Irish Americans have a strong and proud tradition of organized labor, and some of the most important labor movements and labor organizations are attributed to the work of Irish immigrants and Irish Americans. Manual labor did prove to be one of the ways in which Irish Americans could provide for themselves and their families and develop close bonds with their fellow Irish men and women.
The expansion of the railroad in the mid-1800s transported thousands of immigrants throughout the country. Irish laborers built the Brooklyn Bridge, the Union-Pacific Railroad, and the Southern-Pacific Railroad. The first railroad to span the entire nation was constructed almost entirely by the Irish. The Irish also provided crucial labor in mining and the building of canals and bridges. The Erie Canal in New York, for example, was dug by over 5,000 Irish, and was considered the largest and most important transportation project in the nation by its completion in 1826. Irish Americans played a key role in the development of infrastructure of this country, and are considered by many to be the “canal and railroad builders of the United States.”
While manual labor promised work and wages for Irish immigrants, it was dangerous and often deadly. Work of this type was so hazardous that Southern slave owners were unwilling to send their slaves to complete the work, and considered Irish immigrants more “disposable.” The most troubling aspect of the work was the spread of diseases, such as malaria, cholera, typhoid, and other diseases, which ran rampant through laboring populations.
Through hardship and discrimination, the Irish-American population created a close sense of community, and joined forces to work for increased wages and safer working conditions. Neighborhoods made up of predominately Irish-born popped up in major cities all over the country, and this helped to begin the strong and proud tradition of organized labor in Irish communities. Sometimes known as “Corktowns,” these Irish communities provided immigrants with an important sense of belonging and community. The first organized labor strike in a large U.S. city was staged by 300 Irish coal heavers in Philadelphia, who called for a ten-hour workday in 1835. Also in the great railroad strike of 1877, one-third of the strikers were Irish.
Major labor organizations in the United States throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and today, are indebted to the thousands of Irish men and women who fought tirelessly for workers’ rights. Some of the most radical and important labor unions and organizations were founded by Irish Americans. Ireland natives John Siney and John Welsh started the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association in Pennsylvania in the 1870s. Terence V. Powderly is famous for leading the Knights of Labor, the largest labor organization in the 1870s and 1880s in the nation. This radical organization is famous for its inclusion of African Americans and women as well as men. George Meany was an influential President of the American Federation of Labor, and John Sweeney was the leader of the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations, two of the most powerful labor organizations in the United States.
Female Labor Leaders
Beginning in the 1850s, the majority of female Irish immigrants that arrived in the United States served as domestic servants. In that decade, over 80 percent of all female domestic servants in New York City were Irish. This participation was due to the fact that most female immigrants came alone, without fathers or brothers to support them. Unlike most immigrant groups, Irish women were just as likely to emigrate without their families as men. As the nineteenth century progressed and industry boomed in the United States, increasingly Irish women began to work in sweatshops and factories, often in very dangerous conditions. As a response to unsanitary and dreadful working conditions for female industrial workers, women emerged in countless labor organizations to give these workers a voice and improve their working lives. Kate Mullaney, in 1868, organized the Irish collar laundresses in Troy, New York. Kate Kennedy immigrated to the United States during the Potato Famine, and organized the first union of public school teachers in United States history, demanding equal pay for female teachers. Mary Kenny O’Sullivan would become the first female organizer for the American Federation of Labor, and in 1904, went on to organize the Women’s Trade Union League in New York.
The most famous of these female Irish-American labor organizers was Mary Harris, who came to be known as “Mother Jones.” This active and inspiring leader traveled the country agitating for workers’ rights, and speaking out against labor exploitation and unsafe working conditions. She was frequently jailed for her exploits, but remained in the public scene until her death in 1930. She inspired countless women, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, another Irish-American woman who dedicated her life to workers’ rights, and was also frequently jailed for staging workers’ protests and demonstrations. For generations women of Irish descent have added to the proud traditions of Irish labor organization in the United States.
The cohesion of Irish Americans in the predominately Irish neighborhoods that grew in cities throughout the United States provided a strong base of support for Irish politicians. After the famine years, Irish began to dominate the political scene, especially in municipal politics. The political participation of the Irish earned the name “The Green Machine.” Irish-American political figures would play a key role in the development of local, state, and national politics.
