The African American – Irish Connection

The town of Moneygall, Ireland anxiously awaits a visit from its most famous son: President Barack H. Obama. Fleeing the historic famine of Ireland, his great-great-great grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, boarded a ship in Liverpool, England. He arrived in New York City in 1850 with several family members. Like many African Americans, the President shares an ancestry that is often overlooked despite having a history that Frederick Douglass spoke out for. Freed slaves of African descent and Irish immigrants were relegated to the same low rungs of America’s social strata in the early-to-mid 1800’s. In port cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia, survival meant that these two groups often lived and worked together. The passage of time saw the Irish embrace the political machinery of their new country and as they became skilled in trades formally relegated to African Americans –blacksmith, carpenters, bakers and bricklayers. The first labor unions were formed, but African Americans were excluded. The Civil War was a tipping point in the fragile relations between these two groups. Irish unrest gave way to riots when they could not buy their way out of the military service of the north and were forced to fight for an ideology that protected people of color – their chief competitors in the labor market. The resulting riots were a pivotal scene in Martin Scorcese’s film Gangs of New York.

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