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  • James Wheeling

Scotch-Irish vs. Shanty Irish or Protestant vs. Catholic

Updated: Dec 7, 2019

My story forced me to understand Irish immigration in 1849, into Boston specifically. Here’s what I learned.

The first wave of Irish immigration from 1717 to 1775 was predominately Protestant and tired of the mistreatment by the Catholic-based, British crown. Next to the English, the Scotch-Irish (an Americanism for those who migrated in considerable numbers to America during the first half of the 18thcentury prior to the American Revolutionary War) were the most numerous of all colonists. They experienced active hostility from the American English – enough to force them to the cheap lands of the back country where they dubbed themselves “Americans,” while the English-born were still defining themselves as “Pennsylvanians” or “Virginians”. They embraced social mixing and intermarriage to their neighbors in order to make any qualifier as to their Scotch-Irish heritage disappear within a generation.

Three generations later, the Irish potato famines of 1845-49 happened and Roman Catholic Irish began pouring into the United States. Desperately poor, illiterate, and uncouth by Protestant-American standards, they flooded into Eastern cities – if they survived the deplorable and inhuman conditions on the “coffin ships” coming from Ireland. Known as “Shanty Irish” they were subject to decades of pent up resentments and prejudice. Signs and cartoons appeared in periodicals depicting the Catholic Irish as monstrous, ape-like men and women and businesses heralded, “No Irish Need Apply.”

In an effort to distinguish themselves from these Catholic newcomers, Protestant, Scotch-Irish societies sprung up across the states and officially adopted the hyphenated name “Scotch-Irish”. Furthering the need to distinguish themselves, many formed nativist societies like the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner and beat the anti-immigration drum loudly.

Even before the potato famine influx of Irish immigrants, violent conflicts had been plaguing America between Protestant and Catholic Irish. In 1844, the Bible Riots in Philadelphia led to destroyed homes and torched churches. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an old-country “aid society,” was installed at New York’s Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to protect it from the native-born, Protestant population. Wild stories of atrocities and conspiracy theories about the Catholics circulated untethered.

Boston, a city of a little more than 100,000 people in 1847-49, saw 37,000 Irish arrive in a few years. Most filled the menial, dangerous, low-paying jobs. Many lived in alleys and slums until they could find work.

TheBoston Pilot, a local newspaper, started an advertising column in 1830 called “Missing Friends” specifically for the Irish newcomers to advertise for those who had arrived before them. For instance, a husband and father left for American in the first year of the potato famine, 1846, and in 1849, his wife and children make the trip. She doesn’t know where to find him so she places and advertisement using his name and his Irish city of origin and asking for any information as to his whereabouts. Usually there was an intermediary who would know of him and the three would make the connection. How long it took, how much the advertisement cost, where she and the children lived until they made the connection, all really good questions.

Further resentment by the Protestant nativists built when, during the Mexican-American War (1847-1849) some of these ill-treated newcomers chose to fight for the Mexicans and not their new homeland. Fifty members of the “San Patricios” were executed by the US Army for treason.

Sources:; The Scotch-Irish – The Melting Pot: The ethnic group that blend; When America despised the Irish: The 19thcentury Refugee Crisis

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