Rubbing Salt into the Wound: Added Injury to the 19th Century Irish Immigrant Experience

The 19th century was an unforgiving period for Irish immigrants living in the United States. They faced persecution, poor job prospects, and unfavorable living conditions. Because Irish immigrants often came to industrial cities from rural, uneducated areas, they were only able to work low-skill jobs, which usually involved manual labor. The nature of these jobs caused them to suffer severe injuries, dramatically lowering their employability and furthering their ostracization. Meredith Linn, Assistant Professor of Urban Studies, is interested in investigating the link between the persecution, labor, and injuries that these immigrants experienced. On April 2, in a lunchtime lecture titled “Gender, Labor, Healing: Irish Immigrant Experiences in 19th Century NYC,” Linn shared her research examining common injuries among 19th century Irish immigrant workers in New York City, and described how these lead to increased discrimination. Furthermore, she discussed how the types of injuries and their consequences varied as a result of the gendered division of labor. Linn’s research works to gain a better understanding of how xenophobia, gender inequality, and socioeconomic difference led to the injuries that pushed Irish immigrants further into the margins.

“Little Ireland,” Diane Griffiths, flickr.com (Creative Commons)

“Little Ireland,” Photo by Diane Griffiths, flickr.com (Creative Commons)

There are many records that indicate that 19th century Irish immigrant workers in New York City were at a especially high risk of facing injury. According to Linn, “historians have long noted that rates of injury among Irish immigrants were much higher than their native [American] counterparts.” Hospital records from 1845 to 1952 show that although the Irish made up 30 percent of NYC’s population, they accounted for over 60 percent of injured patients in the hospitals. The dangerous careers Irish held most likely played a big role in this disproportion. As Linn stated, “about 85 percent of Irish men … were employed in jobs that would have employed hard manual labor … literally back breaking labor.”  This ‘back breaking’ labor put the Irish at a high risk of injury and as a consequence, limited their ability to find employment.

Not only did these injuries physically disable Irish immigrants, but also they resulted in social injury. Linn argued that the immigrant’s physical injuries caused them to become further stereotyped and marginalized. The back injuries Irish men sustained from manual labor exacerbated the idea that not being able to stand up straight meant that Irish men were not fully human. This physical and social discrimination was also detrimental to the immigrant’s mental health; by 1908, Irish made up the most common nationality in mental hospitals. Irish women were at an especially high risk of mental illness. Since the type of labor differed according to gender, Irish women experienced their own set of physical injuries and repercussions in addition to their greater disposition to psychological injury. For example, because of the domestic nature of their work, Irish women often worked near open flames like stoves, which by design were hazardous, and as a result they were susceptible to burns. Since an injury such as a burn would mark a woman as further from the feminine ideal, it would be more difficult for her to get work outside of her home.

“Irish Immigrant," Photo by Thunderchild7, flickr.com (Creative Commons)

“Irish Immigrant,” Photo by Thunderchild7, flickr.com (Creative Commons)

Even without these work-related injuries, Irish women were judged for other aspects of their physical appearance, such as their weight. Irish women were thought of as having thicker bones, giving them a larger appearance, which contrasted the idealized slim female body. As a result, Irish women’s bodies were constantly under scrutiny. The necessity of work exacerbated this scrutiny: the more they labored, the more they inured themselves, “again modifying their bodies and setting them a part from the norm.” Potential unemployment was not only damaging to women; often Irish men could not make enough to support the family by themselves. Furthermore, some households lacked any sort of male figure, due to the male deserting the family, leaving to look for work, or dying of disease. This created an even greater necessity for Irish women to work, and as a consequence, to alter their physical appearance to find employment.

"Duffy's Cut," Photo by parabat4868

“Duffy’s Cut,” Photo by parabat4868, flicker.com (Creative Commons)

Although discrimination against Irish immigrants took place mostly during the 19th century, Linn said that much of their experience is still relevant today. Many immigrants in the United States, even in relatively progressive areas such as New York City, face marginalization and discrimination similar to the Irish immigrants. While today Irish immigrants have blended in with mainstream society, newer immigrant groups are now the recipients of poor employment prospects and healthcare. Linn described how, like with 19th century Irish immigrants, society judges new immigrants by their appearances. Like Irish immigrants, they have been categorized and placed in boxes, therefore limiting their employment opportunities. Linn shared a quote from the 19th century that she said represents the common view of Irish laborers: “Irish means to us a class of human beings whose house is their work, and their men dig the railroads.” Similar jobs can now be seen with immigrants working as domestic workers or in physically demanding fields such as construction. Linn’s lecture, which looked at the gendered division of labor, the relationship between discrimination and employment, and the conditions which lead to further marginalization, was both an intriguing look to the past and a necessary examination of the present.

Emily is a sophomore at Barnard College majoring in Sociology and is a BCRW Research Assistant.

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