No Irish, No Catholics

While we’re on the subject of racism, sectarianism, and discrimination, here’s another tale of Anti-Irish (and Anti-Catholic) riots…not in Belfast but from right here in the United States. Back in 1844, the Protestant extremists were called Nativists, despite the fact that they were descended from immigrants and were not natives in any way. Ignoring that truth entirely, they felt that they were the established rulers of the area and were not pleased with the influx of Irish coming into the States. They began a large scale propaganda war promoting discrimination against the Irish and set out to spread their sectarian platform against Catholicism. By the time the Nativists in Philadelphia were done venting their anger, there had been riots for months, a lot of Catholic churches and businesses had been torched, over 200 people had fled their homes, and fifteen people were dead. Over fifty more people were injured by the end of the fight.

The Nativist riots actually began in May, but they had a resurgence in July of 1844. It began when the Nativists denounced all Catholics and called out for Americans to remove themselves from “the bloody hand of the Pope,” after a rumor circulated that some Catholics wanted the Bible removed from schools. This was a misinterpretation of remarks made by a few staff members and bishops who thought the debate over which Bible the kids had to use was hardly worth the trouble, and an easy solution would be to not have any. This rather flippant remark infuriated the Nativists and when people are angry, they hear and spread whatever they want to. These rumors led to a bunch of protests, a ton of violence, and a lot of intimidation in three different areas of the state. The mob in Philadelphia took it one step further and began setting Catholic churches and Irish neighborhoods on fire. The Hibernia fire station was torched, as was a nearby school. Gunfire rang out constantly in the Irish Catholic neighborhoods and beatings were commonplace. Valuables were removed from the churches and much of the population fled in fear for their lives. All services in the area were cancelled and Catholics were actually told to stay away from church as a safety precaution. Eventually, soldiers were brought in to try to keep the peace because there was no police force in that time, but they were largely ineffectual and many churches were razed and lives were lost. When the case finally went before the Grand Jury later, they blamed the Irish Catholics and the soldiers sent in to protect them for the troubles, repeating the garbled rumors and reiterating that Bibles should not be removed from schools. The Nativists crowed their victory.

A couple of months later on July 3rd, a priest was warned that his church may be attacked in the coming days because it was along a Nativist parade route. (Everything changes and everything remains the same.) He petitioned the Governor for an arsenal—weapons that could be used by a volunteer force should the church come under attack—and it was granted. He was given 25 muskets and the commander of the Philadelphia Militia was put on standby by the Governor, in case the soldiers were needed again. When the weapons were delivered, they realized that five of the muskets were defective so they were sent back to be repaired.

The parade initially went off without a hitch and without any violence directed at the church. However, the repaired muskets were seen being returned to the parish, and rumors spread again. This time the whispers said the Irish were arming themselves and readying for an attack. A large mob of thousands of Nativists and their supporters gathered outside, demanding that the weapons be removed, while the priest and his own volunteers tried to protect the church. Over the next few days the weapons were returned to the armory but the rioting outside grew worse. Soldiers were sent in to disperse the crowd but were pelted with stones and everything else at hand. Eventually, on July 7th, the mob entered the church and destroyed much of its interior. They used their own cannon to fire on the building. As more soldiers arrived, and the fighting got worse, the militia shot their muskets and their cannons directly into the crowd. Seven people were killed outright and nine were wounded right at the start and by the end of the night, those numbers had risen. However, by the morning of the 8th, the crowd had dispersed and the fight was over.

Once again, a few months later, the Grand Jury found the Irish Catholics to be the root of all the problems and it blamed them for the fighting and the deaths but in order to appear fair, it also supported the military’s response to the violence. This time the bishop urged people to build Catholic schools in their own neighborhoods rather than deal with the public ones and seventeen were created in the area within fifteen years. This self-imposed segregation kept fighting to a minimum. The church sued the state for failing to protect it and eventually won, after years of litigation. Ten years after the riots occurred, the city was incorporated and the first full-time police force was formed so that nothing like the Nativist Riots could ever happen again.

They were wrong about that last part. History repeats itself even today…just not usually in Philadelphia.

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3 thoughts on “No Irish, No Catholics

  1. oglach says:

    Thank you for this; it’s an important history lesson. One which I’ve honored for years by hanging the sign “Help Wanted, No Irish Need Apply” in my kitchen. Unfortunately, everyone in my household takes it literally, which means I always have to wash the dishes. In all seriousness, it was a great piece,

    • Thanks. Presently, America has a lot of love for the Irish – but it certainly hasn’t always been that way. I figured it was time to remember that since I already wrote lengthy pieces on the parades in the North in recent years. Sorry about your dishes 🙂

      • oglach says:

        I’m sure you have already, but if you haven’t, you might like to read “How The Irish Became White” by Noel Ignatiev. Not an easy read, but pertains to your subject. At great length. Thanks again.

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