Reading Room Log: American Responses to Pre-Famine Irish Immigrants

When I started my thesis, I was warned that I would face the elevator test.  It goes like this:  Pretend you are in an elevator and a faculty member you know enters.  Assuming you don’t have music blasting from your headphones, the professor asks, “Are you doing a senior thesis this year?”  To pass the elevator test, you must explain your thesis topic before you reach the fourth floor.

The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things

Anti-Irish sentiments of the late nineteenth century are demonstrated in Thomas Nast’s “The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things” in Harper’s Weekly September 2, 1871.

My elevator spiel is this:  I am examining the American reception of Irish immigrants, both Catholics and Protestants, from the seventeenth century until the beginning of the Famine in 1845.  My goal is to demonstrate that despite passing political, economic, and polemical motivations, the overarching rhetoric about Irish immigrants had religious sectarianism at its core.

In the seventh grade, I studied discrimination against Irish immigrants.  “No Irish need apply” signs, cartoons depicting Irishmen as apes, and urban riots filled my history book.  I learned about Irish immigration as if a set of flood gates opened for the first time in 1845 when An Gorta Mór began.  As a senior in college, I am looking back to provide the prelude, which is all too often missing or fuzzy in texts on Irish immigration.  It is an oversimplification to believe that there was a singular Irish people during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  For example, Ulster Scots, also called the Scotch-Irish, were subject to very different treatment than Irish-speaking Catholic servants.  My research has uncovered differing stories of assimilation for each one of these groups.  Irish immigration is much more than the story of a torrent of starving, poor Catholics arriving in New York and Boston in the 1840s and 1850s.

Ursuline Report

Cover of Ursuline Report of the Burning of the Convent, August 11, 1834, Box 1, Folder 10, Anti-Catholic Documents Collection, MS.2006.059, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

My thesis has triple duty to serve; the Department of History, Arts and Sciences Honors Program, and Scholar of the College program all have expectations I must meet.   The Scholar of the College program requires me to have two thesis readers.  I must graciously thank two faculty members in the Boston College Irish Studies Program, my primary adviser Professor Kevin O’Neill of the History Department and Professor Marjorie Howes in the English Department.

With advisers in both the History and English Departments, my thesis has taken on some interdisciplinary aspects.  I have been examining comic plays alongside traditional historical sources located in the Burns Library, such as the History of the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick: For the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland of Philadelphia (Burns Stacks Unit Four HS1814.P5 H5 1952).I have been examining the everyday texts of the period, including schoolbooks such as H. Humphrey’s The New England Primer (Burns Stacks Unit 3 08-000013943 BOSTON).  Of particular use to me in the Burns Library collection was the Anti-Catholic Documents Collection and its documentation of the burning of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Ursuline Report Page

Page from the Ursuline Report describing the burning of the convent. Anti-Catholic Documents Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

On the night of August 11, 1834, rioters looted and burned the Mount Benedict convict.  One nun recorded, “Cries of ‘Down with the pope! down with the bishop! down with the convent!’ were distinctly heard in the street.  At the same time the rioters tried to break down the iron door which closed the avenue.  We had hardly had time to put on our nuns’ clothes, when a furious populace, spurred on by Dr. Lyman Beecher and the protestant ministers of Boston and Charlestown had opened a way and invaded the gardens.”  Because my thesis due date is quickly approaching, you will just need to come in to Burns yourself to read the remainder of the story in which the windows were pelted with stones, tombs were defiled, and the convent torched by Lyman Beecher’s band of furious Protestants.

  • Rachel Banke, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Boston College, Class of 2012

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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