Anyone who has taken a high school history class remembers learning about Ellis Island, the Great American Melting Pot motif, and the wave of immigration to the United States that characterize the mid 19th to early 20th centuries. Today, Americans celebrate their heritage and the ancestors that came to start a new life in the states, but appreciating different nationalities and ethnicities was not always so common.
Many nationalities were stereotyped and discriminated against both socially and institutionally; one group in particular was Irish immigrants. Propaganda — the systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party in order to encourage or instill a particular attitude or response — helped fuel distrust and distaste for Irish immigrants and their culture. One of the most common ways anti-Irish propaganda was spread was through political cartoons in newspapers and pamphlets. This use of propaganda to create and reinforce negative stereotypes, opinions and responses to a particular group is known as demonization.
Several factors played a role in the large-scale emigration of thousands from Ireland to the United States. The potato famine in the mid-1800s drove many Irish away from their homeland in addition to the oppression they faced at the hands of the British. The Industrial Revolution at the turn of the century and the promise of a better life subsequently pulled thousands to the United States in a second wave of immigration. Aspects of their culture such as their Catholic religion, did not sit well with the native-born Americans and they turned to negative propaganda to lessen the impact of these people on their way of life.
One way native-born Americans in the positions of power demonized the Irish, and a necessity for demonization in general, was to make them seem as “other” as possible. Though their skin color and overall appearance was very similar to that of native-born Americans, illustrations and supposed scientific facts were propagated to point out differences between the two groups of people. In fact, one notable illustration, seen in Figure 1 that ran in Harper’s Weekly magazine depicts Irish as more similar to “Negroes” than to “Anglo Teutonic” (whites of other European descent). Associating Irish with blacks and all of the associated stereotypes was actually very common and British and Americans often called the Irish “white negroes.” The connection with blacks was an effective method of dehumanization and subsequent demonization because of the historical attitudes and discrimination of blacks as a race.
The other-ness of the Irish Catholic religion was another factor that fueled the demonization of the group. Irish and Catholic were almost synonymous and the religion was an important part of Irish culture. Anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States arose from fear of the traditions, prayers, deities and objects associated with the religion. Their families were considered too large and clannish. They were assumed to be unintelligent, illiterate, and destined to be a servant race to the native-born Americans. Many did take jobs as servants, which perpetuated this assumption. Boston was a popular location for settlement upon arrival in the states in the 1840s and at one point about 70 percent of servants in Boston were Irish immigrants.
At first, the fear and prejudice toward Irish immigrants was an example of psychological processes; the group did not conform to native-born American customs and traditions- social, religious, and cultural. People noticed and distanced themselves. However, the demonization became political in the late 1840s and early 1850s when the Know Nothing Party took root. The party, which originated in 1849, was founded on a sense of opposition to immigration and Catholicism. It sought to prevent immigrants and Catholics from being elected to political offices, deny these people jobs in the private sector, and advocate for business owners to employ “true Americans.” One of the most infamous actions of the Know Nothing Party was the incitement of riots that killed over 20 immigrants on August 6, 1855 — a day that has been dubbed “Bloody Monday.” Sparked by the Louisville Journal’s editor, George Prentice, who was also an editorial voice of the Party, mobs of Americans flooded the German and Irish sections of the city armed with pitchforks and rifles. Following the suggestions of Prentice, they torched the homes and buildings and murdered at least 22 immigrants.
The Know Nothing Party was short lived and dissolved by 1860, but their ideologies persisted for years to come. The 1860s were marked by continued discrimination, especially in hiring and jobs. Signs reading “No Irish Need Apply” decorated entrances of shops and businesses. This forced the Irish immigrants to remain in servant-level jobs, which kept them impoverished and reinforced the assumption that they were too unintelligent to move up in the social order.
