Despite harrowing beginnings, the Irish in America are a success story

Week III

In the 1860s, 20 years after Charles Dickens expressed his disgust at the living conditions in the vastly over-crowded tenements of New York’s ‘Five Points’, in Lr East Side, the situation simply got worse.

About 300,000 lived within one square mile, in dirty tenement apartments, which were constantly divided and subdivided by ruthless landlords, and where it was not uncommon to find five families sharing one room, with only two beds. There was no ventilation or sanitation. Human night-soil and food waste, dead dogs and cats were piled in the yard; while dead horses, exhausted from pulling over loaded carts, were left by the side of the street.

Immediately after the Great Famine more than one million Irish people fled the barren land, followed by a further two million by the end of the 19th century. Even by the1870s one in every six New Yorkers was Irish.

In America as in Britain, instead of finding some kind of stability after the turmoil and heartbreak at home, they were confronted by prejudice, anti Catholic discrimination and cruel depictions in magazines as men, drunken and quarrelsome, with ape-like features.

They were vulnerable to wide-spread corruption both from City Hall and from money-lenders and traders; but perhaps worst of all, when mothers desperately needed milk for their babies they were often sold milk from diseased cows, which street vendors ladled out from dirty vats often camouflaging the offensive smell and colour with chalk or ammonia. The mortality rate among Irish immigrant children was 25 per cent.

Into this Hieronymus Bosch landscape came a young married couple, Bridget and Joseph Moore, and we catch a glimpse of their short existence when they take up residence at 97 Orchard Street.

Tenement Museum

This original five-storey house was built in 1863 and boarded up in 1935. For more than 70 years it had remained untouched, and when it was finally opened for development it was like stepping back into history. As the layers of past years were peeled back, more than a thousand artefacts were found including kitchenware, toys, empty medicine bottles, letters, newspapers, and clothes; the original wallpapers, ceilings, tiled floors were all revealed.

It had 22 apartments each about 325 sq,ft, and each consisting of three rooms. It is estimated that in its 72 years some 7,000 people, from more than 20 nations, passed through its rooms.

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Today the Lower East Side Tenement Museum offers an almost sensory experience as you walk through those same rooms, and hear the stories of those who lived there.

The Moore family

Museum director Ruth J Abram tells us that on April 21 1869, shortly after moving into 97 Orchard Street, five months old Agnes Mary Moore died from malnutrition as a result of taking infected milk which her mother had bought from a street vendor.

Six years earlier, 17 years old Bridget Meehan emigrated to New York alone from Ireland, and shortly after met and married Joseph Moore three years her senior. Museum researchers were unable to find out where in Ireland Bridget came from, but her husband was from Dublin city.

For a time they were fortunate as John worked as a waiter in a hotel, while Bridget worked as a domestic, a pattern followed by almost half of Irish emigrant women in the 19th century New York. But once married Bridget quit her job, and stayed at home taking in laundry.

Nor did Joseph and Bridget’s migrations end once they arrived in America. Like many immigrant families they moved frequently as their fortunes rose and fell. Almost every year they moved to a different building in Lower Manhattan. They lived for a while at 65 Mott Street in the notorious Five Points neighbourhood,* among poor Irish, African Americans, Chinese, and a myriad of other ethnic groups.

At Mott Street Bridget gave birth to Mary Catherine Moore, the first of many children. A year later, the family moved to 150 Forsyth Street on the Lower East Side, where another daughter, Jane, was born followed by little Agnes Mary. A few months later they were fortunate to find, a few blocks away, three rooms at 97 Orchard Street in an area known as Kleindeutschland, because of a large German population, and where in the basement of their block was a thriving beer-brewing and pub business.

Barely a year later the family were on the move again, this time to 224 Elizabeth Street where five more girls were born Cecilia, Theresa, Veronica, Josephine, and Elizabeth. The final move was to Third Avenue and 28th Street in Murray Hill where Bridget passed away at 36 years of age due to heart failure. Only four of the Moore’s eight children survived into adulthood. Joseph’s final move was to 31st Street and Second Avenue where he lived to the age of 71.

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Moving on

Because the Irish had to face hardships and discrimination it banded them together in tightly knit communities, and this combined force ironically helped move them out of the slums. Playing a fighting role in the American Civil War brought some recognition, but the Democratic party was the first to exploit the power of the massive potential of the Irish emigrant vote.

This led to the influential ‘Tammany Hall’ and its control of local politics, where for all its corruption, shenanigans, and powerful personalities, the Irish gradually helped themselves to move out into the suburbs.

Al Smith, with an Irish mother, served four times as governor of New York, and was the Democratic candidate in the 1928 presidential election. Smith had little chance of being elected, but he showed what was possible. When John F Kennedy came forward on the Democratic ticket in 1960, he was careful to avoid any association with Tammany Hall, which was greeted with derision by the majority of Americans. Kennedy was acutely aware of the anti-Catholic bias. He finally laid it to rest by declaring during his campaign: ‘I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president, who happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and my church does not speak for me.’ Although it was a close run thing, sufficient numbers of Americans believed him to elect him the 35th president of the United States.

Today the Irish in America are a success story. They are one of the most prosperous ethnic groups, significantly exceeding national averages on educational levels, occupation status, income and home ownership.

In 1895 Jane Moore, daughter of Bridget and Joseph, married Roger Hanrahan, the son of other Irish immigrants. They had two sons and three daughters. By 1920 the family moved to the Richmond Hill section of Queens. Today their descendants live throughout the country, but some continue to reside in New York City. One of their great grandsons became a NYC police officer, while another worked for the NYC Fire Department.

Next week: The Connemara settlement on the fertile plains of Minnesota

NOTES: *Five Points because three streets, Orange, Anthony, and Cross intersected there, producing five corners or ‘points’.

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