The Irish in the South, 1815-1877
Rousey, Dennis C., South Carolina Historical Magazine
The Irish in the South, 1815-1877. By David T. Gleeson. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 278; $45.00, cloth; $19.95 paper.)
Historians of the field of southern white ethnocultural history have produced valuable community studies for a considerable variety of ethnocultural groups, but few have attempted analyses embracing all or most of the region. David Gleeson's study of Irish immigrants in the eleven states of the lower and upper South is a most welcome first of its kind.
Gleeson incorporates local studies by other historians of the nineteenth-century Irish in several southern communities, but this work goes far beyond historiographical synthesis. Gleeson's analysis is strongly interpretive and solidly grounded on prodigious original research in an impressive array of manuscript sources in more than forty archives in three countries. Observing that most works on the Irish in nineteenth-century America have devoted little attention to the South, Gleeson suggests that the story of Irish southerners has been largely underemphasized and misunderstood.
His central thesis is that the Irish in the South for the most part were not victims, cultural captives, or much of a threat-real or perceived-to slavery and Protestantism. Despite the initial shock of their encounter with an alien society, they eventually adapted well, drawing strength from their Irish heritage without having to surrender it. The South gave even the poorest whites a status higher than that of African-Americans, an opportunity for upward mobility, a chance to participate in politics, and the freedom to practice their faith without interference from any established church. Their integration into southern society was facilitated by: opportunities in the robust economic growth of the cotton South of 1815-1860; their support for slavery and their opposition to often anti-Catholic abolitionists; their welcome into the Democratic Party as a reliable constituency; the chance to prove their loyalty through service in the war with Mexico; and the relative tolerance of native white southerners. The Irish settled in mostly urban clusters (though not so insular as to become ghettoized), developed communal institutions and maintained ties with Ireland, and attracted Irish Catholic clerics to create Irish parishes and a strong Irish influence in church leadership.
Although most of the Irish considered themselves exiles, especially refugees from the great famine, they did not consider themselves victims. Far from passive, they took initiative and asserted themselves in the workplace, striking over issues of wages and working hours, playing a major role in forming the first labor union in New Orleans (the Screwman's Benevolent Organization in 1847), and moving to find jobs wherever they were available. Encouraged by Irish politicians and journalists, they sought naturalization and entered the political arena-usually as Democrats-and were rewarded with patronage jobs and contracts. The Irish alliance with the Democrats proved particularly valuable in defeating the Know Nothing challenge of the 1850s, for even though the Know Nothing Party was considerably less anti-Catholic in the South than in the North, it constituted the biggest single threat faced by the Irish. …