Irish Americans of Cleveland

History of the Cleveland Irish

Shantytown Life in the The Late 1800's

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

However successful the more daring and ambitious Irish were, the average man of the same community during the middle and latter half of the 19th Century still looked eagerly to the docks for his livelihood. It must be kept in mind that until the industrial explosion occurred in the 1870's, Cleveland's great wealth lay in its bustling port. Not only did it serve as a voluminous exchange center of commodities, but also as the Great Lakes' largest builder of ships. For decades the harbor area was a veritable forest of masts.

The Irish who peopled Cleveland's West Side lived anything but comfortable lives, and that includes those who regularly brought home a paycheck. Newspaper accounts of the day make much of the squalor that was Shantytown, but little of the fact that well into the 20th Century the Cuyahoga was an open sewer of industrial and human wastes. Disease was rampant and it was only a question of which disease would strike the Irish at any given time. Almost all the plagues emanated from the Flats area, the heart of Irishtown. The principal causes of death there were cholera, diphtheria, scarlet fever and diarrhea infantum.

The Irish dock worker received on the average $8 for his "26 dry days" of labor each month, hardly a considerable sum even in those days and certainly not enough to afford him the more readily available creature comforts, much less anything that could be considered a luxury. His shanties were, indeed, improving and were generally larger in size, thanks mainly to his skill as a liberator of lumber. Of course, that isn't saying too much, when one considers that almost any edifice erected, say, in the 1850's, simply had to be larger than a tarpaper shack or clapboard lean-to.

Many of the Irish, who had no place to build their shanties other than on the sides of the hills that sloped down to the Cuyahoga, displayed a certain amount of ingenuity by building homes on stilts. That way, one need merely plumb his floor and anchor his house against the hill, all the while increasing the length of his supports. Such open air basements provided children a great place to play hide-and-seek and wayward men a place to sleep off their night's indulgence of spiritous waters. The mainstays of the back or side yard, as the case might have been, were the outhouse and the woodshed, with the latter also serving as a place of punishment for recalcitrant or otherwise obnoxious children.

In a time when the Irish continued to stream into the city, adding to its seemingly perpetual housing shortage, the modest dwellings of Irish families were continually bulging at the seams. A typical family unit would include the father, mother and normal large brood of children, plus any surviving grandparents and down-and-out relatives many times removed. Sometimes, friends of distant relatives would be given places to rest their weary bodies. It didn't really matter, the Irish had to take care of their own and they did, in the complete belief that there was always room for one more. Privacy, if it existed at all, was a state of mind and not a condition of reality.

There is a centuries-old adage having to do with the poor always being more generous than the rich, that the less people had, the more willing they were to share their meager goods. While this bit of philosophical thought has encompassed all nations from the earliest days of civilization, the Irish made it a truism. Sacrifice was the key to life on the banks of the Cuyahoga and that included one's time and consoling words, as much as it did one's loaf of bread. If any one expression came to the fore in Irishtown, it was the simple phrase "our own kind." That said it all…