When thinking of the Irish, the comparisons are normally drawn to alcohol. The myth that the Irish came to America, worked in factories and got scorched with spirits at night typically contributes to this stereotype.
That’s like saying all Philly fans are ignorant, boisterous fools. But the reality is that the Irish came to this country with little and managed to find success despite the obstacles in their path.
Like other cities along the east coast, Boston and New York in particular, the Irish flocked to Philadelphia in droves after the potato famine destroyed bushels upon bushels of the country’s staple food.
In the book The Irish in Philadelphia, author Dennis Clark credits the rise of Philadelphia’s ghettos to the influx of Irish immigrants to the city. Natives didn’t exactly welcome the Irish with open arms, and as a result discrimination against them was widespread.
The Irish formed communities in Port Richmond, Grays Ferry, Kensington and sections of South Philadelphia along the Delaware River. Most worked on the docks of the Delaware or the Schuylkill Rivers, or in the mills of Kensington. As the years moved on, so did the Irish, moving to the Northeast’s Mayfair and Tacony areas.
As Philadelphia’s post Civil War economy thrived, so did job opportunities for the Irish. The Irish began to work in the industrial field, and they would continue to labor in this industry for many years. Manual labor became a staple of not just the Irish, but the entire working class of Philadelphia.
“For me, my Irish heritage shows working class people making it in America,” said John P. Gaynor III, who was born and raised Irish-Catholic in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. “It symbolizes overcoming prejudice that a lot of people overlook and don’t realize how the Irish were discriminated against, especially when they first came to America and as late as the discrimination against African Americans too.”
Gaynor, who said he is one hundred percent Irish, is a member of one of the nation’s largest Irish heritage groups, the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The AOH is a 270-year-old Irish American Catholic organization.
The organization was originally formed to help the Irish battle social injustices dealing with immigration reform and economic development. Philadelphia is home to 12 divisions of the organization, the most among any city in the country. Gaynor is a member of Division 39 in Tacony. It is the largest and second oldest division in Pennsylvania.
“The good thing about the Irish in Mayfair is a lot of people have been making it out and moving up the ladder. You see that their hard work has paid off,” Gaynor said. “But everyone is the same … big families and everybody knows each other; a lot of kids.”
In South Philadelphia, the most popular Irish area can be found on Second Street, or as those close to it refer to it as “Two Street.” Second Street is home to various organizations involved in the annual Mummer’s Parade on New Year’s Day. Some of the parade’s most famous participants come from this area are mostly of Irish descent.
The Second Street Irish Society, like the AOH, prides itself on its devotion to the Catholic faith, Irish tradition and American pride.
Now in its 10th year as an organization, the group has participated in many charitable operations, including the “Two Street 5k Run,” which raises money for Catholic churches and organizations in South Philadelphia. It takes place during Irish weekend, which normally is the last of September. In 2005, 1,500 people ran in the race.
“We’re trying to reach out to other areas,” said Second Street Irish Society President Daniel Stevenson.
When asked what his Irish heritage means to him, one thing came to mind: Pride. “That’s just the way a lot of Irish Americans are. It’s just a way of life,” Stevenson said on being proud of his background. “I know it’s the way a lot of us were brought up. I come from a long line of cops, and self-pride is one thing that has been No. 1 to us all our lives.”
Michael Mudrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.