Irish Immigrants

Coogan's at 169th and Broadway

The Washington Heights of today is not the Irish Mecca it once was. Turning down a street corner, a passerby is more likely to be met with a Carlos than a Cornelius, and a shop is more likely to be named after a Sánchez than a Shamus. Existing silently in the midst of Dominican flair are the ghosts of an Irish settlement, rising as an occasional pub or bagpiping club. A Hispanic populous may dominate the neighborhood now, but in the beginning of its life, Washington Heights was distinctly Irish.

When the majority of Irish immigrants came to America, Washington Heights was not the first place they settled. From the 1850’s to the early 1900’s, Washington Heights was not available to “unwashed masses”, and hosted the upper and middle classes. It was not until fifty years after the great Irish Potato Famine that the Irish flooded Washington Heights.

A drawing of Irish immigrants arriving in New York City

Though the Irish have been immigrating to North America since the early 1600’s, the peak never hit until the 1850’s, when a wide reaching disease consumed three-quarters of Ireland’s potatoes. Though a less important crop today, potatoes were the main staple of an Irishman’s diet; losing seventy five percent of the harvest created the largest wave of immigration America had ever seen. Even after the end of the Famine years, poor harvests, evictions, and plummeting farm prices led more than five million Irishmen to come to the United States.

Luckily for these hard-pressed immigrants, steam engines had been introduced to ships crossing the Atlantic, creating a safer and more efficient alternative to the “coffin ships” prior refugees had faced; more often than not, passengers would contract an illness and die before ever reaching the shoreline. Upon arrival in the United States, the Irish settled in the port towns they arrived in, as they were too poor to travel inland. For a large percentage of Irish immigrants, that meant settling in the slums of New York City. Areas like the Lower East Side and Five Points have the most infamous reputations for squalid conditions and cramped living spaces.

As the years passed, Irish immigrants began looking for better areas to live in. Washington Heights provided the perfect opportunity, as the New Law tenements that occupied its streets had added safety precautions in the structure of the building. With these better living conditions came slightly elevated prices, but the established Irish immigrants had been in America long enough to afford the rent. This, in addition to the efficient North-South subway, led a large number of Irishmen to move to Washington Heights.

As is true in other neighborhoods, the Irish immigrants in Washington Heights looked to replicate the close community they had in their homeland. This development of a home away from home meant organizing pubs, groceries, and Catholic churches into notoriously Irish blocks, and preserving the Gaelic language they brought with them. Life returned to a sense of normalcy that had been lost in immigration.

In these new Irish enclaves, families taught their American children about their native land, and the history behind it. Immediate neighbors were more often Irish than Jewish, African American, or other, and the clusters remained fairly contented. Gangs erupted among children, but did little to disrupt the community. “Stickball, football, and basketball games settled more rivalries than rumbles”, says one woman in Ronald H. Bayor’s and Timothy J. Meagher’s book The New York Irish.

Most of this life revolved around the Catholic Church. Though it earned them the reputation of blindly devout, dimwitted worshippers, the Irish congregated around their native religion. Neighborhoods were named after the parish of the area, like Incarnation, Saint Jude or Good Sheppard. Adolescents attended events hosted by the church; in the book mentioned above, many children “went to Catholic Youth Organization dances in St. Jude’s parish where rock and roll alternated with Irish folk dancing”. Before the 1960’s, Washington Heights was a largely Irish area with little to worry about other than neighboring enclaves of Jews and other small influences.

As Puerto Ricans and African Americans moved into the area, the Irish became unsettled. The increased crime rate that followed these newcomers created an uneasiness that followed the Irish residents in their daily lives. The culture of the Puerto Ricans and African Americans was alien to the established community, and they felt threatened that the Irish air of the neighborhood would diminish; “the desire to live in an identifiably Irish community” led the Irish to distrust their neighbors and turn focus more emphatically on their own culture.

As they felt more and more threatened by the new residents, the Irish began to see the allure of suburban life in the outer boroughs of New York City. “A lawn, a garage, quiet streets, and relaxation” seemed a nice change from the cramped city living they had experienced since the earlier waves of immigration. Most of the residents had been in New York for over ten years, and had saved enough money to move out of their squalid apartments. The Irish inevitably left Washington Heights for other neighborhoods, sometimes traveling just north of the area to Inwood.

As Washington Heights lost its Irish residents, the neighborhood became a veritable Latin haven, especially for the Dominican immigrants that still inhabit it today. Though the area has lost touch with its Irish roots, small remnants of Irish life can be found in its vast expanse.

Member of the FOP Irish Warpiping band playing bagpipes

Though not from the Irish era of the past, Coogan’s at 169th and Broadway boasts a distinctive Irish flair and seeks to revive the feeling of an Irish pub. Nearby Inwood contains several bars, as well, including Piper’s Kilt and Irish Eyes. In addition to these pubs, the Fraternal Order of Police Irish Warpipe Band has its home in Inwood. This organization reflects the distinct heritage of Irish immigrants who left Lower Manhattan and Washington Heights for Inwood, tracing its roots to 1966. The FOP Irish Warpipe Band marches to this day, and offers free bagpiping lessons to any interested.

With a plummeting economy, a large number of Irishmen are leaving the former “Celtic Tiger” and trying to return to the United States. Stricter immigration laws create new obstacles for these new immigrants, keeping the Irish influx to a minimum. As an increasing number of Irish immigrants do make it into the United States, Irish neighborhoods will likely raise to the prevalence they had in the early days of New York City. Whether this will include Washington Heights or not has yet to be determined.



Leave a Reply