Professor Joe Lee describes the history of the Famine Irish in New York City:
There was emigration into New York before the Famine, but it really exploded with the impact of the Famine. In the first years of 1845 to 1847, the fare to Quebec and Canada was actually cheaper than the fare to New York, but from 1847 on they poured into New York City. New York was growing dramatically at that stage. It happened to be the biggest port in America. The Irish Famine influx turned it into one of the world’s great ports. From 1848 on, the Irish carved out a place for themselves in New York City – sometimes against opposition, because they weren’t just Irish but predominantly Catholic coming into a predominantly Protestant city. That could lead to tensions. And of course, they were very poor for the most part. Many of them were on the verge of starvation when they arrived. They had to claw their way up.
There was assistance. There was assistance from the Catholic Church, and from better off New Yorkers, sometimes Irish Protestants, in fact. But mostly it was a desperate struggle upwards. It took a generation for the Irish to establish themselves as very heavy hitters in New York politics. If you remember that by 1855 when the next census was taken after the Irish Famine migration, that the population of Manhattan, which was then the core of New York, over 25% was Irish born. It was also a 50-50 ratio of Irish male and female emigrants. That was one of the great striking features of Irish emigration to America. Most other European emigrants came with male majorities – sometimes 2 to 1 male majorities. It was 1 to 1 in Irish-America, which meant that they could intermarry. And so you have the persistence of Irish-America for much longer than other hyphenated-Americans.
By the 1870s, after the Civil War, their command of politics – because they knew politics from Ireland at a mass level from Daniel O’Connell on – from the 1870s to the 1930s, Irish politicians dominated New York politics. That was based on the number of Famine emigrants, the gender balance, and it was based on the capacity of the Irish to work their way up. They didn’t arrive there by politics alone. They arrived there because they were extremely good workers, extremely hard workers. New York was expanding very rapidly, growing in population, and the Irish flocked into the building industry. Because it was growing in wealth, a lot of the households of middle class America wanted servants. Of course, Irish women coming over, they had some English, and they were extremely good workers.
The Irish dominated major segments of the New York labour market by 1870s. That allowed them to become central to New York politics. Certainly from the 1870s to the 1930s and the Second World War, the Irish demonstrated considerable political ability and political capacity – much of which they had brought from Ireland with them. We forget just how advanced in political participation – not in political liberty – the Irish were because of the struggle with the English in many respects, compared with many European countries. So the Irish were at the cutting edge of a great deal of what happened – most of it good, some of it not so good, but most of it good in New York since the Famine. It is a tremendous legacy.