The luck of the Irish held when they came to California

May 3, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

When you hear historian James P. Walsh say something like: "The California Irish are different from the Irish elsewhere in the United States," you almost expect a punch line to finish the sentence.

But this is no joke. Walsh, a professor and administrator at California State University, San Jose, came to Davis recently to give a talk at Jim McElroy's Irish Studies Colloquium on "The Irish in California." He has studied and published on this topic for many years and is working on a new book on the Irish in the Bay Area, which will be published in the year 2000.

Before you can understand the Irish in California, he said, you have to have some knowledge of the Irish immigration to the East Coast, to New York and Boston.

First of all, remember the Irish Potato Famine or Great Hunger of 1846-1850. More than one million people in Ireland died from hunger and disease and many of those who survived or wanted to survive decided their only choice was to immigrate. Many came to the United States.

"The Irish were different in terms of religion and were not well received," said Walsh. "They were not easy transplants and were deprived economically, culturally and socially. The best many of them could do was escape the famine."

What awaited them in American cities including Boston, New York, Chicago and New Orleans made death, in some cases, seem more enticing than life. Walsh described a desperate situation for those who came before the Industrial Revolution. After the Industrial Revolution, there were many more dangerous and dirty jobs available for unskilled labor. As time went on, Irish women found safer jobs as domestics. Men worked in factories or found jobs in police or fire departments or as teamsters. The urban ghettoes of the 19th century offered only a limited education to the sons and daughters of Irish immigrants, with boys dropping out of school as soon as they could in order to start working and bringing home wages.

"The casualty rate for workers was as high as the casualty rate in the Civil War," said Walsh.

As more time went by, however, the Irish made inroads in a comfortable o occupation: politics. Helped perhaps by the fact these immigrants spoke the same language as the host country and came from a similar Anglo-Saxon tradition of government, the Irish became a permanent, pervasive and comprehensive part of machine politics in several big cities. Now the machine came to the aid of the uprooted, displaced, disenfranchised. But there was a price to be paid in terms of conformity and, later on, in terms of corruption.

"This is the picture that prevails in survey history texts and it's pretty accurate," said Walsh. "But it does not tell the whole story, it's not the complete history of the Irish in the United States."

While maybe 80 percent of the Irish immigrants settled in the East, 20 percent came West. In 1849 when the Gold Rush began, Irish men and women came to California along with everyone else.

"And in 1849 no one was here to put you in your place," said Walsh. "It wasn't like getting off a 'coffin ship' in New York and being greeted by public health officials who didn't want you."

Walsh suggests that the Irish who made the trip to California were a self-selecting group, wealthier and healthier than their brethren who stayed east of the Mississippi.

"The motivation for coming to California was not survival but dreams of wealth," he said.

These Irish immigrants didn't run into religious prejudice, either. After all, Catholicism was the religious precedent set by Spain. Catholics became a majority in an irreligious society.

"Irish families didn't need to be so insular. There wasn't the same siege mentality," said Walsh. And is San Francisco, as opposed to New York, the value of labor was extremely high.

"California was awash in money," said Walsh. Not just in the gold fields, either, but in the streets of San Francisco where teamsters could command a fine wage for removals and hauling and buildings were going up and burning down with regularity.

The Irish even took their turn running the city of San Francisco in a cooperative manner rather than as the operators of a closed political machine. But one serious problem with the Irish became evident by 1882, the year the Chinese Exclusion Act passed.

"They took everything that had ever been thrown against them in the East and threw it against Asians," said Walsh. "Of course, this wasn't exclusively Irish, but an attitude shared by all white Californians."

Finally, though, Walsh said the experiences shared by Irish immigrants who came to California were frequently infinitely better than the lives endured by those who remained in urban ghettoes.

"The Irish in California owe each other two words," said Walsh. "Thank you."

The Irish Studies Colloquium at UCD will continue on May 19 with Thomas A. Brady of UC Berkeley talking about "Ireland's Histories" and Michael J. Hoffman of UCD on June 16 talking about "James Joyce and Bloomsday." The talks will be at 8 p.m. in 396 Voorhies Hall on campus. For more information, phone Jim McElroy at 530-752-4925.

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