Background and Context

"The American River Cances"


Escaping famine, poor living conditions, and English rule, Irish immigrants faced new problems as they arrived on the shores of the United States.  It seemed like everything about them irritated the Anglo-Americans – their alcoholism, crime, filth, violence, and especially their Catholicism (Baylor 214).  To most Anglo-Americans, “…Protestantism represented liberty, reason, industry, and order, whereas Catholic authoritarianism nurtured ignorance, irrationality, and superstition (Baylor 218).  Further, the Irish’s Catholicism called into question their loyalty to the United States.  “Would these new Americans be loyal to the United States or to Rome?” (Coffey 35).  Such fears can be seen in the “American River Cances” political cartoon.  From 1871, the cartoon depicts Catholic bishops as alligators targeting the “good white Americans” and Tammany Hall drawn as the Vatican.  Americans feared that the Irish and their Catholicism were invading the United States and threatening the American way of life.

Anti-Irish Catholic prejudice also had racist overtones, “suggesting that only inferior people would choose such a debased religion” (Baylor 218).  Claiming the Irish belonged to a lower race than whites, nativists contributed to the pervading image of the Irishmen (Kenny 43).  “By mid-[nineteenth] century [Paddy] was a gorilla, stovepipe hat on his head, a shamrock in his lapel, a vast jug of liquor in one hand and a large club in the other.  His face was a mask of simian brutality and stupidity” (Greeley 119).  A menacing, simian-featured monster, this pervading image of “Paddy” can be seen in the “Gun Powder” political cartoon.  Sitting on top of gunpowder, Paddy might light a fuse and threaten society.  

Gun Powder

American society’s distrust and suspicion of the Irish’s Catholicism and perceived racial inferiority helped create an atmosphere of prejudice throughout the nineteenth century.  Yet, at the end of the nineteenth century, the Irish’s position within society and society’s perception of them began to change.  Several factors contributed to such change.  First, the Irish American was becoming more respectable, “in part…due to the advances they and their children were making in education, employment, income, and home ownership” (Kenny 75).  The arrival of “new” immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europeans starting in 1880 also contributed to this change.  To deal with their own uncertainty, “…American nativists constructed elaborate racial hierarchies to demonstrate their own superiority…” and the Irish “…fit into no category other than the Nordic” (Kenny 75). 

The upward path of the Irish and larger societal changes contributed to a bettering of life for Irish Americans, but the Irish themselves played an important role in fashioning an Irish American identity and bringing about change.  Due to the conflict and negotiation in overcoming the institutionalized prejudice of the Anglo-Americans, an Irish American identity emerged (Brighton).   “This identity incorporated elements of traditional ethnicity and Irish Catholicism, a distinctly modern form of Irish nationalism and national identity, and aspects of Anglo-American cultural patterns” (Moss 129).  Yet, it was “…the creation of a genuinely new identity…” (Moss 129).  The creation of the Irish American identity and its influence on changing societal perceptions can be viewed through three different lens: individual representations, organizations, and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.