Irish Immigrants Becoming White Collar

The numbers in the 1860 census do reflect remarkable advancement by Irish immigrants in the white collar category.

% Change
Since 1850
Since 1850
Since 1850
New Orleans180+6897+5462+373

There was significant upward mobility among the Irish in those years between 1850 and 1860. These Irish men prospered in business and in retail. John Roach operated a bank and sat on the board of the very successful Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad. John Moore of Augusta, Georgia organized the bank of Augusta. In Richmond, Alex Worrell served as superintendent of the Richmond and Danville railroad. James Elder in Mobile served the same position of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.

William Agar, a native of County Carlow, came to the U.S. in 1847. He started as a clerk for a sugar broker, P. A. Giraud, in New Orleans as early as 1850. William would later name one of his sons after his early boss. By the time of William’s death in 1915, he was known as one of the most prominent brokers in New Orleans. His brother-in-law, Edward M. Rice preceded him in the sugar business. The commission merchant and sugar broker business was one avenue for advancement for the Irish immigrants.

Edward Rice was one of those rare Irish who entered the sugar broker trade early in the 1850’s. His wife, Catherine Price, ran a boarding home before they married. She continued with the boarding house during the marriage. Edward did young and Catherine continued with the boarding house after his passing.

Other Irish in the professions included Hugh Lyle who practiced medicine in Natchez. Patrick Wallace and Robert Langfield taught at a private academy in Mobile. James Kernan taught, among others, William C. Faulkner of Ripley, Mississippi, grandfather of the famous 20th century author, William Faulkner. Samuel O’Callaghan was a successful lawyer in New Orleans.

Many Irish women taught school. They did not usually run their own schools. They would typically live and teach at a plantation as a private tutor. Nancy Wightman taught on the plantation of Mr. and Mrs. Collins near Florence, Alabama. She taught the four Collins girls and three other girls from a nearby family. These three girls were “not so smart, but very good children.” In Louisiana near New Orleans, Maunsel White started as a sugar broker, later owned a sugar plantation in Plaquemines Parish with hundreds of slaves.

Some Irish prospered in less respectable businesses. Mary Murphy, 28 years old, ran a coffee house and dancing room. Coffee houses in that time served everything but coffee. They were essentially saloons, where much business and other activities was conducted. Ms. Murphy’s establishment in what we today call the French Quarter employed Irish prostitutes, such as Mary Gallagher, Mary Meagher, and Abby Phillips. Margaret Haughery, from Ireland via Baltimore, operated a very successful bakery and dairy in New Orleans. She would become locally famous for her philanthropy. Today, there is a sweet monument to Margaret near St. Theresa de Avila Catholic Church in Uptown New Orleans.

The Irish were resourceful and enterprising. They were not the last, but they were one of the first immigrant groups to raise themselves by their boot straps.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 41-42, 43.

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