Irish Americans of Cleveland

History of the Cleveland Irish

Arriving in Cleveland

from The Irish Americans & Their Communities of Cleveland
by Nelson J. Callihan &
William F. Hickey

By 1848 the Famine Irish knew that there was no place for them at the ports of arrival on the Eastern Seaboard, so they began to drift inland looking for the jobs on the frontier that would sustain them. They worked on the railroad being built from New York to Chicago by Commodore Vanderbilt. They stopped in cities such as Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh and even St. Louis, to settle down to do the laboring jobs which were opening up in these places. In these cities the Irishman's labor was wanted; his presence was not wanted.

Cleveland was such a city. In 1855 the Locks at St. Marie were opened and the city suddenly became a boom town. Iron ore could be cheaply brought to the docks on the Cuyahoga River where it was processed into steel. Strong men were needed desperately to unload the ore boats (by wheelbarrow), which were arriving daily at the docks; even stronger men were needed to work in the steel mills, which in 1855 were located in Newburgh, south of Cleveland. The jobs in these places fell to the Irish immigrants, the least skilled of all European peoples. Thus the early Irish settlements were located near the docks on the near West Side; here they formed St. Patrick Parish on Bridge Avenue in 1853. Or the Irish settled near the steel mills in Newburgh where they formed the parish of The Holy Name in 1854.

Thus, the early Irish immigrants in Cleveland were already twice displaced. They had found no room and no opportunity for work at the cities on the Eastern Seaboard where they had first tried to settle. It became clear to them very quickly that the jobs were in the rapidly developing Midwest. Raw physical labor was the primary requisite, and this gift they were willing and able to trade on the open market for the opportunity to work.

They probably got here on the railroad, sometimes by helping to lay tracks for the New York Central which came through Cleveland in 1849. In any case, the vast majority who settled in Cleveland stayed. But in Cleveland, the Irish who were Catholic found a situation which resembled to a remarkable degree the same caste system they had known and fled from in Ireland. They had jobs, but there was little chance of upward mobility, mostly because of their lack of skills and their own lawlessness. moreover, at the top of the system were the Yankees who recalled for the Irish the landlords from whom they had sought to escape in Ireland and whom the Irish firmly believed were close kin to the people who had oppressed them for close to two centuries in Ireland.

For their part, the third generation Yankees or Wasps or whatever one chooses to call them, saw in the arrival of the Irish, to Cleveland the beginning of a vast threat to their American enclave. Perhaps no city in the United States had its serenity broken as violently as did Cleveland by the first Irish immigrants. The disparity between these newly arrived immigrants and the native American was dramatic.

The Irish were at least culturally Roman Catholic; the native Clevelanders were not, and feared greatly the possibility of a segment of the people being dominated by the Papal States, the Church of Rome, and its Pope.

The Irish had no skills, were total strangers to the developing industrial revolution, and were generally illiterate, although they spoke the English language. This latter fact was to their advantage over later immigrants, but to their disadvantage with the native Americans who were bewildered to find people who spoke English well but who could not read nor write it, and who apparently never comprehended that it was their ancestors in England who had promoted illiteracy in Ireland.

The Irish were the first large group of immigrants who were not Wasps to arrive in Cleveland. Thus, neither they nor the native Americans had any previous memory of patterns of acculturation in which they could find hope of becoming "like us" or "like them," depending on one's point of view.

The Famine Irish in Cleveland were at first remarkably unruly. It has been stated in the Cleveland Leader, a notoriously anti-Irish newspaper, that between 1850 and 1870, 90% of the violent crimes in Cleveland were done by Irish.

The Irish had no previous experience with representative government, orderly town meetings or consensus in decision making, and yet they were given the vote with little preparation or knowledge of issues. The native Americans saw the Irish voting power and the Irish reputation for revolutionary tactics in the presence of tyranny in Ireland as a positive threat to the whole system of state and national political life.

The immigrant Irish found, when they arrived in Cleveland, no organized societies of their kinsmen to welcome them, nor were there any agencies which could even help them think through the trauma of immigration. Nearly all ethnic groups that arrived in Cleveland after the Irish found such agencies or organizations.

The voyage across the sea all by itself had to be an event loaded with fear and risk. Babies were born aboard ship, mothers and fathers died aboard ship, and the whole event for each of the survivors became an experience one never spoke of once in America. It was hardly the passage for which the immigrant might have hoped, and by the time he arrived in Cleveland he surely must have wondered whether the whole attempt at making a new life was worth it. The native Americans understood none of this and were genuinely puzzled at the total rootlessness and consequent psychological disorientation of the Irish immigrant.

Due to the laws of Catholic suppression, most Irish immigrants had never been able to own property in Ireland. At first they saw no value whatever to owning property in Cleveland, hence their instability in the city. Also, because of the Famine, they generally refused to settle on farmland, which was often almost free to the Germans who had arrived in the Western Reserve as early as 1848. For the native American, ownership of land and the frugal management of it were central values, and indeed virtues.

Without making any attempt to excuse the fact, it must be admitted that the Famine Irish arriving in Cleveland (and perhaps many Irishmen descended from them) had a serious problem, either real or potential, with the abuse of alcohol, which in 1847 in Cleveland was easily as cheap as water. For the descendant of the Puritan living in Cleveland at that same time, sobriety was one of his most cherished virtues. For him, any lack of sobriety among the Irish was much more than a troublesome annoyance; it was a sin which he simply could not tolerate. And thus did the Famine Irish encounter the native American, rooted in New England Puritanism, in Cleveland.