Among the most well-known Irish-American political figures is Richard Daley, who ran the city of Chicago for twenty years. He was known to many as the “president maker,” as no politician could easily win a presidential election without his endorsement. Frank Hague was also a major political figure, and served as mayor of New Jersey from 1917 to 1947. James Michael Curley was perhaps the most memorable and ostentatious of these politicians, and while running for mayor in Boston Curley often joked, “Vote early and often for Curley.” One of the most successful of these Irish-American politicians was Frank Murphy, the mayor of Detroit who would go on to become Governor of Michigan, and was later appointed U.S. Attorney General in 1939.
Irish Americans have had a strong presence in national politics as well. In 1968 Eugene McMarthy, a congressman from Minnesota, would make an unsuccessful bid for the presidency. Michael Patrick Flanagan and Tip O’Neill both served in the House of Representatives, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the US Senate. In addition to being the first female governor in the United States, Irish-American Nellie Taylor Ross was also the first female director of the United States Mint. Presidents James Buchanan, James Polk, William McKinley, and Ronald Reagan were of Irish descent.
The Kennedy Family is quite possibly the most important Irish-American political presence in the United States. Patrick Kennedy fled Dunganstown, Ireland in 1849 due to the famine, and he would become the patriarch of one of the most popular and influential families in the country. The election of the first Irish Catholic President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was a major victory for the Irish-American population, and the Kennedy family has provided the US with several Senators and Representatives in Congress, including Robert G. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy. Women of the Kennedy family are popular American figures, such as Caroline Kennedy Scholssberg. Rose Kennedy, the matriarchal figure of the family, was usually considered the source of strength that kept the family together. News anchor Maria Shriver is also a member of the famous family. They remain strong despite the many tragedies that have befallen them.
Irish Americans have played important roles in the United States Supreme Court. The first woman appointed to the Supreme Court was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who served from 1981 to 2006. Justice William Brennan was a first generation Irish-American who served on the Supreme Court from 1956 to 1990. He was known during his time as the “Great Dissenter,” or “The Conscience of the Court,” and continuously fought for the protection of individual rights. His rulings have had a major impact in the development of human and civil rights in this country.
Irish Americans have had a great impact on American literature. The contributions of the Irish to American literature are many and well-known, as some of the most widely read classics were written by Irish Americans or Irish immigrants.
Eugene O’Neill is considered by many literary critics to be the “American Shakespeare.” This famous Irish-American dramatist drew on his own life experiences to create some of his masterpieces including Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh. In 1936, he became the first and only American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize.
The Great Gatsby, written by third generation Irish-American F. Scott Fitzgerald, is known as one of the greatest American novels of all time. In this, along with other works such as Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald commented on the lives of wealthy American elite. While Fitzgerald wrote about the wealthy and elite classes, James T. Farrel’s Studs Lonigan Trilogy focused on the other end of the economic spectrum. His work provided a harsh and realistic view of the Irish working class in Chicago. Ken Kesey is the author of the famous novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and hardly an American has not heard one of the many chilling tales written by Irish-American Edgar Allen Poe.
Irish-American women have been equally as influential in American literature. Mary Flannery O’Connor was a famous short story writer who focused on tales from the American South. The dramatic and controversial short stories of writer Kate Chopin are considered important works for women’s movements across the nation. Alice McDermot won the National Book Award in 1998 with her novel Charming Billy. Writer Mary Higgins Clark is most well-known for her suspense novels, and has had a number of bestsellers.
Irish-American writers continue to top best seller lists all over the country. Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization was an immediate best seller when it was published in 1995. Also, the works of Irish-born Frank McCourt have been very successful in the United States, the most famous of which, Angela’s Ashes, was adapted into a major motion picture. McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel, adding to the long list of Irish Pulitzer Prize winners including James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and many others.
Irish newspapers and newsletters are distributed all across the United States. Some of these include Irish America Magazine, The Celtic Connection, The Irish Voice, and the Irish Herald. Irish Americans have made some of the most important contributions to journalism in this nation. The first daily newspaper in the US, The Pennsylvania Packet, was started by John Dunlap, who emigrated from the County Tyrone in the mid-eighteenth century. Dunlap also printed the Declaration of Independence.
Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochran to Irish immigrants, is still considered one of the most important and influential American journalists. She was a prominent journalist for The World newspaper in New York, and is credited with single handedly inventing the field of investigative journalism. She went undercover in 1887, by pretending to be mentally insane and having herself committed to an institution for the mentally ill. Her exposé, Ten Day in a Madhouse, provided a shocking description of the care of the mentally ill in the United States. Her work had a dramatic impact on the treatment of patients in asylums all over the country.
Finley Peter Dunne was a famous newspaper columnist in Chicago in the 1890s. He wrote extensively on working-class Irish neighborhoods in the city. Jimmy Breslin won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of New York in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s, four Pulitzer Prize winning journalists traced their heritage to the Emerald Isle.
Discrimination and Human Rights
Throughout the history of Irish immigration, Irish Americans have come to face discrimination and prejudice. Political parties and movements such as the Know-Nothings, which appeared in the United States in the 1850s, claimed immigrants threatened the very foundation of America. Discrimination against Irish immigrants and Irish Americans spread, and signs such as “No Irish Need Apply” are commonly referred to examples of this prejudice.
Several organizations would emerge in later years to counter these discriminatory attitudes and promote Irish heritage and culture, as well as provide Irish immigrants with the assistance they needed to become successful. The Irish Immigration Reform Movement is one example, and emerged in the 1980s to agitate for change in the immigration law and assist undocumented Irish immigrants living in the United States with gaining citizenship. In addition, the Irish Immigration Center in Boston works on building cross-cultural bridges between newly arrived Irish immigrants and Irish Americans.
Individuals have also worked for the betterment of mankind, and several of the most prominent social activists are of Irish descent. Ammon A. Hennacy was an American draft resister who spoke out continually against war and capital punishment. He is known to many as a “Christian-Anarchist-Pacifist.” Dorothy Day was a co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and was also a vocal supporter of women’s rights and suffrage movements. She was adamantly opposed to World War II and was involved in a campaign against the use of nuclear weapons. Daniel Barrigan was a vocal critic of the war in Vietnam, and in 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam to assist in the release of three American pilots being held as prisoners.
Science, Business and Industry
Irish Americans have certainly made a name for themselves in the world of science and industry, and are among the most successful businessmen in the United States. Michael Cudahy immigrated from Kilkenny during the Famine, and would revolutionize the meat industry by introducing refrigerated processing and transportation. Irish-American Henry Ford founded the Detroit automobile industry and became one of the nation’s wealthiest men. William Randolph Hearst was the most successful newspaper and publishing tycoon in the United States. Today the Hearst Corporation is one of the largest diversified media communication companies.
In the world of science, Irish Americans have been involved in some of the most important scientific developments in this nation. The country was inspired on July 20, 1969 when an Irish-American astronaut named Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Physicist Charles Town won a Nobel Prize in 1964 for his invention of the “MASER,” and his later work laid the foundation for the invention of the laser. Another Irish American, Barbara McClintock, won the Nobel Prize for her work on the genetics of corn plants, which demonstrated new aspects of the behavior of DNA.
The names of Irish-American sports heroes populate the histories of America’s favorite pastimes. From the baseball diamonds of post- Civil War small towns to the boxing rings of rapidly industrializing cities, these athletes left their marks. The most well-known Irish influence is the University of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish football team. The number of Irish names on the roster in the 1920s led to the adoption of the name in 1927.
Irish Americans have particularly made a name for themselves in boxing. James John Corbett, or “Gentleman Jim,” was a famous Irish-American heavyweight boxing champion and is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Boxing.” He is credited with changing the reputation of championship boxing from an uncivilized brawl into an artistic technique. He won the heavyweight championship in 1892. James Walter Braddock was born in New York to Irish immigrants in 1905. His 1935 victory of the favorite Max Baer is still considered one of the biggest upsets in the history of championship boxing. This underdog’s unlikely and inspiring victories earned him the nickname “Cinderella Man.” Other famous Irish-American boxers include Jim Coffey, “Irish” Bob Murphy, Peter Concorran, and Gerry Cooney.
