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YOUNG IRISH WORKERS: CLASS IMPLICATIONS OF MEN’S AND WOMEN’S EXPERIENCES IN GILDED AGE CHICAGO PATRICIA KELLEHER discussion of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish Americans’ “class”—their status as well as their behaviors and attitudes concerning class mobility and working-class solidarity—has been vexed and contentious . The topic’s inherent complexity, in combination with the variety of perspectives brought to its analysis, has produced a welter of claims and arguments. Some historians assume a norm of upward mobility and view the Irish as laggards. In contrast, other scholars tell a success story in which Irish immigrants, and especially their descendants, struggled and eventually achieved their goals of respectability and upward mobility. Another contingent has discerned the emergence of an Irish-American radical working-class consciousness that broadened Irish workers’ perspectives and encouraged solidarity with members of other groups who challenged the inequities of industrial capitalism. Still others report that a co-opted Irish working class had fallen in line behind the dictates of a hegemonic Catholic middle class by the early twentieth century.1 CLASS IMPLICATIONS OF EXPERIENCES IN GILDED AGE CHICAGO 141 1 Stephan Thernstrom, The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis, 1880–1970 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), illustrates the first view. Examples of the second perspective are Marjorie R. Fallows, Irish Americans: Identity and Assimilation (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979); Lawrence J. McCaffrey, The Irish Diaspora in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), and its revised edition The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1997) as well as Andrew M. Greeley, That Most Distressful Nation: The Taming of the American Irish (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972). Eric Foner, “Class, Ethnicity, and Radicalism in the Gilded Age: The Land League and Irish America,” Marxist Perspectives 1 (1978), 6–55, and David Montgomery, “The Irish and the American Labor Movement,” in David N. Doyle and Owen Dudley Edwards, eds., America and Ireland, 1772–1976: The American Identity and the Irish Connection (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980), 205–18, exemplify the argument for Irish working-class radicalism. Kerby Miller’s lucid argument for Catholic middle-class hegemony is summarized in “Class, Culture, and Immigrant Group Identity in Despite these differences, most scholars’ attempts to explain the Irish encounter with class in America have focused on men’s experiences and perspectives. This article contributes to the discussion by clarifying Irish Americans’ class standing and by demonstrating that both an appreciation of the complexity of the Irish-American population and attention to specific historical circumstances must inform any analysis of Irish responses to America’s class system. I will illustrate the importance of age, generation , and gender, as well as specific context, by focusing on the experiences of young immigrant workers in Chicago in 1880—during the pivotal period known as the Gilded Age. CLASS AND OCCUPATIONAL STATUS IN THE LATE NINETEENTH AND EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURIES This exploration must begin by assessing the class “position” of the American Irish. That task alone is a challenge, for the Irish in America were not a monolithic group, and class-based attributes that were common during the famine era were less common by the 1910s. In an effort to provide a basis from which to proceed, I will begin with some general information about both Irish emigration to North America and quantitative measures of Irish immigrants’ occupational status in American society.2 About one million Irish crossed the Atlantic during the prefamine era (1815–45). Protestants from Ulster dominated at first; but Catholics swelled the emigrant stream by the 1830s. While moderately “better-off” people continued to seek their fortunes in America, less prosperous Catholics eventually dominated the outflow. There was some variety in class background among the prefamine Catholic Irish who established beachheads in the US. Furthermore, even those with few resources usually came from areas of Ireland that had undergone Anglicization and commercialization . They were at least familiar with, if not reconciled to, domCLASS IMPLICATIONS OF EXPERIENCES IN GILDED AGE CHICAGO 142 the United States: The Case of Irish-American Ethnicity,” in Immigration Reconsidered: History , Sociology, and Politics, ed. Virginia Yans-McLaughlin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 96...


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