The Irish & Crime in 19th Century North America

May 4, 2010 § 4 Comments

WordPress lets me see what search terms lead people to this site.   Usually, they’re predictable, people searching my name, or Griffintown, or things along those lines.  But today, there is this term: “explain the strong association between the 19th century irish diaspora and crime?”  So, explain I shall.

Yes, this is a stereotype.  But behind this stereotype is some kind of truth.  Yes, the Irish, especially Catholics in inner cities, tended to find themselves in trouble with the law in disproportionate fashion in the 19th century.  This was particularly true in port cities: Montréal, Saint John (NB), Halifax, Boston, New York, Philly.  19th century sailors were hard-living men.  And the consequence of that was an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of police stations in those cities.  And, yes, a lot of those sailors were Irish Catholics.

There was also the matter of labour violence.  The Irish tended to do the kinds of jobs that no one else would, but they also tended to guard their employment jealously, in that if someone else wanted to do their work (free blacks in the States, French Canadians in Québec), they would protect their right to work.  Oftentimes with violence when others threatened to undercut their wages (and the Irish tended to do work on very thin margins to start with).

Connected to this was ethnic/racial violence.  For example, the Bowery B’hoys Riot of 1857 in the Five Points of Manhattan, where the Irish Catholics who had recently settled there were attacked by the nativist gang, the Bowery B’hoys.  Or in York Point, Saint John, in 1849, when the ultra-Protestant Orange Order insisted on marching through an Irish Catholic neighbourhood on the Glorious 12th.  Or more internecine battles in places like Philadelphia between black and Irish workers.

As an aside, this has led to one of the most simplistic arguments I’ve ever come across.  Noel Ignatiev, in his overly dramatic How the Irish Became White (in order to “become white,” you have to first be considered something other than “white,” and I’m not convinced that the Irish were ever seen this way), argues that slavery essentially lasted another generation in the United States because the Irish Catholic immigrants to New York and Philadelphia, poor working-class immigrants, I might add, refused to throw their lot in with the free black populations of those 2 cities prior to the US Civil War.  Had they, he argues, slavery would’ve ended.  So, in essence, Ignatiev argues that the Irish “became white” by siding with the Anglo-Protestant hegemons in the United Sates against the blacks.  Of course, to have expected anything different is just, well, simple.  Why would the Irish side with the blacks?  The blacks were the only other group of people down near the bottom of the socio-econo-cultural totem pole with the Irish.  So, obviously, they’re going to try to distance themselves.

Anyway, I digress.  Political violence.  Well, politics were corrupt in the 19th century, pure and simple, whether it was Tammany Hall in New York, or battles against Anglo-Protestant hegemony in Montréal, corruption was everywhere, and violence was a common tactic by all sides.  The Irish got their shots in just like everyone else.

But the most common reason why the Irish found themselves in trouble with the law in North America wasn’t any of this.  It was the drink.  The Irish were a disproportionate number of public drunks in North American cities, at least in the northeast of the US and Eastern Canada, for much of the 19th century.  But, before we get into stereotypes of the Irish and the drink, let us remind ourselves of something else: they were the working-classes, they lived hard lives of unsteady and dodgy employment in the factories, ports, and canals of these cities.  Their lives were defined by insecurity, in terms of employment, finances, housing.  Inner-cities of Boston, Montréal, New York, Baltimore, in the 19th century were, in many ways, worse than they are today.  Housing was worse, social conditions were worse, welfare states were worse.  And so, not surprisingly, people tended to distract themselves from their problems with alcohol.  And not surprisingly, this means that they ran afoul of the law and ended up getting arrested.  And the Irish, well, they were a significant chunk of the urban working-classes in these cities.  So, no surprise that they appear so frequently in the crime statistics.

Years ago, I was reading a book by my MA supervisor, Jack Little, about state formation in the Eastern Townships of Québec in the mid-19th century.  As the Grand Trunk Railway was being built between Montréal and Portland, ME, in the 1850s, Irish navvies flooded the Townships.  A rash of crime broke out along the rail line, and Stipendiary Magistrate Ralph Johnston was dispatched out to Sherbrooke to investigate.  The results of his investigation surprised him, and in his report to his bosses in Québec City, he stated that the crime was actually committed by non-Irish Catholic, non-navvies.  In short, by locals.  And the Irish-Catholics got the blame. “In the eyes of too many,” Johnston wrote, “their crimes are to be Irish and Catholic.”

Yup, racial profiling existed in the 19th century too.

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§ 4 Responses to The Irish & Crime in 19th Century North America

  • mairemartello says:

    I’m an Irish-Catholic and yet I find other Irish-Catholics dispute lawlessness among the Irish in the 19th century. To them, they were all poor little victims of big,bad America. How to combat this?!

    • Oh, where to start? This is a message that is encouraged and reinforced by pop culture, too. And while it is true for the mid-t0-late 19th century, by the end of the 19th century, the Irish had more or less integrated into, and massively altered, American culture, particularly in and around Boston and NYC.

      I’m not suggesting our people were outright vagabonds and criminals, the crimes the Irish Catholics tended to get booked for were crimes of poverty: stealing, public drunkenness, vagrancy. And these arrests were encouraged by police stereotypes, but, this, too, was done by the late 19th century.

      By then, the Irish had been replaced as the target immigrant group by Italians, other Southern and Eastern Europeans, and Jews. And the Irish joined in on this. The Irish in America were amongst the most xenophobic. And outright racist when it came to the black population.

      All we have is fact and reality on our side, ultimately.

      • mairemartello says:

        I find Irish-Americans don’t want to talk about the draft riots either – a true blot on their early reputation. Yes, indeed, they were deeply xenophobic.

      • I enjoy teaching the Draft Riots for that very reason. I think in the case of the Irish, the irony of being immigrants and xenophobic/racist is explained by their place in the economy and in American society in the mid-19th century: at the bottom.

        For example, pre-Civil War, they competed with free blacks in Northern cities for jobs. In Canada, it was French Canadians they competed with. And so, they were belligerent against both. It doesn’t excuse it, but it does explain it.

        But this whole idea that the Irish were treated horribly by Canadians and Americans only lasts until about the 1870s in Canada, and maybe the 1880s in the US, with some exceptions. After that they had assimilated.

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