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A Nativist New Yorker Disparages Irish Arrivals

The following are excerpts from the diaries of George Templeton Strong (1820-1875), a prominent New York lawyer. Written between 1838 and 1857, the entries reveal Strong's undisguised contempt for the Irish immigrants who were then flooding the city. As a representative of the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant elite of the city (Strong was a trustee of Columbia College and an influential member of Trinity Church on Wall Street, and during the Civil War helped found both the Sanitary Commission and the Union League Club), Strong's disdain for the Irish contains elements of class, ethnic, and religious prejudice. But, perhaps more importantly, the entries reveal the attitudes of many so-called "nativist" Americans, who were fearful about the new arrivals' impact on cherished institutions, and were highly doubtful about their ability to assimilate.

It was enough to turn a man’s stomach to see the way they were naturalizing this morning. Wretched, filthy, bestial-looking Italians and Irish, the very scum and dregs of human nature filled the office so completely that I was almost afraid of being poisoned by going in.

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We had some hard fighting yesterday in the Bloody Sixth Ward, and a grand no-popery riot last night including a vigorous attack on the Roman Catholic Cathedral with brick bats and howls.

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Orders given to commence excavating. Ireland came to the rescue; twenty "sons of toil" with prehensile paws supplied them by nature with evident reference to the handling of the spade and wielding of the pickaxe and congenital hollows on the shoulder wonderfully adapted to make the carrying of the hod a luxury instead of a labor.

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Met a Know-Nothing procession moving uptown, as I traveled down Broadway to the meeting; a most emphatic demonstration. Solid column, eight or ten abreast, and numbering some two or three thousand, mostly young men marching in quick time. They looked as if they might have designs on St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and I think the Irish would have found them ugly customers.

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Yesterday morning I was a spectator of a strange, weird, painful scene. Seeing a crowd on the corner, I stopped and made my way to a front place. The earth had caved in a few minutes before and crushed the breath out of a pair of ill-starred Irish laborers. They had just been dug out, and lay white and stark on the ground. Around them were a few men and fifteen or twenty Irish women, wives, kinfolk or friends. The women were raising a wild, unearthly cry, half song, wailing as a score of daylight Banshees. Now and then one of them would throw herself down on one of the corpses, or wipe some trace of defilement from the face of the dead man with her apron, slowly and carefully, and then resume her lament. It was an uncanny sound to hear. Our Irish fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese.

Source | F. Binder and D. Reimers, The Way We Lived: Essays and Documents in American Social History, I (Lexington, MA: Heath, 1988) 240-241; A. Nevins and M. Thomas, eds. The Diary of George Templeton Strong (New York: Macmillan, 1952) I, 94, 177-178, 318. II, 197, 348.
Creator | George Templeton Strong
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | George Templeton Strong, “A Nativist New Yorker Disparages Irish Arrivals,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/718.

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