The Transformation of the New York Irish 1850-1880
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In recent years much scholarship has been one embodied by that most American of values, dedicated to the topic of Irish immigrant literacy and the casting off of an old oral mindassimilation in New York City in the nineset, which had indirectly led to the stereotype of teenth century. An often neglected agent of the boisterous tale-telling stage Irishman. The culassimilation was the Irish-American press, estabtural assimilation of Irish immigrants into Amerilished chiefly by exiled Irish republican rebels durcan society during the mid to late nineteenth ing the mid-nineteenth century. A particularly century was accomplished by much more than useful work on this subject is William Leonard learning to read. A more accurate characterization Joyce's Editors and Ethnicity: A History of the would be that Irish emigrants in New York City Irish American Press. Joyce examines the influlearned an entirely different way of thinking about ence of papers such as the Nation and the Citizen the world, and with the help of the Irish-American on both the resurgence of Irish nationalism and press, they were assimilated culturally. the assimilation of the Irish into the mainstream of American life. Joyce wrote that the Irish were INTRODUCTION able to assimilate by "harmonizing the Irish retro-When the Irish achieved political ascendancy in the spect and American prospect in a fashion that 1880s in New York City, there was far more to the saw the values of one become compatible with process of assimilation than meets the eye. While the other" (184). the Irish were always a small but formidable pres-While Joyce's book is a seminal text on the ence in New York, the Great Famine inspired mascontribution of the Irish papers in assimilation, it Brian Cogan is a doctoral candidate in the Media Ecology Department, School of Education at New York University. He is the grandson and greatdoes not address a crucially important factor in the grandson of immigrants from Ireland. His article on the Irish-American press Americanization of Irish immigrants in New York in New York as an agent of change was awarded the Roundtable's John City at that time: specifically, that cultural assimi-O'Connor Scholarship for graduate students for the year 2000. ©2000. Publation involved the adoption of a new mindset lished with permission of Brian Cogan.
Vol.14, 2000 PAGE 30 THE 1R15H AMERICAN PRESS/NEW YORK 1R15H HISTORY sive migrations. As : result, the Irish-American pop-mation of a marginalized group of outsiders into ulation rose to a staggering 133,730, or 26 percent the mainstream of American life, with all its attenof the city, by 1850 (McCaffrey 91). Most of these dant privileges and power. new immigrants occupied the lowest rung of the One reason the Irish were able to change from economic ladder. Socially, the largely Catholic Irish an oral to a literate culture in such a relatively short were a target of nativist resentment, suspicion, and period of time was the resurgence of Irish Republioccasionally, violence. Politically, at the midpoint of canism and its inherent literacy. While the main the 19th century the Irish were a marginal influinflux of Irish in New York was forced to immigrate ence at best. Yet within thirty years, Irish-Amerithere due to the horrific famine of 1845-48, another group of highly educated literate Irish intellectuals was forced to flee after the aborted uprising of 1848. These men, in contrast to the vast majority of their countrymen already in America, were convinced that the literacy they possessed was the key that would unlock the door to a free Ireland under Irish rule. Desperate to see the work they had started in Ireland flourish in America, they used any means at their disposal to educate their uneducated New York brethren in order to inculcate them with Republicanism, and the same passion for a free Ireland that they themselves possessed.
Being an extremely literate group of exiles, they relied upon the power of the printed word, specifically newspapers, pamphlets and journals to make the case for the idea of a free and united Ireland.
Their task was extremely difficult since a main reason that the Irish were as denigrated and economically deprived was because they were an oral Illustration: A caricature of the Irishman from an 1870s work by Thomas Nast published in Harper's Weekly. culture, in contrast with other immigrant groups, and American culture in general. The stereotype of cans living in New York City underwent a drastic the drunken, boisterous tale-spinning Irishman of and amazing transformation that saw them leap stage and caricature was almost identical to the from the poorest of the working class in 1850 to characteristics of a primarily oral culture as viewed controlling the city's government by 1880. by scholars such as Ong (1982), Lord (1960), and This was a result of many factors, including Goody (1987). In a few short years the astounding increased immigration, the powerful binding influpopularity of the Irish newspapers in New York City, ence of the Catholic Church, the English-language with their highly literate brand of Republicanism, skills of many Irish, and a strong sense of social was to transform Irish-American culture. coherence that characterized the Irish as an ethnic Part 1. Immigration and Other Factors group and facilitated the Irish-American's introduction into local political structures. One rarely mentioned but key factor in this transformation was the IMMIGRATION fact that the Irish during this time period also The horrific famine of 1845-8 completely disruptunderwent a change from being culture largely ed the fabric of Irish life, reducing the population oral in nature, one that possessed the attitudes of Ireland by over 2 1/4 million due to starvation and mindset that orality fostered, to one that was and immigration. Over a million Irish fled to Amerastoundingly literate. At a time when America was ica alone (Williams 18). A Dublin newspaper, the "as dominated by the printed word as any society" Nation, reported on May 3rd 1848 that "The (Postman 41), the transformation of the Irish from wharfs are crowded with people and choked with an oral to a literate culture was also the transforbaggage. The harbors are full with crazy, ill condi-Vol.14, 2000 !"#$%&'()-+,-.&/01&2345677280989:7709;7