Irish people were often compared to blacks at the time, which included being caricatured in cartoons that were disseminated around the nation. Ape-like features — an outthrust mouth, sloping forehead, and flat, wide nose — characterized depictions of Irish people. A cartoon series called Hogan’s Alley Cartoons seen in Figure 2 portrayed Irish men and boys with simian-like features. They were drawn as uncivilized apes, rioting and causing mayhem as the civilized Americans struggled to maintain order. An 1867 cartoon, also from Harper’s Weekly titled “The Day We Celebrate” depicts ape-like Irish attacking police officers in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. It also features the words “rum” and “blood” at the bottom of the image.
These words are not arbitrary, as the Irish were also characterized as being volatile drunkards in addition to being lazy, illiterate, greedy and angry. One cartoon, seen in Figure 3, portrays an angry, ape-like Irish man, holding a bottle of liquor, sitting on Uncle Sam’s powder keg, presumably threatening the entire country.
This reinforces the stereotype that the Irish are anarchists and a threat to American society. Another cartoon conveys the perceived unintelligence, poverty and servant hood-destined Irish: a man with the aforementioned ape characteristics sits outside a rickety house. The cartoon is captioned “A King of Shanty,” which refers to both the shanty or shack he lives in and also the Ashantee tribe in Africa — implying a relation to the negatively perceived black people and the derogatory stereotypes placed on them.
The anti-Catholic sentiment was depicted in various cartoons as well. One in particular, titled “The American River Ganges,”
in Figure 4 shows Protestants on the shore of the United States protecting their families from hoards of crocodile-like sea monsters, which upon closer inspection, turn out to be Catholic priests positioned on all fours to look like vicious enemies threatening the innocent people on the shore. This instills fear of the foreign people and religion and inspires native-born Americans to resist and fight the “invasion.”
Another example of a cartoon that conveys exclusion of Irish immigrants can be seen in Figure 5 and is called “The Mortar of Assimilation — and the One Element that Won’t Mix.”
It shows an American woman, wrapped in the stars and stripes, stirring a “great American melting pot” labeled “Citizenship” full of men representing different nationalities. But there is one exception; a leprechaun-like Irish man refuses to be mixed in and holds a knife and flag, signifying rebellion. This conveys the fear that the Irish will not assimilate into American society and the so-called undesirable features of their culture will continue to cause social and moral ills in the United States. This is reminiscent of Know Nothing Party propaganda, which focuses on both Irish and German as belligerent alcoholics who refuse to comply with the status quo in the United States, thereby posing a threat to law and order. One in particularseen in Figure 6,  shows two men — one with a barrel labeled “Irish Whiskey” for a torso and the other, a barrel labeled “Lager Bier” — running away with a ballot box, symbolizing the threat of Irish and German immigrants to American democracy.
In regards to the “No Irish Need Apply” trend, many signs conveyed this message. The Irish people affected by this responded with their own propaganda in the form of songs. One in particular that became well known was called “No Irish Need Apply” and was an expression of the frustrations that resulted from being subject to such discrimination.
Differentiation and dehumanization made demonization of Irish immigrants possible in the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States. Fear of foreign customs and disdain for their culture were used to justify institutions that prohibited immigrants from Ireland from any upward mobility. The messages used to demonize the Irish were propagated through cartoons in newspapers, which were the main media source at the time. It is important to learn about and learn from this and other examples of demonization. In hindsight, we realize that stereotyping this entire group of people is unfair, and frankly, racist; yet, if we are not careful, we could be quick to do it still today.
- Being associated with or thought of as similar to blacks made large scale demonization of the Irish easier because of the connotations and stereotypes around blacks at the time. Is demonization easier to do to groups that are less similar (in physical appearance, culture, etc.) today? Are there any examples?
- In today’s political rhetoric, immigration, particularly from Mexico and other Latin American countries, tends to be a highly contested issue. What parallels can be drawn between the demonization of Irish immigrants in the 19th century and Hispanic immigrants today?
- Which propaganda do you think is more effective: cartoons of the 19th and 20th century or television ads today?
- Can you think of any modern-day equivalents of the No Irish Need Apply trend?
