Discrimination in the US: how bad did the Irish have it?

In the context of current events (i.e. the murder of George Floyd and subsequent BLM protests), I’ve seen claims that black people aren’t the only folks who had to deal with shoddy treatment (the implication being that black people should just suck it up and get on with their day, just like those other downtrodden folks did). Perhaps most notably, Irish folks reportedly had a hard time of it during certain periods of US history; this fact is even used for darkly comic effect in Blazing Saddles, when the townspeople finally surrender: “we’ll take the niggers and the chinks, but NO IRISH!”

My gut feeling is that no racial/ethnic group has been treated as badly or for as long as black people; for example, I’m not aware of an equivalent of Jim Crow laws directed toward the Irish, or lynchings, or separate-but-equal schools, drinking fountains, and so on.

But I don’t know exactly what they did* face. So…how bad did Irish immigrants/descendants have it in the US? What about other minorities? When/why did things get better for them?

The Irish certainly didn’t have it as bad as blacks, but they were widely compared to them, and also depicted as apes and monkeys, in the early 1800s. See here for an assortment.

While fictionalized, The Gangs of New York is not far off the mark in showing the tensions between the Irish and the “nativists” in New York before the Civil War. Things began to improve for the Irish in the late 1800s as they gained political power.

ninja’d a bit

ever see the movie gangs of new york? The book it was based on was non-fiction…all they did for the movie was provide a few fictional characters for each side … the whole “Irish need not apply” thing was real cops could kill them with impunity during the arrest the term white ni–ger was applied to them often

the only reason it eased up was there was a lack of manpower for the factories and railroads after the civil war and the other mass immigrations brought out new groups to hate (there’s a reason little Italy and little Dublin had shooting wars in the 1880s and 90s .as the Irish themselves had someone new to pick on)… and Tammany hall aka the NYC democratic party started recruiting from the 2 and 3 generations

Although there was a “golden age” for Irish Americans from about the 20s to JFK’s election…

actually I read in book “Caucasian” that in the 1600’s (?) there was mscegenation law prohibiting English from marrying Irish

AKA “parochial schools”

It is hard to tell. Mark Twain joked about it, etc. However, mostly they were at least seen as human.

But we do know one thing for sure- more or less here in America, whatever left over discrimination might still linger for the Irish, it pales utterly compared to Blacks and Hispanics.

Do you have a cite for this? I’m not aware of any anti-miscegenation laws in England.

I didn’t hear of it before, either. But a quick Google turned up this paper.

I haven’t read through it, but at a quick glance it seems there were various acts passed, which often were not enforced.

And it was the 1400’s, not the 1600’s.


Many attempts have been made to understand and explain the complicated relationship between the English of Ireland and the Irish in the later Middle Ages. This paper explores the interaction between these two groups through the curiously understudied phenomenon of intermarriage, and centres on the ‘four obedient shires’ of Dublin, Meath, Louth and Kildare in the fifteenth century. These counties, parts of which later comprised the Pale, were home to an English community that helped to produce much of the anti-Irish rhetoric found in record sources of the fifteenth century, including frequent enactments that prohibited marriage between the English and the Irish

The laws weren’t in England, but in Ireland, and were passed to prevent English settlers from intermarrying with the locals and losing their English identity. They start with the Statues of Kilkenny in the mid-14th century, and continue for several centuries.

Not that I don’t think ilkenny is devoid of statues, but aren’t you referring to statutes?

I am, yes, sorry. (Hey, I got the link right; I just can’t type.)

The Irish, along with other groups, did face discrimination but while the Irish often had it bad they did not have it as bad as Blacks did. They may have been ranked only one notch higher than Blacks, but they were still that one notch higher.

Anti-Irish sentiment still lingers - I once dated a young man from Cicero, Illinois of a Polish family, with the elderly aunts and grandparents being from the old country. He introduce me at a family gathering and stated to one of the Elderly Aunts that we had met at an Irish dance. The old woman threw up her arms and exclaimed “You’re too nice a girl to be Irish!”. Later, I mentioned to the young man that it was a good thing we didn’t mention that I was half Jewish or her head probably would have exploded (yep, anti-Semitic stuff out of the Elderly Aunts, too).

We passed me off as Russian and German (that is 3/4 of my ancestry if you squint at the family tree) and that was apparently OK.


Interned American citizens of Japanese descent might want to chime in at some point.

The Irish were looked down upon, but there wasn’t any systematic racism toward them. It was just typical nativist sentiment toward any nationality except the English or (usually) Germans.

They didn’t have it any worse than Poles or Jews, certainly. Blacks were treated far worse.

It wasn’t until after WWII that nationality/religion became less of an issue. Race still remains one.

sorry I didn’t provide complete title, book is “The rise and fall of Caucasian race” by Bruce baum

Discrimination against the Irish was more due to religious intolerance and just the fact that they were new arrivals than racism. I suspect an Irish Protestant without an accent didn’t get any more grief than an English immigrant.

I do know that when my grandparents (a German woman and an Irish man) married in the 1930s, it was not considered in any way remarkable… but they were both Catholics. If my grandmother had married a German Lutheran, or my grandfather had married an Irish Presbyterian, that would have caused a big stink with their families.

The religious aspect was a big part of it, especially since the Irish were already discriminated against on that basis in the UK. The “Scotch-Irish,” who were Protestants mainly from northern Ireland, were not discriminated against to the extent of Irish Catholics. (However, since many settled in mountains and rural areas their descendants became stigmatized as “hillbillies.”)

The Germans were the first and largest “foriegn” immigrant group in the US. While they might have been made fun of for their funny accents, they didn’t suffer serious discrimination. This may have been because they not only shared Protestant religion with the English colonists, they also shared the “Germanic” cultural values of orderliness, punctuality, and emotional restraint. They fit into American society so smoothly that they often lost most of their German cultural identity.

Although prejudice against Irish Catholics gradually faded, it still was a factor when I was growing up in the 1960s. When JFK ran, it was still thought that his Catholicism was an obstacle to his being elected. (The only previous Irish Catholic candidate for president, Al Smith, was defeated in a landslide in 1928.)

I’m Irish-German, my father’s German, Swiss, and Irish ancestors coming over in the 1840s, and my mother’s Irish ancestors in the 1870s. My father’s German/Swiss ancestor was Lutheran, but married
a German Catholic. When my German grandfather married my Irish grandfather in the 1920s, both were Catholic.

This was even an issue, though a very minor one, in the 1960s and 1970s, when my aunt and my brother married Lutherans.

I suspect an Irish Protestant without an accent would claim English or Scottish ancestry.

I do know that my Irish Catholic relatives would claim to be of English background if they thought that would be advantageous - it wasn’t until my generation that people started “admitting” they were Irish. My mom was old enough to remember help wanted signs in St. Louis stating “Blacks and Irish need not apply.” Which was perfectly legal discrimination back in the day.

But being Irish and white was still better than being anything and Black.

This may be the determining factor. An Irish immigrant probably couldn’t assimilate very well — the accent would be a dead giveaway — but his/her children would look sufficiently like the dominant culture to have at least a decent chance. Can’t say the same for people of color.