, the Irish American population grew from some 500,000 to nearly 40 million. Part of this growth was due to immigration, especially in the years of the Great Irish Famine, though significant emigration from Ireland both preceded and followed the famine decade of 1846–1855. For much of this 200-year period, Irish-born men and women and their descendants were heavily concentrated in working-class occupations and urban communities. Especially in the years around the opening of the 20th century, Irish Catholic immigrants and their descendants put a distinctive stamp on both the American labor movement and urban working-class culture and politics as a whole. Their outsized influence diminished somewhat over the course of the 20th century, but the American Irish continued to occupy key leadership positions in the U.S. labor movement, the Democratic Party, and the American Catholic Church, even as the working-class members or constituents of these institutions became increasingly ethnically diverse. The experience of Irish American working people thus constitutes an important dimension of a larger story—that of the American working class as a whole.

Keywords: Irish immigrants, labor and working-class history, labor movement, trade unions, class, race and ethnic relations, radicalism

Before the Great Irish Famine, 1790–1845

From the 1790s through the early 1840s, the Irish in America were employed mainly as unskilled workers. This was a period when the nascent labor movement was dominated by a minority of highly skilled artisans and mechanics, especially printers and shoemakers, but also carpenters and other building trades workers, coopers, tailors, cabinet makers, shipwrights, and handloom weavers. Such workers responded to the new manufacturing processes that were eroding their crafts and to the widening social gulf between themselves and their employers by engaging in strikes and by building a set of institutions that included trade societies (as early trade unions were called), cooperatives, adult educational bodies, so-called working men’s political parties, and pro-labor newspapers. Demanding higher wages, shorter hours, free public schools, and (in states like Rhode Island that still lacked it) white adult male suffrage, this labor movement, which had taken hold in many American cities and smaller industrial communities by the mid-1830s, was shaped by notions of republican citizenship, the customs of the craft workshop, and an ethos of “manly” independence that derived from the preindustrial era. American labor historians have sometimes conceptualized this period as the initial stage of working-class formation in the United States, a process comparable to what the British historian Edward Thompson called “the making of the English working class.”1

Although approximately 1.5 million Irish people immigrated to the United States before the onset of the Great Famine, Irish immigrants and their descendants participated to only a limited degree in the formation of the early working class. A handful of Irish-born male workers—mainly handloom weavers (the one skilled craft in which Irish men predominated), those with some previous industrial experience in Britain, and/or Protestants (a religious group that still made up the largest share of emigrants from Ireland as late as 1830)—emerged as important labor activists. In Philadelphia, for example, one of the nation’s strongest labor centers in the 1830s, a charismatic Irish-born handloom weaver named John Ferrall joined a mainly English- and native-born local labor leadership, while his fellow Irish Catholic handloom weavers waged a series of successful strikes against their employers and helped build the citywide General Trades Union, one of a number of central labor bodies that appeared in these years.2

Some of the mainly middle-class and Protestant United Irishmen who had arrived in America in the years before or after their defeat in Ireland’s bloody 1798 Rebellion against Britain also played a kind of supporting role in this emerging labor movement. Philadelphia’s William Duane, a veteran of both Irish republican and English plebeian radical movements, used the pages of his influential Jeffersonian Republican newspaper, the Aurora, to voice the aspirations of the city’s artisans, while the New York attorney William Sampson, who had spent several years in a British prison for his support of the Society of United Irishmen, played an important role in defending the leaders of that city’s striking shoemakers in their 1809–1810 trial, one of several important conspiracy cases in this period that grew out of employers’ efforts to prosecute unions and strikers under English common law. In his defense of the workers, Sampson drew on his understanding of Irish history to denounce “the specter of the common law” as an oppressive British relic that deserved no place in a republic. In so doing, he provided later generations of U.S. labor leaders with intellectual ammunition for their argument that the right to strike was central to the worker’s liberty. Generally, however, Irish participants in America’s early labor movement were few and far between.3

Moreover, as the number of Catholic emigrants from Ireland to the United States began to grow after 1815, religious tensions between Catholic and Protestant workers increasingly undermined the unity of the early labor movement. Between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the onset of the Great Famine in 1845, between 800,000 and one million Irish men and women arrived in North America, twice as many as in the entire previous two centuries. Facing economic depression, growing competition from England, and increasing mechanization that hindered the ability of men and women to earn wages by spinning textiles or weaving cloth at home, along with staggering population growth (Ireland’s population doubled from 4 million in 1780 to 8 million in 1841), many Irish people opted for transatlantic migration. Between 1815 and 1845, the Irish accounted for a full third of all immigrants to the United States. As Irish migration increased, the social, regional, and religious backgrounds of the migrants gradually changed. Poorer farmers and workers began to emigrate in larger numbers in these years. By 1836, for example, nearly two-thirds of all Irish immigrants arriving in New York were servants or laborers, up from under a third just a decade earlier. Equally important, though Protestants from Ulster continued to emigrate through the 1830s, they were increasingly joined by Catholics from that province and from Ireland’s three more heavily Catholic southern provinces, Leinster, Munster, and Connacht. In the 1830s, Irish Catholic immigrants to America outnumbered Irish Protestants for the first time since 1700.4

