Critical Sources

Stacey Lee Donohue on

early Irish-American literature

Donohoe, Stacey Lee. "Irish." American History Through Literature, 1870-1920. Eds. Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst. Scribner's, 2006

Reprinted in enotes:, 5 July 2010

American History Through Literature | Irish

Since 1169 Ireland has been occupied by an English army: the history of the Irish, like the history of many oppressed, colonized people, has had great influence on the character of the Irish in Ireland and abroad. Penal laws were instituted by the British beginning in 1695 to force the Irish to adopt both the Protestant faith and the capitalist ethic of the industrializing English nation. The adopting of such external values offered the Irish a way out of poverty to economic security, but leaving the Catholic Church required a rejection of one's self, family, community, and history. The Penal Code restricted all but the converted Irish from any mobility (including education and landownership), took away their language, and attempted to take their religion.


Protestant Irish had been immigrating to North America since the 1700s, and in 1815 and 1816 twenty thousand mostly Protestant Irishmen from Ulster arrived in the United States. [See Scots-Irish Immigration] But it was not until the mid-1820s that poorer Catholic Irish, self-identified as laborers, began to immigrate in significant numbers. By the late 1830s the majority of immigrants from Ireland were Catholic, rural, and poor. Large-scale Irish immigration to the United States began after the period from 1845 to 1849 known as the Irish potato famine, also called the Great Hunger, when a series of potato crop failures, the sole crop for most Irish farmers, led to extreme poverty and starvation, leading to over a million deaths in Ireland and as many emigrants leaving Ireland. Between 1845 and 1870, 2.5 million Irish immigrated to the United States.

Emigration for the famine generation Irish was not seen as a way to strike it rich in the New World but rather as a forced, involuntary exile. Before a family member was about to leave, an "American wake" was held, a ceremony bemoaning the necessity to emigrate. Of course, there were those Irish who chose willingly to go, particularly women—who were doubly oppressed—and anglicized Irish. But on the whole, continuing religious persecution from the British combined with extreme poverty were the motivating factors to undertake the arduous and often dangerous crossing of the Atlantic: in 1847 (known as "Black '47") 20 percent of Irish passengers on the sea died either during or shortly after the voyage, a total of over forty-two thousand people.

Famine-generation Irish immigrants often did not have the support network available to those arriving afterward and were vulnerable to experiences of homesickness, unemployment, and cultural dislocation. Although some went out west and a few became millionaires during the California gold rush of 1848 and 1849, most often these predominantly rural Irish immigrants (who refused to return to farming, defeated by the potato blight) settled in the burgeoning metropolitan areas, adapting to urban life just as urban life was beginning to burst. Slums and ghettos developed, and a shantytown in the upper west side of New York City's Central Park was established by those who were either evicted from the slums or who refused to live in them.

The immigrants quickly discovered that their treatment in America was no different than it had been in Ireland by the British. Anti-Catholicism had been a feature of American society since colonial times, and it became increasingly virulent as more Irish and German Catholics entered the United States from the 1820s onward. The Catholic Church was seen as bowing to a foreign power, with priests and nuns portrayed in the popular press as immoral and unsavory. Antagonism between Catholics and Protestants also followed the immigrants from Ireland: in 1837 a mob of Protestant workmen in Boston burned a Catholic convent; in the 1840s it was not uncommon for riots to evolve out of the fighting between Protestants and Irish Catholics, and several Catholic churches were burned in Philadelphia. In the 1850s the antiforeign and anti-Catholic American Party, commonly called the Know-Nothing Party, advocated national unity, the exclusion of foreign-born people from voting or holding public office, and anti-Catholic legislation.

Conflicts between Irish Americans and African Americans began in the 1830s and 1840s when Irish immigrants were recruited to work on the canals of upstate New York, thus displacing other unskilled workers, including free blacks: "To many Irish, abolitionism was a nativist and anti-Catholic movement that represented a profound threat to their livelihoods: the freeing of four million enslaved Americans would compete with them" for jobs, suggests Maureen Dezell (p. 147). Despite such feelings, Irish immigrants enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War in high numbers, often for the pay. Yet when the federal government passed a draft law in 1863 allowing rich draftees to pay their way out of the war, many poor Irish immigrants responded angrily. The Civil War draft riots, says Dezell, were "the largest and bloodiest insurrection that has ever taken place in the United States. Blacks had been used as strikebreakers in New York and were exempt from the draft, and Irish laborers turned on African Americans" (p. 147). The burning and looting of buildings, including the draft board building and the Negro Orphan Asylum, went on for four days, ultimately confirming the negative stereotypes of Irish immigrants.


