The Irish in America: 1840's-1930's

Above are cartoons called Hogan's Alley sketched by late 19th century cartoonist RF Outcault. One particular star of the Hogan's Alley Cartoons was the Yellow Kid, in image two. The Yellow kid's appearance is half child, half ape, and half man and caricatures Irishman/boys at the time. Image four portrays the typical stereotyped Irishman with his top hat and simian face. In many of these images there are blacks and Asians grossly caricatured as well. Bostonians and Americans, held the Irish in such low opinion that they they were lumped in with the two other denigrated racial groups in this time period, the blacks and the Asians. These cartoons were featured regularly in Boston newspapers. And it would have been what Joseph P. Kennedy, Rose Kennedy and their families would have seen on a regular basis.

"Micks", "Paddys" & "Bridgets"

The Facts

Driven away by the great famine of the 1840's the Irish filled up the port cities of American from the Northeast of Boston and Philadelphia to the balmy Southern ports of Savannah & New Orleans. The highest concentration of Irish immigrants were in the port city of Boston.

Boston was the home of the American Revolution, the Boston Tea Party, and America's finest families. Many of these families had come off the Mayflower in the 1600's. They had ancestors who had been the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution. When these Irish arrived, many of these elite fled parts of Boston to the North side of Boston, known to many as Beacon Hill, to escape the influx of illiterate, scraggly immigrants.

The Irish immigrant experience was not easy. Many washed onto the shores of America with few skills besides cooking, cleaning and just enough for them to work in factories. They also had to deal with bigotry and stereotypes too.

The Irish were ostracized from American society for many things besides just being newcomers. The Irish were ostracized for being Catholic. Many Protestants and "native" Americans were distrustful of a religion that was, as they viewed it, highly irregular with its beads, meditative prayers to Jesus' mother, oils, saints and statues. The Irish were also categorized as angry, alcoholic beings--( the term "don't get your Irish up", stemmed from a stereotypical belief in the volatile Irish temper) who drank all the time in saloons and had regular bar brawls and parties filled with revelry and debauchery. They were illiterate, greedy,--therefore desperate to make it "Micks on the Make"--their families were too clannish, bred like rabbits, and the Irish were entirely figured to be a stupid servant race by the Bostonians and most of "native" America. These images were portrayed in the daily Boston and New York newspapers, photographs, and other media of the time. Those looking to escape these stereotypes and rise above them to be part of American society like Joseph P. Kennedy, had to work hard and take many knocks before any change was rendered.

During the Civil War, the Irish became useful as they were the bodies that could outnumber the Southerners. However, camraderie during the war did not change the opinion of the Irish for most Americans in the late 19th century. By the 1870's and 1880's, many Irish, some of them new immigrants, still occupied the slums of East Boston.

Around this time, those successful Irish played their hand at business and politics. Some Irishmen become ward bosses for the political machines and parties in their cities. They were the mediators between the political parties who promised favors to the Irish and other immigrants so long as they voted Democrat in the elections. Joseph P. Kennedy's father, PJ Kennedy, was a ward boss for the Democratic Party. And therefore one of the most powerful political figures in Boston. However, many of these ward bosses were heavily caricatured in cartoons, featured in daily Boston newspapers, along with their fellow Irish counterparts, as one historian put it, as "salivating simian wretches". Those who enjoyed degrading the Irish the most, were the elite of Boston who lived on Beacon Hill, on the North Side. It was here that the people who ran the city, the newspapers, owned the businesses, and set standards for living resided. The elite of Boston were as history remembers them, the Boston Brahmin.

Brahmin was originally used in describing the highest caste in ancient societies in India. It means "a natural elite, sanctified by an all knowing God and just social order". Boston Brahmin, coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes, described elite Boston society and their mentality perfectly.

The Boston Brahmin was an Americanized Englishman, a group of people with confidence their status would always remain perfect. They were the creme de la creme of Boston society and life, not just that but American society. Bragging such bluebloods as the Adams, the Quincys, the Holmes, the Shattucks, the Lowells and the Cabots. Each and every family had contributed much to Boston and American society. US presidents, Boston mayors, Supreme Court Justices and attorneys, famed medical doctors, authors, Presidents of Harvard. Many American cities had prominent families but it was such a constant that a Bostonian remarked:"there were so many of them as to constitute a way of life".

Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. glimpsed this life as a young boy selling hats for a business on Beacon Hill. Though his father PJ, had done very well for himself as a Ward boss the family continued to reside in East Boston, and Joseph Sr. was still "Irish" to the Brahmins. He was always careful in those Brahmin homes never to give away that he was in fact Irish, that his name was Joseph and not Patrick was thanks to the forethought of his mother who was determined to Americanize him. The same feeling of awe and envy, that overcame Joseph Sr., ran through the veins of John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, father of Rose Fitzgerald. As a youth, he was a paperboy to the Brahmin households on Beacon Hill. Standing in front of the Beacon Hill houses gave him a standard of what he was to give to his daughter who would later marry Joseph Sr. In later years when asked about his experiences in Boston, he recounted once when he was in a Brahmin household and was just lost in awe: "I stood in the doorway and made a promise to myself that someday, when I had children of my own, I would be in a position to give them all the toys that these children of privilege enjoyed."

Other Links:

The Irish in America: 1840's-1930's|Joseph P. Kennedy|The Kennedys:Making of a Dynasty
John F. Kennedy |Camelot:The Kennedy White House|The Post Camelot Years