The Passengers of the Ship, Challenger

Some unspecified number of passengers – men, women and children – from the ship Challenger shivered on the New Orleans levee from Saturday afternoon through Sunday night when J.C. Prendergast happened upon them. They were the tenants of the Viscount Clifden, of County Kilkenny. He paid for their passage to New Orleans. He told them food would be proved on the voyage. So, the passengers spent their meager funds on clothing, not on food. They starved during the two month voyage. Steerage passengers are supposed to provide their own food. The good Lord – Lord Clifden was one of the better landlords – was wrong about the food.

But for some humane New Orleanians, they would have continued to starve upon their arrival in the new world. Edward White provided them with seven dollars worth of bread, which they consumed ravenously. “Notorious” women from the ball rooms came to aid the young women of the Challenger early Sunday morning. Such was the arrival of more Irish immigrants. Most tried to arrive before winter. These immigrants did not.

New Orleans Daily Orleanian, Feb. 26, 1849, p. 2, col. 1

A More Wretched Set of Human Beings

J.C. Prendergast, an native, of County Waterford, Ireland, published and edited the Daily Orleanian in New Orleans during the ante-bellum years. He was a complicated person. He was a Whig, yet favored immigration. He criticized the famine Irish immigrants, yet, he sympathized with them immensely. The paper loudly proclaimed in the first page of every issue that it was the “official journal of the Third Municipality.” Prendergast was proud of the “old Third,” a working class area teeming with German, Irish immigrants and other nationalities. But, it was always Ireland and her concerns that pulled at him.

The Mushroom Aristocracy

He often criticized the “mushroom aristocracy,” his term for the Irish immigrants who had come to the new world, had found success, but did not help the more recent arrivals. The famine immigrants started arriving by the thousands in 1849. To the prior Irish immigrants, the new, famine arrivals were a pitiable lot. They arrived with few possessions. They knew no one upon arrival. They wore clothing long out-dated, even by rural Ireland standards.

Prendergast would talk to these recent arrivals. One such encounter occurred on Feb. 18, 1849. That was a late arrival. Usually, they arrived by October. A more wretched set of human beings he had not seen for years. These were the recent passengers of the British ship, John Garrow. They arrived with no one to greet them, carrying all their possessions in boxes, laid across the levee. In those days, the New Orleans wharves were simple extensions from the levee. The levee was a rise of land, some 3-4 feet high along the edge of the Mississippi River. The passengers, he noted were still gathered the next day there on the levee with nowhere to go. It was a frosty day, said the editor. New Orleans generally has a temperate climate, but February will still see temperatures in the 40’s and 50’s (Farenheit).

A Cadaverous Countenance

Prendergast asked one man, of a “cadaverous countenance,” if they were going up river? Many immigrants would seek work upriver at the busy Mississippi river ports. Work was there, if they could just reach those upriver points.

“Oh no sur, God help us, we had barely what paid our passage to this country. To escape starvation in our own, and ye see, there is seven of us in family here. Only for some gentleman, God bless him, who I never saw before, we would have been dead, for he let us into this little house, without asking a ha’ penny for it” – which if he did, we hadn’t it to pay.” Prendergast explained the “little house” was a small shed on the ferry wharf. In it now resided the man, a wife, a mother and three children and their “miserable looking beds.” Another nearby ferry house was full of the recent female arrivals.

If they were crammed into those two little what sheds, they were much better than the remaining passengers, huddling on the batture, the space between the levee and the river’s edge, with nothing but their boxes to cut the icy wind.

The condition of these recent arrivals troubled Prendergast all the next day. He described them as “gaunt, half-naked, half-famishing wretches.” At evening time, he wound his way back to the levee. He found all the women and children had been taken to some kind person’s house. The men remained huddled around tiny fires, trying to star warm, there on the batture under the night sky. So, for one night at least, some had shelter.

Prendergast then let loose, criticizing the various Irish-American groups, the Emmet Club, the Shamrock Society, the Hibernian Society, and others who pledged thousands for Ireland’s freedom. But, Prendergast expected too much. There was just too many coming, who needed so much, for ad hoc fund-raising. Private philanthropy was just not enough. The city of New Orleans actually did much to help he impoverished arrivals. Individual Irish-American groups did raise funds for the destitute arrivals. In 1851, the Emmet Guards, an Irish militia, raised $481.50 for upriver passage for recent arrivals. That was enough to send 219 recent arrivals upriver to jobs and security. But, it was not enough for the tens of thousands who came, with nothing.


New Orleans Daily Orleanian, Feb. 19, 1849, p. 1, col. 1

New Orleans Daily Picayune, April 20, 1851, p. 2, col. 1

Earl Neihaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), p. 27

Catherine Hayes, the Irish Diva

J.C. Prendergast, an Irish native, published and edited the Daily Orleanian in New Orleans. He always supported the Irish cause. So, he was thrilled when Catherine Hayes came to the Crescent City. Catherine Hayes was the singing sensation known as the “Swan of Erin.” She was born in Limerick in 1818. Born into poverty, her father, a bandmaster for the local militia, abandoned the family. Her mother worked in the household of the Earl of Limerick.

She studied singing in Paris, and later in Milan. She sang opera at La Scala in Milan, and appeared in operas in Marseilles and London. She was invited by Queen Victoria to sing at Buckingham Palace. It is said that when she concluded her presentation for the Queen, she asked the singer for an encore. It is said that with a slight grin, Ms. Hayes responded with the Irish patriotic song, “Kathleen Mavourneen.”