Despite the conflicts that the famine generation of immigrants faced, Irish arriving in the United States were relatively successful in assimilating due to three pillars: the family, politics, and the church. All three institutions helped to protect Irish immigrants from anti-Irish Catholic prejudice yet at the same time encouraged assimilation.

Unlike Protestant Irish immigrants, who often discouraged family members from following them to the United States, Irish Catholic immigrants, perhaps because of the starvation faced by family members during the potato famine era, often sacrificed themselves to save enough money to bring family members to the United States. Although such attention to family ties may have impeded economic success in the United States, close family relationships provided psychological support for immigrants on their own in a new country.

Yet economic effects in the United States also had a transforming impact on Irish American family structure, particularly in terms of gender roles. In Ireland, family duties, social events, and even church attendance were all sex- and age-segregated. Although a wife might occasionally work in the fields during harvest time, the spheres of influences for both sexes were clearly delineated: women controlled the house, men the farm. Men were in control of economic and marriage decisions. As Irish families established themselves in the United States, however, new family structures emerged that gave rise to the stereotype of the controlling, bossy Irish matriarch. The immigrant husband would work long hours, often far away from home, giving the wife total control over family life, including money management and the raising of the children. Also, in times of high unemployment, Irish women, married or not, were often more employable than men. Although most married women did not work outside the home, some had to, and virtually all Irish women worked before marriage. The effects of this change in gender roles were not entirely negative: children of such mothers were usually pushed to succeed economically, helping the Irish to assimilate in terms of social and economic class within a single generation.


"No Irish Need Apply" was a popular song among Irish Americans in the 1860s. This version was written by John Poole.

I am a dacint Irishman, just come from Ballyfad;                  [dacint = decent]

Oh I want a situation and I want it mighty bad.

A position I saw advertised. 'Tis the thing for me, says I;

But the dirty spalpeen ended with: No Irish need apply.      [spalpeen = workman, laborer]

Whoa! Says I; but that's an insult—but to get this place I'll try.

So, I went to see the blaguard with: No Irish need apply.          [blaguard = blackguard = scoundrel]

Well some may think it a misfortune; To be christened Pat or Dan

But to me it is an honor; To be born an Irishman.

Well I started out to find this chap, I found him mighty soon;

He was seated in the corner, he was reading the TRIBUNE.

When I told him what I came for, he in a rage did fly.

And he says, you are a Paddy, and no Irish need apply!

Then I felt me dander rising, that I'd like to black his eye

To tell a dacint gentleman: No Irish need apply!

Well, I couldn't stand his nonsense so ahold of him I took

And I gave him such a batin' as he'd get in Donnybrook         [batin' = beating]

And he hollered "mile murder" and to get away did try

And he swore he'd never write again: No Irish need apply.

He made a big apology; I bid him then goodbye

Sayin' when next you want a batin' write: No Irish need apply.

Well, I've heard that in America it always is the plan

That an Irishman is just as good as any other man;

A home and hospitality they never will deny

To strangers here, or ever write: No Irish need apply.

Ah but some black sheep are in the flock: a dirty lot says I;

A dacint man will never write: No Irish need apply!

Now old Ireland on the battle field a lasting fame has made;

You all have heard of Meagher's men and Corcoran's brigade

Though fools may flout and bigots rave, fanatics they may cry,

But when they want good fightin' men the Irish may apply.

And when for freedom and for right they raise the battle cry

Those rebel ranks will surely think: No Irish need apply!

Moloney, Far from the Shamrock Shore, p. 16.

Experience in politics learned in Ireland also worked in the favor of the Irish immigrants: between 1820 and 1880, the Irish worked together to create political allegiances that reached an apex in the influence they wielded within the Democratic Party organization of Tammany Hall in 1880s New York City. Irish immigrants used existing structures such as local parishes and saloons in order to organize, quickly electing fellow Irishmen as leaders within the Democratic Party and achieving power within the political systems of most urban areas. Voter loyalty was maintained through patronage: in cities such as New York, Chicago and Boston, the Irish quickly held leadership posts in police and fire departments and in sanitation and public works jobs. Most Irish Americans were upwardly mobile economically by the late nineteenth century.