Settlement patterns in the United States began to shift as well, as the demand for labor stimulated by American industrialization and urbanization drew more and more Irish immigrants to the cities, canal towns, and industrial mill villages of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States. Unskilled and low-paid occupations in which Irish Catholic men typically found employment in this period included work on the docks, carting and hauling goods, street paving, and ditch digging, occupations often summed up by the all-encompassing term “common labor,” while Irish Catholic women, in addition to performing indispensable labor in the maintenance of working-class families, often worked in their own apartments as seamstresses, laundresses, or shoe binders. These recently arrived Irish-born men and women formed an important segment of a larger social grouping, the urban laboring poor, whose ranks also included African American slaves and freed people and who, vulnerable and chronically impoverished, spent more energy in a daily struggle to make ends meet than in building labor organizations.5

The growing population of Catholic Irish in the United States had significant ramifications for the American Catholic Church, which was increasingly dominated by men of Irish birth or ancestry. Historians estimate that in the two decades after 1830, American Catholics increased from approximately 3 to 8% of the total population—making theirs the largest religious denomination in the country. In addition, the Irish made up a majority of the nation’s approximately 1.6 million Catholics in 1850. The composition of the church hierarchy reflected this changing religious demography: as late as 1829, only one American bishop was Irish-born, but by the mid-1840s, Irish bishops led the dioceses of Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and, most notably, New York, where an outspoken Ulsterman named John Hughes was named bishop in 1842. The Catholic Church would remain a central institution within Irish American urban working-class life up through the present time.6

A new style of urban working-class Democratic Party politics also began to emerge in this period, one with a distinctively Irish flavor and most visible in the larger cities. Mike Walsh, the Protestant son of a United Irishman who became the leader of the “shirtless” or “subterranean” Democrats in New York, epitomized the new style. A vocal supporter of trade unions and of labor’s fight to end Rhode Island’s property restrictions on the suffrage, Walsh also helped link Irish immigrant voters in the North to southern slaveholders in a national Democratic Party that became the leading political voice for white supremacy in this period.7 Meanwhile, Bishop Hughes, the most influential Catholic prelate in America, was vehement in his opposition to abolitionism. Though the Irish and African American laboring poor often had a great deal of contact with each other in their day-to-day lives—sometimes even marrying—the political developments of this period (along with ongoing competition between Irish and African Americans over access to low-wage jobs in many locales) made the Irish as a group a principal opponent of black advancement. The legacy of this development for the American working class as a whole would be profound.8

As the numbers and political influence of the Catholic Irish grew, so too did anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish nativism. Fomented by Protestant religious revivals and popular writings that portrayed Irish Catholics as superstitious, ignorant, and priest-ridden—and thus intrinsically antirepublican—this development led to bitter local conflicts between Catholics and Protestants over public school policies like the use of the Protestant King James Bible in classrooms and, by the early 1840s, to the emergence of new nativist political parties that actively contested elections. These developments, along with perennial competition between native-born Americans and immigrants over low-wage jobs, pitted worker against worker in a number of cities, disrupting local labor movements that were also badly damaged by the economic downturn that began in 1837. In Boston, for example, unskilled Protestant laborers burned down an Ursuline convent in the Charleston district in 1834, and, in 1837, a Protestant volunteer fire company attacked an Irish Catholic funeral procession, leading to the destruction of many homes in what was called the “Broad Street riot.” Nativism rose to a crescendo in 1844 when the anti-immigrant American Republicans elected six congressmen and dozens of local officials in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and when bloody and destructive anti-Catholic riots erupted over the school bible issue in the Kensington and Southwark districts of the latter city.9

Violence was also part of the experience of the Irish immigrant laborers who helped construct the nation’s extensive system of canals, though in this case they were more often the instigators than the victims of riots. As early as 1830, a majority of the nation’s 35,000 canal diggers were Irish, constituting the largest concentration of workers in this era by far. They did not organize trade unions, but they did form short-lived organizations based on their county of origin and engaged in numerous strikes and riots in the 1830s, with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal experiencing a particularly high level of unrest. Though their violent attacks were often directed against fellow canal diggers (German immigrants, for instance, or men with origins in other Irish counties, in what were called “faction fights”), these were sometimes directed against employers as well. One such attack, on the Chesapeake and Ohio in 1834, triggered the first intervention of federal troops in a labor dispute in American history.10

The Great Irish Famine and U.S. Industrial Growth, 1845–1880

With the onset of the Great Famine in 1845, emigration from Ireland to the United States increased dramatically, peaking in 1851, when more than 221,000 Irish men and women arrived in the country. An estimated 1.5 million people left Ireland for North America in the famine decade of 1846–1855, and it was in this period that Irish Catholics became the most urbanized immigrant group in the nation. Meanwhile, the rapid pace of industrialization in this period opened up unskilled jobs for Irish men and women in a wide variety of manufacturing industries. To take one example, the locus of textile manufacturing in the 1820s and 1830s had been New England, most famously Lowell, Massachusetts, where employers recruited local unmarried farm women to work in the factories and live in adjacent boarding houses. Their stated goal was to create a clean, healthy, and controlled environment, avoiding the widespread distress caused by Britain’s industrial revolution (Figure 1).

Irish American Working ClassClick to view larger

Figure 1. Irish American child textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, photographed by Lewis Hine, early 20th century.

Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC, LC-DIG-nclc-02394.

