Irish Americans of Cleveland

History of the Cleveland Irish

Life on Whiskey Island

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

It was often said, and with some justification, "that most nights on Whiskey Island were lively ones and when the police answered a riot call, the horses would automatically head in that direction." The Irish who inhabited Whiskey Island were, indeed, hard-drinking, brawling and often lawless men, but then, they had plenty of reasons to be all three. They were rootless outcasts of society, a shunned and largely despised group of men, who despite their crude ways, Were not insensitive to the injustices that had been heaped upon them from the moment they first set foot on American soil. They had to take out their frustrations on someone and since no one else was available, they took them out on one another.

Many of them had aspirations that went beyond three squares, a place to flop and a bottle of whiskey, and they were to prove that in relatively short order, despite being caught up in a mentality common to oppressed people. The Irish of early-day Cleveland fluctuated between rage and despair and needed their bottles and brawls to stave off madness on an epidemic scale. If it weren't for the fact that they were able to retain a collective sense of humor, none of them would have made it, for then they didn't even have the consoling words of a priest to get them through their worst moments.

Whiskey Island was well within what the Yankees called "the fever and ague line." It was, in fact, the very heart of the swamplands in which resided the dread malaria-carrying mosquito which left its mark upon the Irish who dwelled there. It was the canal story all over again -- the only question that remained was which would get to the Irishman's body first, malaria or diarrhea. Living on that patch of land in the 1820's took a heap of surviving.

Those early Cleveland Irish and their brothers working on the Ohio Canal in various parts of the state were also plagued by the two-legged variety of creature, the one called man. They were often swindled by hucksters and even more often were victims of a more direct form of thievery. An editorial in the Cleveland Leader, dated June 6, 1826, railed against the unfair treatment afforded the Irish canal diggers, noting that many subcontractors were systematically cheating them out of their pay, meager as it was.

It was the old "company store game," in which the worker, no matter how long or hard he might labor, finds himself in the position of owing the company money at the end of each month. The canal Irish had little choice but to make their mark on the contractor's ledger and try to square things the following month, since jail terms for debtors were still the law of the land. It was a feat rarely accomplished, even when abstinence was tried. Nevertheless, things were bound to get better and they did, if one can overlook an epidemic of typhoid fever which originated in the canal area.