The Irish came to America in the 19th century seeking a better life for themselves and their family. The Irish South: 1815-1877. By David T Gleeson details the struggles that the Irish faced in their new homeland. The Irish Famine of 1845-1849, propelled nearly a million immigrants to America. Many made their homes in the Northern cities of Boston New York and Chicago but there was a sizable population that made their homes in the south. This overlooked chapter in the story of the Irish immigrant is revisited in David Gleeson’s book and gives a new face to the Irish immigrant and their story.
Gleeson’s book is a much needed addition to the scholarly works of the Irish immigrant. The book details the history of the Irish immigrant in six southern communities: Charleston, South Carolina, Memphis, Mobile, New Orleans, Richmond and Savannah. What has been largely ignored in the story of the Irish immigrant, Gleeson’s book helps to correct the notion that the Irish experience was contained only in the Northern city. In order to fully understand the Irish immigrant’s view of life in the American south, one must first understand what he left behind in Ireland.
A casual observed of history would assume that the Irish did not come to America until the Great Potato famine of the 1840’s. During the potato famine, the society of Ireland left no opportunity for the poor to rise above a miserable existence, but Gleason’s book details the Irish immigration to America decades before the potato famine. The Scotch-Irish migration began in the 18th century. The Scotch Irish were the first to cross the Shenandoah Valley and made the South their own.
Gleeson points out that the average rate of migration after 1815, increased to over 30,000 a year and that from between 1815 and 1850, another 800,000 to one million Irish came to America. (Gleeson, 2002) For the ones that came to the south, the Irish made a name for themselves by building canals, railroads and populating some of the biggest cities in the south. New Orleans during this time was over 25% Irish. Gleeson then answers the question: Why was the south so attractive for the Irish?
In New York City, where the majority of the Irish immigrants resided, many found a very harsh existence with stiff competition for the most menial jobs. In the south however, Gleeson says that the area was more tolerant as opposed to the North. The Irish could retain a degree of their heritage as well as the fact that the South offered many high paying jobs in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Another appealing aspect of the South, according to Gleeson was the fact that the South did not pressure the Irish to assimilate to the same degree that the Northern cities pressured the Irish.
During the great famine, many southern cities set up voluntary relief committees to help aid the famine stricken Ireland. This degree of sympathy, not seen to the same extent in the North, made a lasting impression on the Irish and their new homeland that would not soon be forgotten. Finding strength in their communities, Irish immigrants developed the confidence to raise their voices in the public arena, forcing native southerners to recognize and accept them politically and then socially.
Another reason that the South remained attractive to the new Irish immigrant was the absence of the Know-Nothing Party which was making a name for itself on the political scene in the North. This party was based on anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant stances. (Gleeson, 2002) What served as an impediment to immigrants in the North did not seem to have the same influence in the south. And when the party did surface in the south, Senator Jefferson Davis would be among the democrats who would help defeat it.
The institution of slavery in the south also served as an attractive aspect of the South. The Irish supported slavery because it gave them the advantage over blacks which they did not have in the North. In the North, the African Americans and Irish were in strict competition with each other for the most menial and the dirtiest jobs. Both groups were fighting to stay above the basement of the social ladder and fought each other bitterly to stay afloat. This competition was not an issue in the South.
The Irish upheld the institution of slavery for various reasons; chiefly among them was the desire not to repeat the meager existence that they had in Ireland before they left. The acceptance of the Irish by the South took a step forward during the Civil War. The loyalty of the Irish to the southern cause was respected and their bravery on the battlefield was respected as well and encouraged an acceptance of the Irish within southern culture. Southern Reconstruction saw a drop in the Irish population by 1870. The Irish became displaced in the cities by newly freed blacks.
Immigration to the South dropped off, since the region had been devastated by war. But by then, the Irish had become such an accepted part of the American South that when Margaret Mitchell, herself the descendant of Irish emigrants, wrote Gone With the Wind in 1936, it was not unusual for plantation owner Gerald O’Hara to be Catholic and Irish. Indeed, there were Irish emigrants who became planters in the years before the Civil War, so the character was not far-fetched. The story went on to become the story of Southern society.
Finding strength in their communities, Irish immigrants developed the confidence to raise their voices in the public arena, forcing native southerners to recognize and accept them politically and socially. David T. Gleeson’s book has produced an invaluable study of a neglected aspect of Irish emigrants who settled in these southern states and for those interested in this chapter of Irish history, the book will be an asset to the reader’s further understanding of the role of the Irish within Southern culture.
Gleeson, D. (2002). The Irish South: 1815-1877 Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.