Stigmatization and discrimination against immigrants has long been an unfortunate practice in America, and it has become a subject deserving of further study. The Irish have traditionally been an ethnic group of immigrants stigmatized in America, dating back to their emigration in the 19th century. In fact, John Francis Maguire’s piece on the Irish immigrants who came to America in the latter half of the 19th century illustrates the types of cultural biases that Irishmen and Irishwomen experienced upon arriving in New York City. From Maguire’s descriptions of the plight of the Irish, it is obvious they faced many trials upon emigrating to American, the chief of which were enduring poverty and overcrowded living conditions, finding employment, and persevering against racial discrimination.
Maguire writes that poverty and overcrowding were two of the major issues facing Irish immigrants to America in the 19th century. Maguire writes, “Either they brought little money with them, and were therefore unable to go on; or that little was plundered from them by those whose trade it was to prey upon the inexperience or credulity of the newcomer (1). Clearly, the Irish brought little in terms of monetary wealth with them over from Ireland, and what little they had was likely spent on funding the voyage itself. Therefore, when the Irish arrived in New York City, they were severely disadvantaged and poor. Additionally, the Irish faced severe overcrowding in the tenement houses in which they lived, often being forced to squeeze entire families into one or two small rooms. Maguire points to statistics indicating that in 1867, 16,000 tenement houses housed half-a-million people, many of whom were from Irish descent (2). This unbelievable statistic points to just how cramped the conditions must have been for the Irish families trying to survive in New York City in the 19th century.

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Also, a huge problem facing Irish immigrants was overcoming prejudicial beliefs and finding employers willing to hire them. In the days long before Civil Rights laws and anti-discriminatory legislation, employers were free to turn away certain races and or ethnicities based on personal prejudice. Also evident in Maguire’s piece is the idea that the Irish were unfairly stigmatized as criminals, thieves, and drunkards, stigmas that made it more difficult for the Irish to find adequate work. Maguire notes that the stigma of the Irish as heavy drinkers was largely fiction, since other races/ethnicities drank as much as the Irish or perhaps even more. For example, Maguire writes, “The Americans drink, the Germans drink, the Scotch drink, the English drink—all drink with more or less injury to their health or circumstances” (4). As Maguire illustrates, though people from all nations partake in alcohol, the Irish have been the group most unfairly stigmatized as drunkards. This legacy has persisted through to contemporary times, as the Irish, even today, are viewed as heavy drinkers. However, over the years, this stigma has turned into a kind of accepted practice, as it has become American custom to want to “drink like the Irish” during celebrations.

In his writing, Maguire notes that prejudice was largely to blame for Irish woes, and that this ethnic group of people has been largely stigmatized throughout its storied history. This stigmatization certainly parallels the experience of certain racial and ethnic groups today, i.e., the Syrian refugees who are currently fleeing war in their home country. Like the Irish, the Syrian immigrants have been discriminated against because of racial stereotypes, such as the idea that Syrians are violent criminals and terrorists. These types of unfair stereotypes mirror the racial biases faced by the Irish as they emigrated to America in the 19th century.

  • Maguire, John Francis. The Irish in America, 4th ed., D. & J. Sadlier & Company, 1867.