The Catholic Church in the United States was also essential in the Americanization of the Irish immigrants. With the sheer numbers of Irish immigrants, Irish clergy easily gained control of the church in the United States. Before the 1830s, the leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States was mostly French or French-trained, but by 1860 the church had become an immigrant church. Although most pre-famine Catholic immigrants were non-churchgoing, the leadership of the Irish-born bishop John Hughes (1797–1864) in gathering Irish immigrants into the church family was effective. By 1870 the parish church became the center of the immigrant community: priests were directly involved in Irish American family life, and Irish families returned the favor by contributing money to build churches and parochial schools and to support more priests from Ireland.


The Irish American literary tradition began with the first wave of Protestant Irish immigrants in the eighteenth century and has continued into the twenty-first century, making it "the most extended continuous corpus of literature by members of a single American ethnic group available to us," writes Charles Fanning in the introduction to his anthology The Exiles of Erin (1). Unlike the famine generation writers who followed, the first Irish immigrants to the United States were generally received with indifference more than hostility, and because there were so few of them, they were able to assimilate more quickly. Granted, the British had exported an anti-Irishness that was seen in American newspapers and magazines even before the arrival of mostly Irish Catholic immigrants in the form of Irish stereotypes: the alcoholic, baboon-like figure who cries in his beer while singing a ditty, for example. But early Irish-born writers in America, usually educated and middle class themselves, used satire and parody to combat these stereotypes.

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was unusual in the thoughtfulness of his references to the Irish immigrants in Walden (1854) and in his journal: he criticizes the Irish at first for their poor living conditions, yet at the same time he praises those Irish immigrants in Concord, Massachusetts, whom he considered hard working and frugal. One might notice a small irony in the fact that Thoreau built his cabin at Walden Pond from the wood of an Irishman's shanty. In his journal for 1851, Thoreau writes about several Irish immigrants as individuals who impress him, including a young Johnny Riordan who walks to school during the Massachusetts winter without shoes or coat. As Herbert Joseph Smith notes in his impressive study of the Irish in American fiction: "Thoreau's observations constitute the fullest record of a major American writer's personal reflections on his encounters with the Irish during this period" (p. 179). Most non-Irish writers of the time either referred to the Irish immigrants stereotypically or not at all.

In Exiles of Erin, Fanning notes that works by Irish immigrant writers before the 1840s illustrate a return to the eighteenth-century use of self-satire as a response to immigration and to the Irish immigrant position in the United States. For example, The Life and Travels of Father Quipes, Otherwise Dominick O'Blarney (1820) and The Life of Paddy O'Flarrity (1834), each ostensibly an autobiographical narrative "written by Himself," are anonymously produced satires of the Irish immigrant dream of success in the United States. Six Months in the House of Correction; or, The Narrative of Dorah Mahoney (1835), by another anonymous Irish writer, mocks the anti-Catholic fiction of the period. John McDermott Moore's The Adventures of Tom Stapleton (1842) mocks Irish American and American "social, political, and literary life, while parodying a range of New York dialects and the conventions of popular, sentimental fiction" (Fanning, Exiles, p. 23). One of the earliest Irish American novels is by an Ulster Protestant immigrant, James McHenry: The Wilderness (1823) is the story of Ulster immigrants to western Pennsylvania. Fanning argues that McHenry's novels "are pioneering attempts to define Irishness for an American audience" (Exiles, p. 23).

By the time Irish Catholics arrived in the United States from Ireland, they chose to address their fiction to their own kind, other Irish immigrants, dismissing satire as just too cruel for a people so constantly humiliated. The fiction turned serious and didactic, providing pragmatic advice for the newcomers on how to survive their hostile reception in Protestant America.

The themes of this didactic fiction, often in the form of domestic novels, included the struggle between good and evil in the New World; how to become economically secure without losing your faith; the power of the church; the power of the Irish mother; and nostalgia for Ireland. Some of the titles emphasize these themes, as well as the dualistic world-view inherent in them: examples include The Cross and the Shamrock; or, How to Defend the Faith (1853) by Father Hugh Quigley; and The Lost Rosary; or, Our Irish Girls, Their Trials, Temptations, and Triumphs (1870) by Peter McCorry. Writers such as Mary Anne Sadlier and Father John Roddan reassured Irish immigrants that they too could partake in the American dream of prosperity without giving up their Irish culture and Catholic religion, yet only if they could overcome the many obstacles in their path. The hero of Roddan's novel John O'Brien; or, The Orphan of Boston (1850) nearly loses his faith in the process of working for a series of Protestant employers. Although he ends up in a reformatory, he eventually returns to the Catholic Church and at the end is rewarded with economic prosperity.