For More Information See
- This YouTube video details discrimination against Irish immigrants to the United States and how the demonization prohibited them from working their way up in status.
- When the Irish Came Into the American Club is a New York Times article that explains how Irish immigrants were treated and abused upon arrival to the United States but were eventually welcomed almost a century later.
- Irish In America is a 1998 PBS documentary. It is about an hour long and tells the story of Irish immigration and the life of immigrants at the turn of the century.
- The Irish In America is a movie that shows how Irish immigrants helped shape the country in the American Revolution, The Civil War and many other important moments. (it is split into four thirty-minute parts on YouTube)
 See Figure 1. The image from an 1899 issue of Harper’s Weekly depicts an “Iberian Irish,” an “Anglo Teutonic,” and a “Negro,” and shows the Irish features more closely resembling those of the black man than those of the non-Irish white man. This was helpful in demonization because of the prejudices and stereotypes that existed against blacks at the time. The similarity between the two helped justify discrimination. Taken from Coates, T. (2010, June 2). Especially the Blacks and the Irish. The Atlantic. Retrieved September 22, 2016, from http://www.theatlantic.com/personal/archive/2010/06/especially-the-blacks-and-the-irish/57556/
 The term “white negroes” was found in Daniels, J. (2010, March 17). Irish-Americans, Racism, and the Pursuit of Whiteness. Retrieved September 26, 2016, from http://www.racismreview.com/blog/2010/03/17/irish-americans-racism-and-the-pursuit-of-whiteness/. This site publishes the work of scholars and graduate students and focuses on issues of race and racism.
 The statistic about the percentage of Irish-born servants in Boston was found at The Irish in America: 1840s-1930s. (2009, September 01). Retrieved September 26, 2016, from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug03/omara-alwala/IrishKennedys.html
 Information about the Know Nothing Party was found at Anbinder, Tyler Gregory. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850’s. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.
 Information about Bloody Monday was found at Biggers, J. (2010, August 02). Bloody Monday: Glenn Beck, FOX News, Gov. Jan Brewer and the Louisville Massacre Anniversary. Retrieved September 26, 2016, from http://www.commondreams.org/views/2010/08/02/bloody-monday-glenn-beck-fox-news-gov-jan-brewer-and-louisville-massacre
 See Figure 2. The Hoagan’s Alley cartoons depict a stereotypical Irish neighborhood full of chaos and disorder. From The Irish in America: 1840s-1930s. (2009, September 01). Retrieved September 26, 2016, from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug03/omara-alwala/IrishKennedys.html
 See Figure 3. An Irish man is depicted with ape-like features and an affinity for violence and disorder. Found at Irish Catholics as Danger. (n.d.). Retrieved September 26, 2016, from http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/omalley/120/alien/two.html
 See Figure 4. Frederick Opper, the cartoonist uses a play on the words “shanty” and “Ashantee” to relate Irish poverty to black resemblance. The cartoon ran in 1882. Found at Lace Curtain and Shanty Irish. (2016, August 18). Retrieved September 22, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lace_curtain_and_shanty_Irish
 See Figure 5. This cartoon by Thomas Nast from the May 8, 1875 issue of Harper’s Weekly illustrates Irish Catholics as dangerous crocodiles that Protestants must guard against. Found at Kennedy, R. (n.d.). The American River Ganges. Retrieved September 26, 2016, from http://www.harpweek.com/09cartoon/BrowseByDateCartoon.asp?Month=May&Date=8
 See Figure 6. The cartoon, from June 26, 1889 shows the Irish refusal to assimilate. Found at Immigration and Citizenship in the United States, 1865-1924. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2016, from http://dcc.newberry.org/collections/immigration-and-citizenship#immigration-debates-in-cartoons
 See Figure 7. The Know Nothing party stereotyped Irish and Germans as alcoholics. Found at Friedline, R. (2015, August 25). Know Nothing Party. Retrieved September 26, 2016, from http://www.worldhistory.biz/modern-history/81284-know-nothing-party.html