As was the case in 1863, the city’s Irish were at the center of it and paid a steep price in terms of their public reputation. Their wrath had been aroused by the decision of the Orangemen, a fraternal order of Protestant Irishmen, to stage a parade on July 12. That was the anniversary of the military defeat in 1690 that led to the imposition of harsh colonial rule (i.e., the Penal Laws) in Ireland.
The Orange Order originated in Ireland in 1790s in the midst of escalating violence between Catholics and Protestants. This was the era of the nationalist group the United Irishmen who called for a repeal of the Penal Laws and the granting of equal rights to Catholics. Ireland’s Protestant minority, the “Ascendancy,” feared the loss of their privileged position and mobilized to resist Catholic agitation. Much of the violence was waged by Protestant gangs such as the “Peep o’ Day Boys” who attacked Catholics.
Following a particularly violent clash known as the Battle of the Diamond in 1795, defenders of the Protestant Ascendancy established a secret society called the Orange Order. Named in honor of Protestant William of Orange, the king who defeated Catholic James II in 1690, it soon had thousands of members in “lodges” across Ireland. In 1796 Orangemen began a tradition of staging annual marches, especially on July 12, to celebrate various Protestant victories over their Catholic rivals.
Several chapters of the Orange Order were established by Protestant Irishmen in America by the 1820s. They were inspired by a certain Orange pride, but also out of a perceived necessity as many Protestant Irish sought ways to distinguish themselves from the rising tide of Catholic Irish immigration to America. This same sentiment led the Protestant Irish in America to call themselves “Scotch Irish.”
For the most part the Orange Order in America kept a low profile, but occasionally their marches in cities with large Catholic Irish populations sparked conflict. On July 12, 1824, for example, an Orange parade in New York’s Greenwich Village ended in a pitched street battle with a crowd of Irish Catholics.
The revival of the Orange Order in New York City in the late 1860s reflected the growing anxiety of the city’s Protestant elite. In the twenty-five years since the onset of the Great Famine in 1845, New York City had become home to more than 200,000 Irish-born residents, the great majority of them Catholic. Even more alarming to the native-born Protestant establishment, the Irish by 1870 had grown politically powerful. Virtually every facet of municipal government was controlled by the Irish-dominated political machine known as Tammany Hall. Elites denounced Boss William Tweed (while himself not Irish) and his machine as thoroughly corrupt, but there was little they could do about it. Tammany had the votes.
Lacking any practical means of opposing Irish power, elites waged a war of words and pictures. Week after week, for example, Harper’s Weekly published Thomas Nast’s vicious caricatures of the Irish as mindless, drunken brutes doing the bidding of unscrupulous Tammany bosses and Catholic priests. Newspaper editors, especially at the New York Times, took shots at the Irish whenever possible.
It was in this spirit that the city’s Orangemen proposed to stage a parade on July 12, 1870. As is the case in modern-day Northern Ireland, they chose this date for its provocative value, knowing that the Catholic Irish would be incensed over a pageant of Protestant triumphalism.
City officials feared there would be trouble but resisted calls to stop the march. Several hundred Orangemen gathered on July 12 and accompanied by a band they processed up Eighth Avenue to 90th Street. Along the way they sang songs celebrating Protestant supremacy. Trouble began at the post-parade picnic in Elm Park when Orangemen and their families were attacked by an angry crowd of Catholic Irish.
By the time the police arrived to restore order, nine people lay dead and more than a hundred injured, including many women and children.
New York’s non-Irish population was outraged. So, too, were many Irish Catholics, especially those who had recently elbowed their way into the middle class (the “lace curtain” Irish). They knew that this egregious incident, regardless of the provocation that preceded it, would only increase the already anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment held by many New Yorkers. It confirmed everything the nativists said about them — the Irish were intolerant, undemocratic, and violent.
Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. For exactly one year later, on July 12, 1871, the Orangemen held another parade, and once again the streets of New York ran with blood.
Continued next week …
Set in itals:
Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm.
Sources: Michael A. Gordon, “The Orange Riots: Irish Political Violence in New York City, 1870 and 1871” (1993).
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK:
July 8, 1871: the infamous corruption of Tammany Hall “boss” William Tweed and his cronies is exposed by the New York Times.
July 11, 1921: War for Independence ends with truce between British and the IRA
July 11, 1941: President Franklin Roosevelt appoints William “Wild Bill” Donovan the first Coordinator of Information, a new spy agency created on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II and precursor to the CIA.
July 7, 1917: Lawrence O’Brien, Special Assistant to President Kennedy and National Basketball Association Commissioner, is born in Springfield, Massachusetts.
July 8, 1770: nationalist Mary Ann McCracken is born in Belfast.
July 10, 1867: humorist and social critic Finley Peter Dunne (Mr. Dooley) is born in Chicago.