Fiction by Irish American writers in the late nineteenth century often focused on this conflict: the desire for middle-class respectability in the face of ongoing poverty versus the fear of losing one's sense of Irish identity. The Irish American press played an important role in immigrant literature by printing an abundance of short fiction written by Irish Americans in this period. Periodicals such as the Boston Pilot, a popular Catholic magazine that had a national circulation as early as the 1840s, sought to counteract stereotypes and promote Irish nationalism in its Irish American readers. Yet, like the fiction of the time, such magazines published stories that rarely showed tenement life or working conditions—despite the fact that many Irish were still in the ghettoes as late as the 1870s. Instead they emphasized success stories about Irish immigrants who became Americanized without losing their ethnic identity. For the most part the Irish American press printed stories that, although unrealistic, provided early positive images of Irish Americans who worked hard but stayed Catholic in the process of assimilation.


One of the most popular women writers of this period was Mary Anne (Madden) Sadlier (1820–1903), who in 1846 had married James Sadlier of the publishing firm of D. and J. Sadlier and Company, a prominent member of the Roman Catholic press based in Montreal and New York. She wrote dozens of novels, all best-sellers within the Irish immigrant community. Her literary fame in America began when her first immigrant novel, Willy Burke; or, The Irish Orphan in America, was published in the Pilot in 1850 and then later that same year published as a book. In her preface to Willy Burke she identifies the didactic goal of her immigrant fiction: it was "written for the express purpose of being useful to the young sons of my native land, in their arduous struggle with the tempter" (p. 3). The novel sold seven thousand copies within a few weeks of publication. At the end of the optimistic novel, the hero Willy not only achieves economic success, but he successfully gets two Protestant characters to convert to Catholicism.

Sadlier shrewdly marketed her books with an eye to reaching an audience of Catholic working-class immigrants. The scholar Michele Lacombe notes that Sadlier bears comparison with her contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), in that she "claimed to be working not for fame but for God and country—in this case the Catholic faith and the Irish nation in America"—but she was rewarded with fame nonetheless (p. 101).

The Blakes and the Flanagans: A Tale, Illustrative of Irish Life in the United States (first published serially in 1850), Sadlier's most popular novel, depicts one of the central issues in Irish American politics in 1850: the "schools question." Catholics objected to the Protestant-controlled public school system and set out to create a separate system of Catholic schools. The idealized, "good" Catholic Flanagans in Sadlier's novel find success in America as a result of their piety: their children are not corrupted by the public school system. The Blakes, however, are depicted as fallen Catholics, worse than Protestants, and are justly punished for their betrayal of Catholicism. In Sadlier's works, loyalty to the Catholic Church supersedes all. Irish Catholic tradition (as well as the ideal of the Victorian American woman) expected women to be both submissive to their husbands and also moral and religious guardians. It is not surprising then that Sadlier's women characters like Mrs. Blake are the first to recognize any encroachment on their religion: it is Mrs. Blake, and not her husband, who first realizes the not-so-hidden agenda of the public schools.

The novel also explicitly notes that the virtue of working did not mean, for good Catholics, that money was the sole object. Mr. Blake is criticized for spending more time earning money than watching over his family. Sadlier particularly feared that social mobility in America threatened what she saw as indivisible safety nets for Irish immigrants: religion, family, and ethnicity. The Blake children learn to reject both Catholicism and all things Irish while in public school—this, in turn, destroys family ties between generations. By maintaining ethnic and religious ties, the Flanagan family stays intact: they earn a comfortable living at a family-run business.

In The Blakes and the Flanagans (1850), Mary Anne Sadlier illustrates the conflict over identity faced by the Irish in America, and she advocates the values of those characters who maintain their sense of Irishness. When Miles Blake warns that "men can't be Irishmen and Americans at the same time; they must be either one or the other," his nephew Ned Flanagan answers:

I myself am a living proof that your position is a false one. I was brought up, as you well know, under Catholic—nay, more, under Irish training; I am Irish in heart—Catholic, I hope, in faith and practice, and yet I am fully prepared to stand by this great Republic, the land of my birth, even to shedding the last drop of my blood, were that necessary. I love America; it is, as it were, the land of my adoption, as well as of my birth, but I cannot, or will not, forget Ireland.

Fanning, The Irish Voice in America, p. 124.

