History of the Irish

As a more intellectual alternative to the party-hearty St. Patrick’s Day activities, I joined Francis Morrone, tour guide extraordinaire with the Municipal Arts Society, for a tour of the history of the Irish in New York City.

While the Irish were a presence in New York from its beginnings, the famine caused by potato blight from 1845-1851 is when the Irish became even more significant.  By 1855, one out of every three New Yorkers had been born in Ireland.  A million people died in the famine and with 1/3 of its population emigrating, Ireland’s population dropped in half during these years.  As Francis said, “mind bogglling.”

The proprietor of Stewart’s Dry Goods store, a wildly popular precursor to the department store, paid to bring many immigrants over–a charitable act.  He also gave jobs to the new arrivals.

While the more famous and more opulent St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue would havSt Pats sidee been central to this weekend’s parade, we visited the first St. Patrick’s.  From the side, it’s an ordinary looking cathedral, with Gothic pointed windows.

St. Pat's odd exterior




But from the front, the cathedral is an oddity.  Opening in 1815, the church predated Gothic Revival, and Francis surmises that the architect didn’t quite have the style down.


St Pat's old brick wall, cemetery


Francis really admires this old brick wall that surrounds the church and its cemetery.  The wall was actually defensive, protecting from Protestant vandalism.  Resentment of Irish immigrants partly stemmed from economic concerns.  Immigrants, desperate for work, were willing to undercut labor wages–not a way to build popularity.

Industrial School

Poverty was new to New York, and institutions emerged to help those who suffered.  Among the reformers was the Children’s Aide Society, formed in 1853, which then started Industrial Schools.  These schools were free for indigent children, offering not only education, but also free meals and health care.  Here’s the Dutch-inspired Industrial School right across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

To show some of the prejudice, consider that poverty was blamed on Catholicism in Protestant New York.


With such predominance in the population, the Irish became central to New York’s Catholic Church community, as well as its police, fire department, and schools.  Using organizational and political skills, Irish rose in the ranks of government, to lead the Democratic Party and becomes bosses in its meeting place, Tammany Hall.

Since there was no welfare, by 1863, Tammany Hall became a place where the poor could get coal, clothing, food, and a job, in exchange for political support.  William M. Tweed, a powerful boss of Scottish descent (not Irish), recognized the potential for mobilizing the Irish vote.  Even though the welfare system was efficient, Tweed and his cronies were crooked and eventually brought down.  The Irish, initially in those entry level jobs, rose to power.   Boss Tweed died in jail, but for the next 70 years, Irish-run Tammany Hall would continue to control New York politics with even more powerful bosses.

Police DeptFunds from Tammany were partly how this incredible building for the Police Department was built.  It’s now a coop (sigh, New York real estate), and Cyndi Lauper apparently lives here.  Note that the five female figures on the front of the building represent the five boroughs, with Manhattan front and center, largest of them all.  You can click on the picture for a larger view.

Police Dept, Manhattan






We stood on the actual intersection of Five Points, where three streets come together.  Five Points is, more importantly, the name for a notorious neighborhood of 19th century gangs, crime, filth, and disease.  That police station, run and manned by the Irish, arrested the many Irish criminals in “paddy wagons.”

The reason for the problem neighborhood is a quintessential New York story.  The 50 acre drinking water reservoir called the Collect Pond, was not only used for fresh water and recreation (as well as experimentation with steam-powered boats), but also as a dumping ground for industrial waste.  By the 19th century, the reservoir was so polluted that the city decided to drain it and the nearby marshy meadows with a canal pumping into the Hudson River (along today’s Canal Street).

Then, the city filled in the former reservoir with rocks and dirt from the nearby  leveled hills, but didn’t do too good of a job.  Hungry developers built many Federal style, middle class houses on this new neighborhood land.  The houses began sinking fairly quickly.  The stench from the old tanneries seeped up from the ground.  Panicky, homeowners abandoned the properties, leaving only the poorest, who had no choice if they wanted a roof, to live there.  You can imagine how nice that was.

But sometimes, good comes out of adversity.  Only the Irish and the freed black population would be so poor and so desperate to live in Five Points.   But it wasn’t all horrible.  Francis researched that many were able to save enough to move to better circumstances.

Dance competitions were very popular in the neighborhood, and arguments erupted over who was better, the Irish dancer Jack Diamond or the African American “Master Juba” Lane.  They had a dance-off, where the latter apparently won.  But the two became great friends, performing together in minstrel shows in the 1840s and 1850s.  Where Irish step dance met Lane’s stylings emerged as tap dance, a Five Points invention.

St. Andrews


Here is St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, where 2:30 a.m. mass was held for all the reporters who worked at the many newspapers located around City Hall.  The city that never sleeps…





And the city that always has something amusing for the eyes…here on Mulberry Street.

Mulberry Street