However, this model was already collapsing by the 1840s, when workers began to express dissatisfaction in a variety of ways, including going on strike. The arrival of the new Irish famine immigrants, along with growing numbers of German immigrants in the same period, was a boon to the mill owners. Irish families, and Irish women in particular, took jobs at pay and under conditions that the Yankee mill women were rejecting. Irish women found employment tending machines in New England’s myriad shoe factories in this period as well.11

After the decline of handloom weaving in the 1850s, no single occupation had a majority of Irish workers. Since most of the famine migrants arrived without marketable skills, common labor remained the most important area of male employment. As late as 1870, 40% of Irish-born men were unskilled laborers. Meanwhile, Irish women began to find work as domestic servants in this period, an occupation they dominated through the remainder of the century. Though African American, German, and Scandinavian women also worked as domestics in these years, the association of Irish women (“Bridget” or “Biddy”) with domestic service became a staple of American popular culture.12 By the 1850s and 1860s, Irish men and women comprised a significant section of the working class, not only in the northeastern cities and mill towns, but in the mining counties of Pennsylvania, midwestern cities, and even in the urban South, where, in New Orleans, for instance, Irish and African American men competed for jobs on the city’s docks.

Nonetheless, skilled work became increasingly common for Irish men in these years, particularly in the cities of the Midwest and Far West, where rapid urban growth translated into more occupational opportunities, as detailed quantitative studies of cities like Detroit and San Francisco have made clear.13 Coal mining and transportation also attracted significant numbers of Irish-born men and their sons. With this movement into the skilled trades came a more complete entry of Irish men (and some women as well) into the ranks of the American labor movement, which grew fitfully in the 1850s but then revived dramatically in the northern states in the years during and after the Civil War.

The emergence of a national labor movement in the towns and cities of the northern states was one of the most important developments of this era, culminating in the birth of the National Labor Union in 1866 and the first major struggle for an 8-hour day. The Irish contributed in significant ways to these developments. Irish immigrant miners, for example, played the key role in founding the American Miners’ Union in 1861. In 1868, John Siney, who had been born in Ireland but was raised in an industrial town in Lancashire, where he developed a familiarity with the traditions of British trade unionism, founded the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (renamed the Miners’ and Laborers’ Benevolent Association in 1870), which organized over 30,000 miners and mine laborers in Pennsylvania’s anthracite districts, making it the largest labor union of its day.14 In Boston, the scene of violent conflict between Irish and non-Irish workers in earlier years, the 8-hour day struggle of the later 1860s brought them together. Irish immigrants, along with their sons and daughters, emerged as leaders of New England unions, notably the two shoemakers’ organizations, the Knights of St. Crispin (the second largest union of the era), and the Daughters of St. Crispin.

Somewhat paradoxically, interethnic unity was also furthered by the emergence of the Fenian Brotherhood, an oath-bound organization dedicated to winning an independent Irish republic by force of arms, at the end of the 1850s. The Fenians counted many native-born workers and labor leaders among their supporters. In Boston, for instance, the labor newspaper, the Daily Evening Voice, enthusiastically endorsed the struggle for Irish independence, and the city’s labor movement nominated the Irish nationalist and Civil War veteran, General Patrick Guiney, as an independent candidate for Congress in 1866.15 In Civil War-era Chicago, where labor’s growth was especially impressive, native-, German- and Irish-born workers organized a dozen new trade unions, established a citywide central labor assembly and weekly labor newspaper, engaged in numerous strikes, and began waging a political campaign for the 8-hour day. Chicago’s trade unionists participated enthusiastically in an 1864 Irish nationalist fundraiser, the “Fenian Fair,” with the city’s Typographical Union, Horseshoers’ Association, and Tailors’ Union all marching in the opening parade and the Iron Molders’ Union presenting the Fenians with a McCormick reaper to be carried in the procession. Such deep connections between Fenians and trade unionists were common throughout the industrializing East and Midwest in the Civil War and immediate postwar period.16

Violence remained a part of Irish American working-class life, however. Even before the defeat of Siney’s miners’ union in the so-called Long Strike of 1875, some of Pennsylvania’s Irish miners turned to a secret society called the “Molly Maguires,” which engaged in violent acts of retribution that drew on traditional strategies of Irish rural protest and led eventually to the conviction and hanging of 20 miners for murder.17 Irish racial violence continued in this period as well, most famously in the New York City Draft Rots of July 1863, in which a now-entrenched antiblack racism, intensified by the inequities of the 1863 Conscription Act, led to an explosion of violence, with mobs of mainly Irish workers beating and lynching African Americans and burning the city’s Colored Orphan Asylum to the ground.18 A similar mix of white racism and class resentments was apparent in California, where Irish American workers figured prominently in the often-violent anti-Chinese movement of the late 1870s. The Belfast-born Frank Roney, a key figure in San Francisco’s labor movement, combined Irish nationalism with an embrace of the anti-Chinese movement, while Denis Kearney, the Irish immigrant leader of California’s Workingmen’s Party, ended every speech with the party’s slogan, “The Chinese Must Go!”19

Irish American Workers in the Multiethnic City, 1880–1925

By the turn of the 20th century, the occupational structure of Irish America had been transformed. As studies of the 1900 Federal Census have demonstrated, Irish-born men had achieved near occupational parity with native-born white males and stood well above immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, whose numbers grew significantly after 1890. Although there continued to be significant regional variations, at the national level, only 15% of Irish men worked as unskilled manual laborers in 1900; they were now to be found disproportionately in trades that were skilled, unionized, and relatively high paid. A majority of Irish-born women in the paid workforce still labored as domestic servants, but for second-generation American-born women there was a clear trend toward employment in clerical jobs, nursing, and school teaching.20

Irish Americans increasingly took on leadership roles in the American labor movement. The typical Irish labor leader of this period was not an immigrant, but rather a second- or even third-generation man or woman who had grown up entirely in urban-industrial America (Figure 2).