Although Sadlier only implies the real-life social problems of Irish immigrants in her early novels (perhaps to avoid focusing on ethnic stereotypes), by the time she wrote Bessy Conway (1861) she highlights them: alcoholism, poverty, and spousal abuse exist within the Irish community, and not just as punishment for lapsed Catholics and Protestants. Here Sadlier takes the more American stance of blaming the individual rather than the circumstances. The novel depicts the tale of hard-working Bessy, who refuses to convert to Protestantism in order to save her job and who is rewarded at the end with a return to Ireland, bringing pockets full of money but warning her neighbors: "Keep your girls at home!" (p. 296). The rest of the novel's characters do not fare as well as Bessy: one cousin becomes an alcoholic and wife beater; his sister-in-law marries a fool who leaves her alone with a crippled daughter. Another character is eventually killed by her abusive husband, and their son is adopted by Protestants who turn him against Catholicism. Meanwhile, pious Bessy returns in time to save her family from eviction and so impresses the landlord's son that he converts to marry her: the self-sacrificing, religious woman who manages to avoid the negative effects of immigration is rewarded at the end, in this world and the next. With this novel, Sadlier effectively moved from being an Irish-American writer to being an American writer, foreshadowing themes in the works of later Irish writers in America where character becomes more important than ethnic circumstances.

See also Blacks; Catholics; Domestic Fiction; Immigration; Labor; Political Parties; Religion; Satire, Burlesque, and Parody


Primary Works

Fanning, Charles, ed. The Exiles of Erin: Nineteenth-Century Irish-American Fiction. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987. Many of the nineteenth-century works mentioned in this essay are reprinted in part in this anthology.

Roddan, John. John O'Brien; or, The Orphan of Boston. Boston: Donahoe, 1850.

Sadlier, Mary Anne. Alice Riordan: The Blind Man's Daughter. Boston: Donahoe, 1851.

Sadlier, Mary Anne. Bessy Conway; or, The Irish Girl in America. New York: Sadlier, 1861.

Sadlier, Mary Anne. The Blakes and the Flanagans: A Tale Illustrative of Irish Life in the United States. New York: P. J. Kennedy, 1855. First published serially in 1850.

Sadlier, Mary Anne. Con O'Regan; or, Emigrant Life in the New World. New York: Sadlier, 1864.

Sadlier, Mary Anne. Elinor Preston; or, Scenes at Home and Abroad. New York: Sadlier, 1861.

Sadlier, Mary Anne. New Lights; or, Life in Galway. New York: Sadlier, 1853.

Sadlier, Mary Anne. Old and New; or, Taste Versus Fashion. New York: Sadlier, 1862.

Sadlier, Mary Anne. Willy Burke; or, The Irish Orphan in America. Boston: Donahoe, 1850.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Annotated Walden: Walden, or, Life in the Woods. Edited by Philip Van Doren Stern. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1992.

Thoreau, Henry David. Journal. 8 vols. to date. Edited by Elizabeth Hall Witherell et al. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981–.

Secondary Works

Biddle, Ellen Horgan. "The American Catholic Irish Family." In Ethnic Families in America: Patterns and Variations, edited by Charles H. Mindel and Robert W. Habenstein, pp. 89–123. New York: Elsevier, 1976.

Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Dezell, Maureen. Irish America: Coming into Clover. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

Diner, Hasia R. Erin's Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Fanning, Charles. The Irish Voice in America: 250 Years of Irish-American Fiction. 2nd ed. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

Jensen, Richard. " 'No Irish Need Apply': A Myth of Victimization." Journal of Social History 36, no. 2 (2002): 405–429.

Lacombe, Michele. "Frying Pans and Deadlier Weapons: The Immigrant Novels of Mary Anne Sadlier." Essays on Canadian Writing 29 (summer 1984): 96–116.

McDannell, Colleen. The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840–1900. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

McDannell, Colleen. "The Devil Was the First Protestant": Gender and Intolerance in Catholic Fiction." U.S. Catholic Historian 8 (winter/spring 1989): 51–65.

Miller, Kerby A. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Moloney, Mick. Far from the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish-American Immigration through Song. New York: Crown, 2002.

Olson, James S. The Ethnic Dimension in American History. 3rd ed. St. James, N.Y.: Brandywine Press, 1999.

Rose, Anne C. Voices of the Marketplace: American Thought and Culture, 1830–1860. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Smith, Herbert Joseph. "From Stereotype to Acculturation: The Irish-American's Fictional Heritage from Brackenridge to Farrell." Ph.D. diss., Kent State University, 1980.

Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993.

Walsh, Francis. "Lace Curtain Literature: Changing Perspectives of Irish American Success." Journal of American Culture 2, no. 1 (1979): 139–146.

Stacey Lee Donohue

Stacey Lee Donohue is professor of English at Central Oregon Community College.