The Know Nothing movement was a major concern for the Irish immigrant in 1850’s America. That party combined the worst of the Irish experience with the Protestant faith. In 1850’s America, a large percentage of the immigrant population came to the United States within the prior 10 years. This population was scarred deeply by the Famine. These were early PTSD victims. They had seen hundreds of their neighbors, family and friends die a slow death due to starvation. In the midst of the greatest social calamity in Europe at the time, many landlords made it worse. Some of the English and Anglo-Irish landlords offered help, but only if the Irish Catholic would convert. After two centuries of religion based warfare and discrimination, that request resonated deeply with the Irish Catholics.
Since the 1690’s, the Irish parliament and the English and Anglo-Irish landlords had tried to curtail Catholics. The parliament issued new laws every few years restricting the Catholic faith. The Penal laws, as they are known, affected everything from the quality of a horse a Catholic could own to whether a Catholic could own land. Forget he right to vote. The Parliament issued bounties for priests and bishops. Mass was held in secret. Families were beaten and tied to trees and left to die if they refused to disclose the location of outdoor, secretive Masses. Even today, one can find throughout the countryside “Mass rocks” or hills where Mass was said outdoors in secret locations during the Penal times. The experience of the 1700’s when the Catholic faith was largely outlawed, endures to this day. See Cromwellian Settlement by John Prendergast here.
During the Penal times, if an English man took cattle from an Irish man, or if an English man beat the daughter of an Irish man, the Irish man could not seek remedy in court. He had no remedy. Britian’s overarching political goal was to eventually take land and property from every Irish person and give it to an English or Anglo-Irish person.
The Penal laws started after William of Orange defeated the Jacobite forces in 1691. The Penal laws followed just a few decades after the Cromwellian settlement of the 1650’s. Cromwell had defeated the Irish rebels in 1649. The “New Model Army” was a Puritan army. Oliver Cromwell was Puritan. The government that enforced the settlement of the 1650’s was Puritan. The Puritans hated Roman Catholicism. The Puritans were convinced that Catholics represented the devil incarnate. With the Cromwellian settlement of the 1650’s, many of the leading Catholic Irish families were forced to leave the country and were deprived of their land. The suffering was great and relentless. The Puritans showed little mercy.
So, it is not surprise that upon encountering the Know Nothing movement of the 1850’s. many Irish in the U.S. expected the worst. It was as if the Puritans of the 1650’s and the landlords of the 1840’s had combined into one relentless political party. As one émigré wrote back home to Ireland, if the nativist feeling continued as it was, “an Irishman will not get to live in this country.” By staying in Ireland, he warned, people would at least “be protected from murderers.” That is a strong statement from an immigrant. It was rare indeed for an immigrant to the U.S. to write back home and warn others not to follow him. So, it is not surprising that in 1861, the Irish immigrant will view the former Know Nothings, now Republicans with some suspicion.
David Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of N.C. Press 2001), p. 108.