Irish American Working ClassClick to view larger

Figure 2. Terence V. Powderly, Irish American leader of the Knights of Labor.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC, LC-DIG-pga-01926.

Thus, the Knights of Labor (KOL), the most important national labor organization of the 19th century, which advanced a broad program of social and political reform and peaked with a membership of over 750,000 in 1886, enrolled large numbers of Irish Americans. It was led by Terence V. Powderly, an American-born Irish Catholic machinist and the one-time mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania.21

The KOL went into decline in the later 1880s, but Irish Americans were equally prominent in the leadership of the national craft unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). AFL President Samuel Gompers was not Irish in background, having been born in London into a Jewish family of Dutch origins. But in the trade union world that he inhabited, the Irish were everywhere, occupying the presidencies of more than 50 of the 110 unions affiliated with the AFL in the first decade of the 20th century. So too, at the local level, Irish Americans could be found leading central labor councils and building trades councils in cities from Chicago to San Francisco. Like Powderly, the typical union leader of this later period had been born and raised in an American industrial town or city. Daniel Keefe, a founder and first president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, for example, had been born in Illinois, while James O’Connell, head of the International Association of Machinists, had been born in Pennsylvania. Such leaders generally supported Gompers’s vision of “pure and simple unionism” and his ongoing struggle against radical labor activists in the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).22

Nonetheless, the “labor left” did attract some notable Irish American figures, despite the Catholic Church’s vehemently antisocialist stance. At the opening of the 20th century, Massachusetts shoe workers’ leaders John Tobin and James Carey were vigorous supporters of the American socialist movement, and the radical Western Federation of Miners included Edward Boyce, John O’Neill, and several other Irish Americans among its officers. The revolutionary IWW attracted few Irish American supporters, despite the tireless efforts of the radical activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was descended from a long line of Irish nationalists going back to the United Irishmen.23

Irish American women took on leadership positions in a wide range of labor organizations in this period. Leonora Barry headed the Knights of Labor’s Department of Women’s Work, and Elizabeth Rogers led a KOL assembly in Chicago with over 50,000 members (Figure 3).

Irish American Working ClassClick to view larger

Figure 3. Cork-born Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, labor leader.

Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC, LC-USZ62-50377.

Early 20th-century leaders included Leonora O’Reilly, a key figure in the Women’s Trade Union League; Margaret Haley, who led the Chicago Teachers’ Federation; and, perhaps most famously, the Cork-born labor organizer, Mary Harris (“Mother”) Jones. Indeed, until the emergence of the Jewish garment unions, after a dramatic series of strikes in 1909, nearly every prominent woman labor leader was of Irish birth or ancestry.24

Even more than in the 1860s, Irish nationalism constituted an important influence in the American labor movement. In the wake of a nationwide tour by the Irish Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell in 1880, an organization called the Land League sprang up in towns and cities across the nation to provide support for the Home Rule and agrarian reform movements in Ireland. Though most Land League leaders were middle class, a radical working-class wing of the organization, represented by Patrick Ford’s weekly newspaper, the Irish World and American Industrial Liberator, sought to draw connections between the land struggle in Ireland and the labor struggle in the United States, emphasizing the problems of monopoly common to both settings. In some areas of the country, working-class branches of the Land League emerged that adhered closely to Ford’s views, sometimes virtually merging with the Knights of Labor. Organized workers (Irish and non-Irish alike) also widely adopted the boycott, a tactic popularized in the Irish agrarian struggle, and rallied to the unsuccessful but impressive 1886 campaign of economic reformer and Land League supporter Henry George for mayor of New York. This deep connection between Irish nationalism and the American labor movement grew weaker in the later 1880s but resurfaced in the five years after the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising, when local labor councils in Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities voiced support for Irish independence and when workers on New York’s docks staged a dramatic walkout in 1920 in support of an Irish republican hunger striker.25

The leadership position of Irish Americans in the labor movement was paralleled by their leadership in urban politics and culture, even as Irish immigration slowed and the working-class residents of large cities grew increasingly diverse. In the 1840s, for example, about half of all immigrants to the United States had been Irish, but by the 1890s that figure had dropped to just 10%. Only in atypical settings, like the copper mining and smelting town of Butte, Montana, did the Irish numerically dominate an urban center and its workforce. Irish immigrants and their children remained numerically significant in large cities, of course—they still represented a quarter of the population of New York in 1890—but that percentage was steadily dropping, as the number of “new immigrants” from eastern and southern Europe grew dramatically. Thus, the influence they wielded was less a matter of numerical superiority than of “knowing the ropes” of urban-industrial life. For all the tensions between new immigrants and Irish Americans, the two groups interacted constantly, especially in the larger cities. As the social reformer, Emily Balch, noted in 1910, “the newcomers, encountering Irish policemen, Irish politicians, Irish bureaucrats, Irish saloon keepers, Irish contractors, and Irish teachers could be excused for thinking that ‘Irish’ equaled ‘American.’” Historian James Barrett has described this interaction as a kind of “Americanization from the bottom up.”26

Irish America Workers after the 1920s

After the mid-1920s, the situation of the Irish American working class changed in profound ways. The combination of new quotas for immigrants under the 1924 National Origins Act and—much more importantly for the Irish—the collapse of the American job market in the 1930s brought migration from Ireland to the United States to a virtual halt. The perils of an Atlantic crossing during World War II solidified the pattern, and when immigration to the United States began to revive again at the end of the war, it was at a significantly lower level. Britain, not the United States, was the primary destination for Irish emigrants in the postwar period. To be sure, Irish immigration never ceased entirely, and there were significant upticks in the number of migrants in the 1950s and the 1980s. But the days of mass migration were over.27

