When George Washington took office in 1789, there were 30,000 Catholics in America. John Adams said they were "scarce as earthquakes." But by 1850, Catholics had become—and remain, today—the country's largest religious denomination. One factor explains this growth: immigration. Since the Irish were the first immigrants to significantly impact Catholic American life, and with St. Patrick's Day approaching, this week offers a good moment to examine their experiences and their impact.
Perhaps no immigrant group has been a greater force on American Catholicism, both in numbers and leadership. Irish immigration had been steady since colonial times, but until the 1840s it was mainly Protestant. By 1800, about 80 percent of Ireland was Catholic, but before the infamous "Penal Laws" were removed, they couldn't vote or hold office, and many professions were closed to them.
Between 1780 and 1840, Ireland's population nearly doubled. Even in the pre-Famine years, poverty was widespread. The social reformer Frederick Douglass visited in 1845. A former slave, he commented: "of all the places to witness human misery, ignorance, degradation, filth and wretchedness, an Irish hut is preeminent." The peasant diet consisted almost entirely of potatoes, a fairly nutritious food.
But when a fungus struck in 1845, the potatoes putrefied and decayed almost instantly. The entire crop was destroyed. At first the British government tried to help, but it was soon faced with a financial crisis at home and an Irish uprising. These combined to end, Charles Morris writes, "even the pretense of official concern . . . for all practical purposes, Ireland was left to die on its own."
In 1847, an eyewitness described conditions: "walking skeletons—the men gaunt and haggard, stamped with the livid mark of hunger—the children crying with pain—the women in some of the cabins too weak to stand." One woman said there was "nothing for us but to lie down and die."
One million Irish died of starvation. There being little future in remaining, many felt they had little choice but emigration.
That too was a sad event. Families would hold a gathering for the emigrants, who might never return, called "the American wake." (No matter how well the Irish did abroad, many considered themselves "exiles.") Nor was the trip itself easy. Many didn't make it. For 50-60 days, they had no food but what they brought, no beds, no toilets. Aboard crowded ships, cholera and typhoid killed thousands.
When they arrived, they settled in east coast cities, mainly because they couldn't afford to go any further. They lived in crowded, filthy tenements, which one observer described as "hell with the lid off." They found jobs on which they were barely able to subsist. But they clung to the hope of a better life for their children.
They certainly received no welcome from white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who organized anti-Catholic groups like the "Know-Nothings" whose members were bound to secrecy, claiming they "knew nothing" when violence broke out. It was common to see notices reading, "Neither Irish nor Catholic Need Apply," or "No Irish Need Apply," at businesses and in newspaper ads.Hatred ran deep:
The Irish . . . dump themselves down in large villages and towns, crowding the meaner sort of tenements and filling them with wretchedness, filth and disease . . . what are they but mere marketable cattle?
But they had tough leaders. After churches were burned in Philadelphia, Bishop John ("Dagger John") Hughes promised New York's mayor that ten Protestant churches would burn for every Catholic, and he placed armed men around his parishes.
One reason the Irish stuck so closely to Catholicism was they had little but their faith to sustain them amid poverty, disease, and prejudice. Over decades they assumed leadership roles in business, politics, and the Church, but it must be noted that, at times, some Irish were less than welcoming to newcomers. In 1880s New York, Bernard Lynch, a prominent layman, asked whether Italians would ever assimilate. In Minnesota, Archbishop John Ireland's treatment of Eastern Rite Catholics led to massive defections (some call him the founder of the Orthodox Church in America.) In 1897, a group of Poles broke off from the "Irish Roman Catholic Church" to create the Polish National Catholic Church.
By 1900, over two-thirds of American bishops (called the "hibernarchy") were Irish. Numbers were a big factor, but so was Ireland's post-Famine religious revival, which created a "vocations boom." For over a century, Ireland supplied priests and religious for the English-speaking world. "Irish" and "Catholic" were interchangeable. When Oscar Wilde was asked his religion, he replied: "None. I am an Irish Protestant."
Novelists and comedians still invoke stereotypes of Irish Catholics taught by ruler-wielding nuns who grow up into drunken, bigoted cops and firemen. But the real Irish Catholic legacy is a hatred for injustice, a commitment to the common good, and what author Maureen Dezell calls the "urge to serve."
There are endless examples: Cardinal James Gibbons, who championed the right to union membership in the 1800s; Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, the labor activist whose motto was "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living;" John Corridan, the Jesuit whose fight against corruption was chronicled in the Marlon Brando film, On the Waterfront; the priests and nuns who marched in Selma; Mychal Judge and the numerous Irish-American first responders who gave their lives at Ground Zero.
In her book Irish America, Dezell quotes actor John Shea:
What I learned from being around priests and nuns was this concept of a calling: You have God-given gifts. What do you do with these gifts? And then: how do you serve humanity? That there is a higher purpose. Life shouldn't be something selfish.
This coming Thursday, March 17th, Catholics celebrate the Feast of St. Patrick, and that means parades nationwide, with New York hosting the largest and Hot Springs, Arkansas, the smallest. But it's not just a day for the Irish. While it is observed solemnly in Ireland, in honor of the great Bishop who brought Christianity to that island, St. Patrick's Day in America celebrates all the immigrants who came here for a better life (and the priests and religious who came to serve them). It's as much a day for them as for those whose ancestors came from Sligo or Roscommon, Tyrone or Cavan—for in celebrating one group, we celebrate all.
So to one and all, Beannacht Lá Fhéile Pádraig!