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Accents: What They Faced

Friday, November 22, 2002 at 2:02 PM

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There's no feeling like buying that first car, or your first home. For many immigrants, that feeling was the promise of a new start in northeast Ohio more than a century ago. For some it was the hope of a new life, free from persecution. For others, it was the chance to make some good money and take it back home. We continue our in-depth examination of Northeast Ohio's immigrant culture through a special series called Accents. This morning, ideastream's David C. Barnett reports on how some of those dreams didn't quite match reality.

Tom McCafferty: What would you like to hear, then? How about an Irish reel?

David C. Barnett: Though he’s been a Cleveland resident for nearly half a century, 86-year-old Tom McCafferty’s brogue betrays the fact that he’s an Irish native. When he first arrived here in the mid-1950s, he was seeking to escape some dire conditions.

TM: Things were primitive in Ireland, back then. Today they have running water and such. I didn’t have that. I was in the rural areas.

DCB: Like so many Irish immigrants before him over the past 200 years, Tom McCafferty came from an impoverished rural background. As Irish-American archivist for the Western Reserve Historical Society, Regina Costello can trace a striking history.

Regina Costello: Something like 80% of the judges in the Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas have an Irish background, which is amazing when you think of what they came from.

DCB: They came from the original Cleveland settlement that hugged the banks of the Cuyahoga River - a neighborhood called The Angle, which was an easy walk to work.

RC: At one point, over three thousand Irish people were working on the Ohio and Erie Canal. So, they lived on the river and they lived, basically, in shantytowns. They also were overcrowded, so people got very sick - cholera, typhoid and so on were rampant. They were very poor, so they had no health care whatsoever, and so people died young, and in vast numbers.

DCB: Once the canal was built, those workers could now find employment on the newly-built docks; and later, laying the tracks for a new railway system. But by 1900, the big employer of Irish and a whole new wave of European immigrants, was the iron and steel industry.

Roger Daniels: This was dirty, nasty work. Jane Addams reports one Polish immigrant leader, who explained, ‘Miss Adams, my people don’t live in America, they live under America.’

DCB: Roger Daniels is an emeritus professor of History at the University of Cincinnati and one of the nation’s leading experts in the history of immigration and ethnicity.

RD: If they worked in steel mills, as many in Northeastern Ohio did, they worked 12-hour shifts. Seven days a week. They got every other Sunday off. But, since there were only two shifts, you had to work the OTHER guy’s hours plus yours, which meant you worked 36 straight hours. Almost sub-human conditions.

DCB: While the men worked their long shifts in the factories, many women stayed at home and raised families. But, archivist Regina Costello notes that Irish women who sought out employment had a distinct advantage over other foreign nationals who hadn’t yet learned English.

RC: They were very well sought after in the homes of the wealthy, particularly on Millionaire’s Row, where they worked as maids - and they also lived in these homes, as well. So, they had food on their table, a roof over their head, and it also gave them social standing in the community.

DCB: Prompting the rise of class divisions which separated the so-called “Lace Curtain Irish” from the Shanty Town dwellers. But, such discrimination within the Irish community, paled in comparison to a larger anti-Irish sentiment that was common in the 19th century. Renowned cartoonist Thomas Nast who helped bring down New York City’s corrupt Tammany Hall administration in the 1870s, also wasn’t shy about depicting Irish immigrants as apes. Locally, The Cleveland Leader newspaper displayed an anti-Irish sentiment in its editorials.

Historian Roger Daniels adds that, sometimes, ethnic rivalries were exploited for economic gain.

RD: The steel mills tended to hire various gangs from different language groups. They couldn’t talk to one another. Hard to unionize people who can’t talk to one another. And they’d get competition going between the various groups. The steel masters were people who knew what they were doing.

DCB: And so, the immigrants who chose Cleveland as their new home began adjusting to a fairly rugged life, bringing some lofty dreams a little closer to the ground in the process. For someone like Tom McCafferty, the going was a little easier because of the stories he’d heard from the many who preceded him.

TM: I sort of knew what to expect. Everything didn’t fall into place right away. I had to forage around and make friends, but I had a good social weapon in the fiddle. I made a lot of friends through that.

DCB: In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3.

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