Irish Americans continued to improve their material conditions, a trend that was temporarily reversed in the 1930s but reasserted itself during the long economic expansion after the war. By 1950, 24% of Irish-born men held white-collar jobs (the professions, managers, clerks, and salesmen), while nearly 42% of second-generation men could be found in such occupations. Professional jobs, especially as accountants, clergymen, and lawyers, were particularly important in the occupational profile of second-generation men, while second-generation women were heavily represented in law, teaching, engineering, and clerical work. Irish immigrants—and particularly their children and grandchildren—were slowly moving up America’s occupational ladder. This was not a “rags to riches” story by any means, and even the second generation remained mainly working class in the early 1950s, but the upward trend was clear enough.28

Postwar federal policies that encouraged highway construction, home ownership, and affordable mortgage financing for white Americans led to increasing suburbanization for many Irish Americans, especially in the second generation and beyond. Suburban Irish Americans often became strong opponents of the African American freedom movement when that movement turned to efforts to desegregate their neighborhoods or schools. But urban working-class Irish enclaves could be bitterly arrayed against desegregation as well, most famously in the Boston school busing crisis of 1974–1975.29

Irish American men and women continued to occupy an important place in the American labor movement in the 20th century, playing an especially important part in the industrial union upsurge of the 1930s, which brought millions of new mass production workers into the labor movement and culminated in the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1938. The experience of CIO organizing marked a political “coming of age” for immigrant workers from a variety of backgrounds and places: Jews and Italians in the East, Poles and Slavs in the Midwest, Mexicans in southern California. But it was frequently the Irish, industrial pioneers with the deepest experience in the labor movement in America or abroad, who emerged as leaders of the new unions.30

John Brophy, for example, who had been a leading progressive figure in the United Mine Workers in Pennsylvania in the 1920s, served as national director of the CIO. He went on to play a critical role in the strikes and organizing drives of some of the most important of the new industrial unions, including the United Auto Workers, the United Rubber Workers, and the United Steel Workers. Other important Irish American labor leaders of the 1930s included James Carey and Albert Fitzgerald of the United Electrical Workers; National Maritime Union leader Joseph Curran; New York City’s Transport Workers Union leader Mike Quill; and Philip Murray, Vincent Sweeney, and Joseph P. Molony of the United Steel Workers. Murray, who had been born in Scotland to Irish immigrant parents, would become president of the CIO in 1940. Experienced in the traditions, tactics, and ideals of organized labor, Irish American labor activists like these often became, as Carey and autoworkers’ leader Walter Reuther later put it, “missionaries of industrial unionism.”31

A variety of intellectual and political influences were at work on such individuals, inspiring them in some cases to devote their entire lives to work in the labor movement. For some, including Carey and Murray, Catholic social thinking played an important role, especially Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical calling on Catholics to build corporate associations in industries and professions for the common good, a stance that many working-class American Catholics interpreted as a mandate for industrial unionism. This period also saw the emergence of the so-called labor priests, many of whom were Irish in background. Thus, Father (later Bishop) Joseph Donnelly, the son of Irish immigrants, told Connecticut brass workers at a 1941 CIO rally that unions “were not only American” but “Christian,” urging them to “recognize your dignity as men of God [and to] recognize your dignity as workingmen.” But Donnelly also expressed concerns about communist labor organizers with “un-America political theories and social teachings,” concerns that eventually led him into anticommunist efforts in the postwar era.32

For other CIO leaders, an early exposure to Irish nationalism (in either Ireland or the wider diaspora) played a more important role than Catholicism in their political formation. Brophy, for example, who had been born in industrial Lancashire, was strongly affected by the political outlook of his Irish immigrant father, a coal miner and enthusiastic supporter of the Irish Land League. The influence was even more direct in the case of New York transit workers’ leader Mike Quill, who had been born to a strongly nationalist family in County Kerry and who had fought with the Irish Republican Army before immigrating to New York in the 1920s. In the following decade, Quill emerged as the key union organizer among the largely Irish workforce on New York’s subway system. The Transport Workers Union was founded in 1934 with Quill as president. Heading a union with 30,000 members and with a series of successfully negotiated union contracts behind him, Quill became an important political figure in New York and was elected to the New York City Council from the Bronx in November 1937. Although Quill consistently denied being a member of the Communist Party, he remained ideologically close to the party into the postwar years.33

Irish American labor leaders could be found on both sides of the fight over communism that tore the CIO apart after the war and led to the expulsion of nine allegedly “communist-dominated” unions in 1948. West Coast longshore leader Harry Bridges, born in Australia to an Irish mother, was expelled that year, along with his union. Quill moved in a different direction, breaking with the communists in 1948 and (working closely with CIO president Philip Murray) defeating an opposing group of TWU officials who fought to retain their communist connections. Quill went on to become a CIO national vice president in 1950, though he soon moved to the left again, criticizing (Irish American) Joe McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade and calling for the founding of an American labor party.