Baseball also attracted many Irish Americans, including Anthony Mullane, who won nearly three hundred games in the 1880s as pitcher. Superstars like Mike “King” Kelly and John McGraw were also of Irish descent. In 1998, Irish-American Mark McGwire made history when he broke Roger Maris’ homerun record.
In other sports, Irish Americans have made their mark. Danica Patrick became famous for her fourth place finish in the Indianapolis 500 in 2005, which was the highest position a woman has ever finished in that race at that time. Tennis player John McEnroe won seventeen Grand Slam Titles, seventy-seven single titles, and seventy-seven double titles. Maureen “Little Mo” Connoly became the first woman to win the Grand Slam in 1953, and also won three United States and Wimbledon crowns. Golfer Ben Hogan won the US Open four times, and took home sixty-three Golf Association Tour victories when he retired in 1970.
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Brady was a celebrated nineteenth century photographer in the United States. This first generation Irish American is most famous for photographs taken during the Civil War. Another Irish-American artist, James E. Kelly, is known for his sculptures of Civil War and Revolutionary War heroes. Some of his most famous sculptures include that of George Washington at Valley Forge in New York, and the General John Buford Memorial in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Georgia O’Keefe is one of the most well-known painters of the twentieth century, and is particularly popular in the Southwestern United States. She traveled to Taos, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe in 1929 and fell in love with the beautiful landscape. Much of the inspiration for her paintings came from the wildlife of New Mexico. An art museum in Santa Fe and a school in Albuquerque both carry her name.
In more recent times, the artist Desmond O’Hagan is one of the most talented pastel and oil painters in the United States. This noted New Mexico artist was educated at the University of New Mexico and the Colorado Institute of Art, and he has been featured in art publications such as The Pastel Journal, Who’s Who in American Art, and was also featured in an article in Irish America magazine. His art has been exhibited all over the United States, Japan, Canada, and Europe.
The artistic creation of another Irish American, Jack O’Connor, is a well-known symbol in Albuquerque. His sculpture, “Eagle Dancer,” is considered a treasured piece of art and was first presented in 1975 at the Albuquerque Museum. The sculpture is currently on display at the Albuquerque Airport.
Theater, Television, and Film
In American theater and film, Irish Americans have become some of the most famous and well-respected entertainers. Ada Reban was a noted Shakespearean actress in the 1880s from Limerick, Ireland. Helen Hayes is known as the “First lady of American Theater,” and was also praised for her role in The Sin of Madelon Claudet for which she won an Academy Award in 1931. Actor John Barrymore won fame for his role as Hamlet in 1920. The Irish-American John Huston directed several classics, including The Maltese Falcon and The Red Badge of Courage. No one can forget the many movies of Irish-American Marion Morrisey (also known as John Wayne), especially for his role in The Quiet Man which was filmed in Ireland and co-stared Maureen O’Hara, another Irish-American actress. Gene Kelly, Grace Kelly, Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracy and Bing Crosby, to name only a few, were all Irish Americas as well.
The list of contemporary Irish-American actors in television and film is lengthy, and includes some of the most respected icons in Hollywood. Comedians Rosie O’Donnell, Conan O’Brien, and Drew Carey are all Irish American. The long list also includes George Clooney, Matthew McConaughey, Joan and John Cusack, Irish-born Pierce Brosnan, Roma Downey, Drew Barrymore, and many, many more.
In the world of modern dance, the popularity of Celtic and Irish dance exploded with Michael Flatley’s famous Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Both shows became a cultural phenomenon in the United States in the 1990s and played a major role in the “Celtic boom,” or rise in popularity of all things Celtic. Here in New Mexico one does not have to go far to find a variety of Irish dance performances. The McTeggart Irish Step Dancers of New Mexico (ISDNM) is an organization dedicated to supporting the popular Irish step dance throughout the state, and hosts performances at festivals, schools, community churches, and more. In Albuquerque, one can also participate in ceili dance classes. The ceili dance involves a group of three to four people, and is comparable to square dancing.