So, what did the Irish immigrants to the Southern U.S. think about slavery? We know from numerous sources that many Irish laborers saw themselves as competing against slaves and free African-Americans. Most immigrants were not “fire-eaters” – that is, they were not ardent secessionists. Some wealthier Irish did purchase slaves. This author’s own Irish immigrant ancestor owned a slave for a few years. Even the well-respected Father Mullon in New Orleans owned two slaves. Father Mullon was pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in New Orleans and helped face down the Know Nothings. He was said to be a friend to Jews and Protestants in a time when that was a rare quality.
Some immigrants wrote home about slavery. At about the same time that the Great Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, was publicly criticizing the “peculiar institution,” Irish in the Southern U.S. were distancing themselves him. Maria McLaughlin wrote to her Irish brother in Savannah, Georgia criticizing him for questioning Daniel O’Connell’s right to criticize slavery. Maria believed the Great Liberator was right to question the “enemies of liberty.” But, her brother worked as a clerk for men involved in the slave and cotton business.
William McElderry and his brother, Robert, Irish immigrants and now living in the South defended their new home against criticisms by their sister back In Ireland. They insisted the black slaves were contented. William added that the slaves were well dressed and often have money of their own. William said he had seen some slaves who had been whipped, but, he assured his sister, they “deserved it.”
Moses Paul, also writing home to his sister in Ireland, took offense at his sister’s charge that they were “savages” for owning slaves. Mr. Paul admitted many Southerners owned slaves, so they could earn money. But, he insisted the slaves were contented and lived better than the poor back in Ireland. He did point out that unlike the Irish landlord, no slave owner would ever deliberately starve his slaves.
Dennis Corcoran, a New Orleans newspaper man, wrote Daniel O’Connell on behalf of the New Orleans Repeal Association that any attempt to subvert slavery now, as the abolitionists contemplate, would start a civil war. Mr. Corcoran argued that Mr. O’Connell’s advocacy against slavery was hurting the Irish immigrants. He pointed out that the Louisiana Native American Association (a society that advocated more stringent requirements for naturalization and which opposed immigrants) used O’Connell’s advocacy to attack all New Orleans Irish immigrants. The newspaperman pointed out that the slave-owning Southerners had accepted Irish immigrants and that acceptance should not be jeopardized.
Daniel O’Connell accepted funds from the Southern Repeal Associations. But, many Irish in the South abandoned O’Connell’s Repeal Association because of his opposition to slavery. The Charleston Repeal Association closed due to O’Connell’s advocacy.
It is ironic that the Irish, often accused of being racially inferior, would themselves see the black man as racially inferior. But, such was the tenor of the times.
David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of N.C. Press 2001), pp. 121, 122, 126, 129, 130