Monday, July 16, 2012

2010 Vigil for Immigration Justice at Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship

Here's a post that I almost forgot about!  It describes an event two years ago, but the information is still relevant.

On May 1, 2010, Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship joined many churches across the country in a prayer vigil for immigrant justice. I was one of three presenters. I focused on Irish immigration of the nineteenth century while the other two speakers dealt with more recent events.  Jean Montrevil talked about the New Sanctuary Movement, and Confesor Linares, pastor of First Mennonite Church in Brooklyn, described his experience as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

My presentation appears in green text below.  I concluded my talk by singing Mick Moloney's arrangement of McNally's Row of Flats.

My focus is on Irish immigration of the nineteenth century.  Here are a few facts that will serve as background to my remarks:
  1. Ireland was under British rule, established in 1803 by the Act of Union.
  2. Anti-Catholic prejudice accompanied British political domination
  3. Most of Ireland's inhabitants were poor, rural tenant farmers renting from British land barons.
These three facts alone were enough to inspire some people to emigrate to America in hopes of a better life, and we see heavy Irish immigration as early as 1820.
In 1845, when a fungus infected the potato crops, conditions in Ireland worsened.  Since most of the healthy potatoes were exported, very few potatoes were left to feed the Irish population whose dietary mainstay was the potato. Wheat, livestock, and other agricultural products were also earmarked for export to Britain and therefore were not available for general consumption. British politicians subscribed to a strict laissez-faire economic policy which argued against state intervention of any sort. As a result, famine and starvation were widespread, and many people died.

Those who survived faced eviction for being unable to pay rent for their land to their English landlords.  Homeless tenant farmers ended up in overcrowded government poorhouses where disease was rampant. Cholera and typhus, together with starvation, caused the death of over a million Irish people.

These conditions inspired a massive emigration out of Ireland. Nearly half of all immigrants entering America during the famine years were from Ireland. Census figures show that between 1841 and 1891 almost half the population of Ireland either died or left the country!

Emigrating to America was almost as risky as choosing to remain in Ireland.  So many people died en route that the ships were referred to as “coffin ships.” On the night before departure, families would gather  to say goodbye to the person leaving Ireland. These gatherings were actually called wakes, for everyone knew that if the immigrant survived the voyage, he or she would likely never return to Ireland.

For those who made it across the ocean, the struggle for survival continued. Immigrants were swarmed by runners who tried to grab their bags and force them to a particular tenement house (and collect an outrageous fee for this service, of course). Immigrants ended up settling in the city they arrived in because they had no means to move on. Many families crowded into apartments meant for only one family. Those who couldn’t afford any rent sometimes built makeshift dwellings in alleys. Irish immigrants were seen begging on the streets and often found themselves in almshouses. No immigrant group in America was considered lower than the Irish during the 1850s.

The rural Irish were not strangers to hard work though, and America needed workers. Irish men comprised the majority of the workforce on the construction gangs of the great canal systems dug in the 1820’s and the rail systems established between 1830 and 1880. Irishmen also joined the fire and police departments.

The women worked too. They became chamber maids, cooks, and the caretakers of children. Early Americans disdained this type of work, considering it fit only for servants. A common sentiment of the time could be expressed this way: "Let Negroes be servants, and if not Negroes, let the Irish take their place..."

In the twentieth century, the immigration of other ethnic groups overtook that of the Irish. Large numbers of Jews, Slavs, and Italian immigrants cast the Irish, now Americanized, in a more favorable light, and hostility shifted from the Irish to the newer nationalities. This sort of phenomenon goes on even today, with the most recent immigrant group bearing the largest burden of prejudice.

The song I’m going to sing is called McNally’s Row of Flats. It describes tenement living in Manhattan’s famous immigrant neighborhood -- the Lower East Side. If you visit the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street just south of Delancy, you can see the very tenements depicted in the song.

The song was written by David Braham and Edward Harrigan for a vaudeville production called "McSorley's Inflation." After its Broadway debut in 1882, the play ran for over 100 performances.

Irishman Edward Harrigan was a prominent songwriter from the 1870’s through the 1890’s. His songs were as wide-spread in their day as those of Oscar and Hammerstein in the twentieth century. Harrigan’s songs never degraded the immigrants. On the contrary, he depicted the conditions of immigrants in New York in a way that allowed people to see the humor of their situation and gain a few minutes of comic relief.
Many of Harrigan’s songs have been revived and recorded by folklorist and musician, Dr. Mick Moloney of New York University. 

At this point in my talk, I sang McNally's Row of Flats, accompanied on guitar by my son, Michael. I recorded our performance with all good intentions of including it in this post.  However, the sound file had some serious technical glitches.  Several times since then I have tried to fix it, and thus the delay in posting.  Recently I decided to give up and instead post this YouTube clip of McNally's Row of Flats sung by the master himself, Dr. Mick Moloney referenced above.  Please have a listen to this great song describing immigrant life on the Lower East Side of New York in the late 1800's. 

Internet Sources as viewed on May 1, 2010:
(many of the items below have footnotes to more authoritative sources)
Economic History of Ireland, Wikipedia.
The Famine 1: Potato Blight, by Wesley Johnson
McNally's Row of Flats
CD liner notes by Mick Moloney, Ph.D.

© 2012, Linda Mason Hood
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