A more representative Irish American labor leader than either Bridges or Quill was probably Murray himself, who supported Harry Truman’s foreign and domestic policies and helped engineer the 1955 merger with the American Federation of Labor. Another representative figure was the leader of the new AFL-CIO, a third-generation Irish American named George Meany, who combined a kind of working-class Keyneseanism with a vigorous Cold War anticommunism that he championed well into the years of the Vietnam War, making the labor federation a byword for political conformism in an era of dramatic social change.34

Labor union corruption, though far from a new problem, received increasing scrutiny from the public and federal authorities in the postwar era and was particularly prevalent in unions representing building trades workers, truck drivers, laundry workers, and longshoremen. While Irish American labor leaders had no monopoly on union corruption, much attention focused on the New York–New Jersey waterfront, where a distinctly Irish ethos that included a deeply ingrained code of silence, deference to authority, and hostility toward outsiders, prevailed among the dock workers, making corruption in the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) a particularly intractable problem. Dramatized in the Hollywood film, “On the Waterfront,” the situation led to the ILA’s expulsion from the AFL in 1953.35

George Meany remained at the head of the AFL-CIO for nearly a quarter of a century, stepping down only in 1979, the year before his death. Over that time, the American union movement continued to lose members and at the same time became increasingly diverse, with immigrants from Asia, Central America, and Mexico becoming more and more active in unions, especially those in the service sector. Yet it was indicative of the long-lasting Irish American influence that when the AFL-CIO held its first ever contested election for president in 1995, both of the candidates, John J. Sweeney and Thomas R. Donahue, were Irish Americans.

A similar situation could be seen in the urban wing of the Democratic Party: even as its core constituencies grew more diverse, Irish Americans continued to occupy a prominent place in its leadership. The urban political machine, with which the Irish had been so strongly identified since the 19th century, went into decline in the postwar era, with, for example, Tammany Hall losing its last election in New York City in 1961. At the same time, however, Irish Americans continued to exercise leadership in the party at the national level, with the election of the Irish Catholic John F. Kennedy (the great-grandson of a famine immigrant) to the presidency in 1960 serving as a symbol of their ascent. Kennedy’s younger brother, Edward, was a powerful liberal U.S. senator from Massachusetts for nearly five decades, though his death in 2009 and the retirement of the AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney the same year was seen by some observers as marking the end to the long Irish American ascendancy in both Democratic and labor circles.36

So, too, Irish American dominance of the Catholic Church persisted even as the Irish share of American Catholics continued to decline. By 1970, for example, less than 20% of Catholics were of Irish descent; yet over half of American bishops and a third of its priests had an Irish background. There was a range of political views among the Church’s hierarchy, from deeply conservative anticommunists like New York’s Cardinal Francis J. Spellman (1939–1967) to the Irish-born Cardinal Timothy Manning of Los Angeles (1970–1985), who provided important clerical support for the effort to organize Mexican American and Filipino agricultural workers in the United Farm Workers (UFW) during the 1960s and 1970s.37

Images of ethnic groups in American popular culture are often slow to change. Although Irish America had grown increasingly diverse in socioeconomic terms by the 1990s and although voting patterns among Irish Americans had also been shifting toward the Republican Party, for many the “typical” Irish American remained a Catholic, an urban dweller, a Democrat, and a labor union member. The persistence of such images is itself a topic worthy of further study.38

Discussion of the Literature

The scholarly study of the Irish American working class can be said to begin in 1941, with Oscar Handlin’s Boston’s Immigrants. A bleak, if sympathetic, analysis of the pre-famine and famine Catholic Irish in a city dominated by an entrenched, anti-Catholic upper class, Handlin’s book shaped understanding of the Irish Catholic urban immigrant experience for decades. Elegantly written and deeply researched—in Boston, if not Irish, sources—the revised edition of the book, which took the story up to 1880, concluded that the Irish remained even then overwhelmingly “proletarian.” Prefiguring The Uprooted, his later account of the European immigrant experience as a whole, Handlin portrayed the Boston Irish as a people buffeted by forces they could barely understand and were powerless to control.39

Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, immigration and labor historians began to chip away at different parts of Handlin’s interpretation. Local studies employing quantitative methods revealed a far less dire situation for those Irish migrants who ended up in cities outside of New England; outside of this region, opportunities were significantly greater and anti-Catholic sentiments sometimes less salient than in Boston. David Doyle, who has emphasized regional differences in the Irish American experience, also relied on national-level census data to conclude that by 1900, the Irish-born had achieved rough occupational parity with native-born whites.40

Labor historians, meanwhile, were challenging Handlin’s portrait of the Irish as a totally powerless group, lacking (to use a term frequently employed by historians in the 1970s) agency. Some of their work focused on what Eric Foner memorably termed the “symbiotic relationship between class-conscious unionism and Irish national consciousness” in the late 19th century. Other scholars took up this theme and extended it to the high point of Irish American nationalism in the years from 1916 to 1923, with Joshua Freeman even finding echoes of this symbiotic relationship in the organizing drives among heavily Irish American New York transit workers as late as the 1930s.41

Two path-breaking books moved the discussion in new directions during the 1980s. The first was Hasia Diner’s Erin’s Daughters in America, which provided a model for the analysis of other groups of immigrant women while stimulating research into one of the distinctive features of the Irish American experience, the large number of single women among the migrants. The second was Kerby Miller’s Emigrants and Exiles, the most influential work in Irish migration studies since Boston’s Immigrants. Miller’s sustained attention to class tensions in both Ireland the United States was salutatory, and the book was also notable for spurring transnational approaches to the study of Irish American history. The 1990s saw the emergence of critical whiteness studies, an early focus of which was the shifting racial identity of Irish American workers in the mid-19th century.42

