A Laborer’s American Dream
By: Jason Cochran
The Irish who immigrated to Cincinnati did so in search of their own part of the American Dream and a better life. Many of the Irish immigrants had to find work at the bottom of the ladder and laborers and factory workers were the common titles held by many of them. The Americans who previously held most laboring jobs would shift to the service industry as waves of immigration brought more people into the lower levels of the nation’s workforce. The lives these people led were not particularly prosperous or revolutionary. These people had to struggle and fight for every inch they gained in the world. Life in the factories and fields was hard. Life expectancies were low. Data from 30 different worker shows in the digitized Cincinnati birth and death records that about 50% of Irish factory laborers died before the age of 50. This was in part due to the terrible conditions in the factories where they worked. The causes of death were never solely work accidents however. Sixty-seven per cent of the workers studied died of diseases that today would be easily cured with the advances of modern medicine. However the conditions of the workplace left them vulnerable and weak to diseases such as the consumption, heart disease, asthma attacks, bronchitis and pneumonia. About 10% of the individuals in the study died a violent death, some from suicides and others from gunshot wounds. A majority of the others died from the rigors that come from old age.
The life in the factory was not common to all Irish people. In fact, it was primarily the men who carried the burden, with 90% of Irish factory workers being men and finding work in three primary fields: stone, marble, and tobacco. Stone and marble were in high demand due to construction in the expanding Queen City. Tobacco was a large industry in southwest Ohio and in Kentucky, and a major cash crop in the United States at the time. Over 67% of Irish laborers worked in these three fields alone.
The Irish factory workers were not located in one common part of the city like many other groups. They were more spread out, with pockets of them living near the major factories. Some lived in what is now Mount Adams, while others lived in Over the Rhine. One particularly interesting aspect about their geographic homes is that many of them lived very close to the Ohio River, perhaps for the reason that the river provided a standard method of transporting the manufactured goods out of the factory and out of the city.
This was the reality for an Irishman by the name of James Murphy. James was a foreman, or manager of a factory. He oversaw the progress of many other workers. This position was quite fortunate in its benefits. He would have received a higher pay, got to live on the premises, and had been released from most of the hard manual labor. However, all did not end well for Murphy. He was part of the 10% who died in a violent manner, specifically from suicide. His reason for this is not known. Perhaps he was falling ill and took matters into his own hands, or perhaps he fell victim to some terrible personal hardship and had enough. We can never know but it just goes to show that the hardships faced by the Irish were considerable, as they were for other immigrant groups, even for those fortunate enough to have a position of management in the workplace.
Starting their days waking early in the morning and working all day until the late evening, then eating whenever they could and sleeping for a few hours, they repeated it all over again day after day as they tried to find their place in America. Many did not reach this goal as they had originally envisioned it, but they did find success in one thing: hard work. They created a place for themselves to survive, and that is their real American Dream, their better life than what they left behind.
Barkan, Elliott Robert. Making It in America: A Sourcebook on Eminent Ethnic Americans. N.p.: ABC-CLIO Interactive, 2001. Print.
Cincinnati Birth and Death Records, 1865-1912. University of Cincinnati Digital Resource Commons, https://drc.libraries.uc.edu/handle/2374.UC/2032
Lee, Joseph, and Marion R. Casey. Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States. New York: New York UP, 2007. Print.
Lynch-Brennan, Margaret. Irish Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 1840-1930. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2014. Print.
Wilkes, Aarron. Folens History: Industry, Reform, and Empire Student Book. N.p.: Folens Limited, 2004. Print.