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How Stereotypes of the Irish Evolved From ‘Criminals’ to Cops

December 18, 2017 in History

By Livia Gershon

The Irish Memorial at Penn's Landing, Philadelphia. (Credit: Cindy Hopkins/Alamy Stock Photo)

New York’s longest-serving police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, is an Irish-American. So is the department’s current commissioner, James O’Neill. Municipal police departments across the country celebrate the role of Irish-American cops with Emerald Societies—and there’s historic reason for all of this. Through the 20th century, Irish-Americans dominated many urban police departments. To some extent, they still do today.

The flood of Irish into law enforcement in the second half of the 19th century was particularly striking because, just a couple of decades earlier, city authorities had viewed Irish immigrants as the source of a serious crime problem. In fact, to a large extent northern U.S. cities invented their police departments as a way to control the Irish “problem.

In the mid-19th century—and particularly after the Great Famine that ravaged Ireland in the late 1840s—families fled to America with no money to buy land, ending up in the growing shantytowns and slums of cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston. They took the jobs they could get—as unskilled laborers or domestic servants, making very little money. Like other struggling groups before them, some turned to petty theft or sex work to make ends meet.

The Irish Memorial at Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia. (Credit: Cindy Hopkins/Alamy Stock Photo)

But it wasn’t just crime that worried the authorities. Historian James Barrett, author of The Irish Way, says anti-Catholic prejudice, combined with cultural differences, made the influx of Irish families seem particularly threatening. Irish immigrants of the era mainly came from the countryside, where a rougher way of life, including drinking and clashes between rival clans, was common. In the tightly packed urban neighborhoods of a country gripped by temperance fever, it created a power keg.

“Most historians would agree that there was very strong prejudice” against the Irish, Barrett explains. “That translates into a lot of different things, like problems getting jobs.”

One early, violent clash came in 1837 in Boston, when an Irish funeral procession blocked a volunteer firefighting company—made up of American-born Protestants—returning from a fire. As history blogger Patrick Browne writes, the riot that followed involved 15,000 people, about a fifth of the city’s population. “Yankees” ransacked and virtually destroyed the city’s Broad Street Irish neighborhood, though the only people convicted in the wake of the riot were Irish-Americans.

Police did nothing to stop the Broad Street Riot because formal police squads didn’t yet exist. According to Marilynn S. Johnson, a history …read more


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