The Irish American experience in the 20th century remains relatively uncharted in comparison with that of the 19th, and this is particularly true for Irish American working people. The noted labor historian David Montgomery pointed to a paradox that became increasingly salient over the course of the 20th century: “The importance of Irish Americans in both workplace and political organizations of labor rose as their share of the total working-class and immigrant population declined.” In his recent book, The Irish Way, James Barrett has produced the most satisfying treatment of this paradox for the first few decades of the century, demonstrating how urban working-class Irish men and women helped “Americanize” later waves of newcomers in the multiethnic city. How this process developed after the 1920s, however, is a history that still needs to be written.43

Primary Sources

Relevant primary sources are scattered around the country, in a variety of different archives. Libraries and archives with strong collections in U.S. labor history include the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University; the Wisconsin Historical Society; the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University (location of the Transport Workers Union of America Records); and the American Catholic History Research Center at Catholic University (where the voluminous Terence V. Powderly Papers are held). The Chicago Federation of Labor Records at the Chicago History Museum and the Frank P. Walsh Papers at the New York Public Library are especially valuable for research on both Irish American labor and the history of Irish American nationalism.44 Published primary sources, such as the multivolume Samuel Gompers Papers, are filled with letters from Irish American labor leaders and Irish-related issues of concern to the American Federation of Labor president.45 Labor newspapers (far too many to list here) are a critical primary source as well.

There are also numerous archives with materials relevant to urban Irish American working-class life and culture beyond the labor movement, but the University of Notre Dame Archives and the growing collections at the Archives of Irish America, Bobst Library, New York University, merit special mention.46 Autobiographies and memoirs of Irish American workers offer significant insights, though naturally these privilege activists and leaders rather than rank-and-file working people.47

Further Reading

Barrett, James R. The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multi-Ethnic City. New York: Penguin, 2012.Find this resource:

    Brundage, David. Irish Nationalists in America: The Politics of Exile, 1798–1998. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

      Diner, Hasia R. Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

        Emmons, David, Butte’s Irish: Class and Community in an American Mining Town, 1875–1925. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.Find this resource:

          Fisher, James T. On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

            Freeman, Joshua B. In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City, 1933–1966. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

              Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                Lee, J. J., and Marion R. Casey, eds. Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States. New York: New York: University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                  Miller, Kerby A. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

                    Montgomery, David. “The Irish and the American Labor Movement.” In America and Ireland, 1776–1976: The American Identity and the Irish Connection, edited by David Noel Doyle and Owen Dudley Edwards, 205–218. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980.Find this resource:

                      Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

                        Way, Peter. Common Labor Workers and the Digging of North American Canals, 1780–1860. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.Find this resource:


                          (1.) E. P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1963). For a good example of this approach to the study of early American working-class formation, see Bruce Laurie, Artisans into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

                          (2.) David Montgomery, “The Shuttle and the Cross: Weavers and Artisans in the Kensington Riots of 1844,” Journal of Social History 5.4 (Summer 1972): 411–446.

                          (3.) David Brundage, Irish Nationalists in America: The Politics of Exile, 1798–1998 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 40–41, 44–45.

                          (4.) For overviews of Irish migration patterns in the pre-famine era, see Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 193–240; Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History (Harlow, U.K.: Longman, 2000), 45–87; Timothy J. Meagher, The Columbia Guide to Irish American History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 42–59; and David Noel Doyle, “The Irish in North America, 1776–1845,” in Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States, ed. J. J. Lee and Marion R. Casey (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 171–212.

                          (5.) David Montgomery, “The Working Classes of the Pre-Industrial American City, 1780–1830,” Labor History 9.1 (Winter 1968), 3–22. For an exemplary recent study, see Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

                          (6.) Kenny, The American Irish, 75; Doyle, “The Irish in North America,” 194–195.

                          (7.) Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 326–335.

                          (8.) David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991), 133–163; Graham Hodges, “‘Desirable Companions and Lovers’: Irish and African Americans in the Sixth Ward, 1830–1870,” in The New York Irish, ed. Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 107–124; John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: Norton, 2003), 43–67.

                          (9.) Doyle, “The Irish in North America,” 197–200; James R. Green and Hugh Carter Donahue, Boston’s Workers: A Labor History (Boston: Boston Public Library, 1979), 29; Montgomery, “The Shuttle and the Cross,” 422–439; David Emmons, Beyond the American Pale: Irish Outlanders and the American West, 1845–1910 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 44–75.

                          (10.) Peter Way, Common Labor: Workers and the Digging of North American Canals, 1780–1860 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 200–28.

                          (11.) Thomas Dublin, Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).

                          (12.) Hasia R. Diner, Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983); Maureen Murphy, “Bridget and Biddy: Images of the Irish Servant Girl in Puck Cartoons, 1880–1890,” in New Perspectives of the Irish Diaspora, ed. Charles Fanning (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), 152–175; Margaret Lynch-Brennan, “The Ubiquitous Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 1840–1930,” in Making the Irish American, 332–353.

                          (13.) Jo Ellen Vinyard, The Irish on the Urban Frontier: Nineteenth Century Detroit, 1850–1880 (New York: Arno Press, 1976); R. A. Burchell, The San Francisco Irish, 1848–1880 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

                          (14.) Kevin Kenny, “Labor and Labor Organizations,” in Making the Irish American, 357–358.

                          (15.) Green and Donahue, Boston’s Workers, 30.

                          (16.) John B. Jentz and Richard Schneirov, “Chicago’s Fenian Fair: A Window into the Civil War as a Popular Awakening,” Labor’s Heritage 6.3 (Winter 1995): 4–19. David Montgomery, Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862–1872 (New York: Knopf, 1967) remains the best study of the labor movement in this period.

