Irish Americans of Cleveland

History of the Cleveland Irish

Irishtown: 1870's and 1880's

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

... most of the men and women who resided in the Irish ghetto were primarily concerned with bettering themselves materially, and thus were pursuing jobs with a little more concreteness to them. It must be remembered that the Irish in Cleveland really didn't begin to make their collective climb until the 1870's and 1880's, when they began to move out of the mills and warehouses for better positions.

This period saw them become streetcar operators, independent haulers and, of course, members of the city's safety forces in disproportionate numbers. The quickest-witted and more ambitious members of the Irish community sought white-collar work as soon as they mastered their numbers and learned to read and write. It is interesting to note that Irish women here were among the first of their sex to land jobs as clerks. During the 1890's they actually outnumbered their male counterparts.

The Irish women were to play another role in the community of business and finance that was noteworthy. After a torturously slow acceptance as worthy workers during the 1860's, they became much sought after as house servants In the mansions of the wealthy. In the 1870's, Euclid Avenue ranked with the most beautiful streets in the world and the label "Millionaires' Row" was one justly deserved. Along what is now between East 9th Street and East 40th Street, the rich built their massive homes, and in almost every one of those show places, Irish girls and women were serving, as they put it, "the Swells."

Irish women were favored because they were quick to learn the ways of their "betters" and were passably to scrupulously clean. They were also generally loyal to the family they served and no threat to the lady of the house. They had learned their catechisms well and were tigresses when it came to upholding their chastity. Liaisons with the men of the household were the extreme exception and not the rule. These women became maids, upstairs as well as down, seamstresses and, in some cases, managers of the household. They were to make a positive impact on those for whom they worked and, by doing so, contributed mightily to the enhancement of their own community.

What of that community in the 1870's and 1880's? It was still a grim one. The Cuyahoga, which flowed through the heart of Irishtown, became so polluted from the discharge of 25 sewers and the waste products of adjoining factories and oil refineries that the city health authorities formally protested its despoilment. The mayor, R.R. Herrick, called it "an open sewer through the center of the city." Precious little was done, however, in the way of cleaning it up, and the Irish had to become accustomed to the smell,

Irishtown at this time was a maze of cobblestone streets, huge piles of red ore and golden grain, and over it all wafted the smell of tarred hawsers and oakum. Factories and mills of every size and description hugged both banks of the Cuyahoga, and shanties had been erected up the hill all the way to St. Malachi's Church, which served as a beacon of guidance to both ships and men.