                          (17.) Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

                          (18.) Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

                          (19.) Alexander Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).

                          (20.) David Noel Doyle, Irish Americans, Native Rights and National Empires: The Structure, Divisions and Attitudes of the Catholic Minority in the Decade of Expansion, 1890–1901 (New York: Arno, 1976).

                          (21.) Craig Phelan, Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000).

                          (22.) David Montgomery, “Labor Movement,” in The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America, ed. Michael Glazier (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), 525–531, provides an excellent overview, building on the more detailed picture in his book, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987). For Chicago and San Francisco, see Elizabeth McKillen, Chicago Labor and the Quest for a Democratic Diplomacy, 1914–1924 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995) and Michael Kazin, Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987).

                          (23.) John H. M. Laslett, Labor and the Left: A Study of Socialist and Radical Influences in the American Labor Movement, 1881–1924 (New York: Basic, 1970). For a good introduction to Flynn’s life, see Lara Vapnek, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: Modern American Revolutionary (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2015).

                          (24.) Marjorie Murphy, Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900–1980 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990); Janet Nolan, Servants of the Poor: Teachers and Mobility in Ireland and Irish America (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004); Elliott J. Gorn, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001).

                          (25.) Eric Foner, “Class, Ethnicity, and Radicalism in the Gilded Age: The Land League and Irish-America,” in his Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 150–200; Michael A. Gordon, “The Labor Boycott in New York City, 1880–1886,” Labor History 16.2 (Spring 1975): 184–229; Edward T. O’Donnell, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); Brundage, Irish Nationalists in America, 111–119, 156–160.

                          (26.) David Emmons, Butte’s Irish: Class and Community in an American Mining Town, 1875–1925 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Balch quoted in James R. Barrett, The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multi-Ethnic City (New York: Penguin, 2012), 2.

                          (27.) See J. J. Lee, “Emigration: 1922–1998,” in The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America, 263–266.

                          (28.) Kenny, The American Irish, 226–267.

                          (29.) Ronald P. Formasiano, Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

                          (30.) The literature on the CIO as an Americanizing force among immigrants is vast. See Thomas Göbel, “Becoming American: Ethnic Workers and the Rise of the CIO,” Labor History 29.2 (Spring 1988): 173–198, for a good overview.

                          (31.) Montgomery, “Labor Movement,” 530; Walter P. Reuther and James B. Carey, “Forward” to John Brophy, A Miner’s Life, ed. John O. P. Hall (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964), v.

                          (32.) Ronald W. Schatz, “Phillip Murray and the Subordination of the Industrial Unions to the United States Government,” in Labor Leaders in America, ed. Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren van Tine (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 35–36, 246; Ronald W. Schatz, “‘I Know My Way Around a Little Bit’: Bishop Joseph Donnelly and American Labor, 1941–1977,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 12.2 (May 2016): 35, 37.

                          (33.) Brophy, A Miner’s Life, 3, 7, 10, 31, 78; Shirley Quill, Mike Quill, Himself: A Memoir (Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair, 1985), 13–14: Joshua B. Freeman, In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City, 1933–1966 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 137.

                          (34.) Freeman, In Transit, 267–285.

                          (35.) See James T. Fisher, On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009).

                          (36.) Kenny, The American Irish, 242–246; Stephen P. Erie, Rainbow’s End: Irish Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840–1985 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); Harold Meyerson, “The Age of the Irish: What Ted Kennedy and John Sweeney Built On,” Washington Post, August 28, 2009.

                          (37.) Kenny, The American Irish, 233–235.

                          (38.) For two insightful discussions of these and other relevant issues, see Timothy J. Meagher, “The Fireman on the Stairs: Communal Loyalties in the Making of Irish America,” in Making the Irish American, 609–648, and Peter Quinn, Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America (New York: Overlook, 2008).

                          (39.) Oscar Handlin, Boston’s Immigrants, 1790–1880: A Study in Acculturation (1941; rev. and enl. ed., New York: Atheneum, 1969); Handlin, The Uprooted (1953: 2d ed., Boston: Little, Brown, 1973).

                          (40.) David Noel Doyle, “The Regional Bibliography of Irish America, 1800–1930,” Irish Historical Studies 23.91 (May 1983): 254–283; Doyle, Irish Americans, Native Rights.

                          (41.) Foner, “Class, Ethnicity, and Radicalism,” 176; Freeman, In Transit.

                          (42.) Diner, Erin’s Daughters in America; Miller, Emigrants and Exiles; Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness.

                          (43.) Montgomery, “Labor Movement,” 525; Barrett, The Irish Way.

                          (44.) For an excellent detailed discussion of the holdings at a number of labor history archives, see Daniel J., Leab and Philip P. Mason, eds., Labor History Archives in the United States: A Guide for Researching and Teaching (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1992).

                          (45.) Stuart Bruce Kaufman et al., eds., The Samuel Gompers Papers, 13 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986–2013).

                          (46.) Patrick J. Blessing, The Irish in America: A Guide to the Literature and the Manuscript Collections (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1992) lists numerous archives, organized by state.

                          (47.) See, for example, Frank Roney, Frank Roney, Irish Rebel and California Labor Leader: An Autobiography, ed. Ira B. Cross (1931; New York: AMS Press, 1977); Mother Jones, Autobiography of Mother Jones (New York: Arno, 1969); Elizabeth Gurley The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography, My First Life (1906–1926), reprint ed. (New York: International Publishers, 1973); Brophy, A Miner’s Life.