Kathleen Mavourneen

And, in February and March, 1852, she came to New Orleans as part of her American tour. Prendergast described the first of her concerts as a “triumph.” He believed the other newspapers in the city offered only tentative praise. Prendergast, always sensitive to bias against the Irish, likely felt some reluctance on the part of the French and Anglo newspapers to fully acknowledge her extraordinary talent. Prendergast did note the editor of the Bee had some background in music. Prendergast appreciated his review:

“We thought we had heard the “Last Rose of Summer” twenty times, but feel confident that it has never been executed with the touching and tearful pathos which the fair vocalist infused in every line of that plaintive melody. . . .  Let it suffice that Catherine Hayes is all that her admirers have declared her – not Jenny Lind – not a Grisi – but though differing widely from both – a consummate artist, and one of the most delightful songstresses that has ever visited America.”

Ms. Hayes sang the Irish ballad, “Savourneen Deelish Eileen Oge,” “The Harp that through Tara’s Hall,” and “Kathleen Mavourneen.” She also performed traditional operatic numbers, such as “Come Per Me Sereno” from “La Sonnambula” and “Ah, Mons Fils,” from “La Prophete.” “Kathleen Mavourneen” became the singer’s signature song. Partly due to her American tour, the song became very popular in the U.S. Mavourneen is the anglicized version of the Irish phrase, mo mhuirnín which means “my beloved.”

The Daily Orleanian liked to refer to referred to Kate Hayes as the “Irish Sky Lark.”


Ms. Hayes was herself serenaded while in the city. One evening, a group of men from the Irish Benevolent societies sang to her beneath her window at the St. Louis Hotel. Another evening, men from the Irish militias serenaded the Swan of Erin. Lt. Castell, probably W.J. Castell, a well-known notary and Irishman in the City, organized one such serenade on behalf of the Irish militias. The men, after meeting with Ms. Hayes and her mother in her hotel room, described the singer, using an observation made by the author Thackeray about Irish women, “the most delightfully fascinating creature on God’s earth, is a highly accomplished Irish lady.”

Prendergast and the Daily Orleanian effused in their praise of her concerts, proclaiming the Armory Hall was full. But, the Daily Crescent mentioned that the cheaper seats were sometimes not all sold. Ms. Hayes charged $3, $2, and $1. The Crescent claimed that the cheaper seats were not all sold, because some patrons preferred not to attend if they could not sit in the better seats. The editor noted that the French Opera House, which generally sold all its seats throughout the winter season, charged only $1.50 per seat.

Ms. Hayes performed six concerts and brought a sweet taste of the old country to thousands of Irish immigrants. See Dictionary of Irish Biography for more information about Catherine Hayes here.


Dictionary of Irish Biography

Sierra College article,, accessed June 20, 2021

New Orleans Daily Orleanian, Feb. 18, 20, 24, 1852, p. 1, col. 1

New Orleans Daily Crescent, Feb. 26, 1852, p. 4, col. 4

New Orleans Daily Crescent, March 1, 1852, p. 2, col. 2

A View of the Constitution

Today, we take it for granted that secession is in some way unlawful or beyond the pale. Which is a good thing. Imagine the stock market if secession was bandied about whenever there was fussing over the national budget, or whenever there was a pandemic. But, it was not always assumed that secession or adjustment of the “united” states was beyond the pale. In William Rawle’s A View of the Constitution, (1829 2d Ed.), the author prescribed how to effect a secession in a lawful, binding way. Mr. Rawle, a well-trained lawyer for his day, lays out the requirements for a stable, effective secession:

… the secession must in such case be distinctly and peremptorily declared to take place on that event, and in such case — as in the case of unconditional secession — the previous ligament with the Union, would be legitimately and fairly destroyed. But, in either case [of a conditional or unconditional secession] the people is [sic] the only moving power

A View, p. 303

Mr. Rawle explains that by making clear the conditions for a secession, a state may secede and break that “ligament.” His book on the Constitution remained the pre-eminent text on the U.S. Constitution through the 1850’s. It remains today a primary source of information in court cases concerning the right to bear arms and the Constitutional role of militias. His views have been cited numerous times in various court cases concerning the Second Amendment, a President’s recess appointments and other Constitutional questions. Mr. Rawle was a prominent lawyer who had been a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly that ratified the Bill of Rights. See, e.g.District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 128 S.Ct. 2783, at 2805 (2008). You can read his book here.

Those crazy Southerners who viewed human chattel so important, were apparently not so crazy, after all.

The Montgomery Guards Go to War

The city of New Orleans had militia units, mandatory and volunteer since its founding in 1718. Several militia units helped defend the city against the British in 1815. The Irish immigrants formed their own militia units. The oldest Irish militia and the most prestigious was the Montgomery Guards. I previously spoke about the Montgomery Guards and Emmet Guards here. As the drum beats of war sounded in early 1861, the Montgomery Guards ramped up their activity, as did the other New Orleans militias. They elected as their commander, Michael Nolan, a grocer with a shop on Common street. This was the heart of the third and fourth wards, the working class areas of the Crescent City.

The Fenian

And, who was Mike Nolan? Unlike most of the newly arrived Irish, Mike owned real estate./ He claimed $30,000 in real estate and $10,000 in personal estate in the 1860 census. Small groceries were used frequently by the Irish as a means to a white collar life. And, it worked well for Mike Nolan. He was married to Ellen. They had no children, but had three persons, probably employees, at their home.

Michael was born in County Tipperary about 1819. In 1848, Michael Nolan heard news of the rebellion in Ireland. He left his shop in New Orleans, bought a rifle, and sailed to his homeland. But, he was arrested as soon as he landed. He spent nine months in jail. He was released only after he agreed to leave the country. He was said to be a leader of the Fenian Brotherhood in ante-bellum New Orleans.

Fr. Hubert

Mike Nolan was also a close friend of the esteemed Father Darius Hubert. Fr. Hubert would become the chaplain of the First Louisiana Regiment and Mike Nolan would become their commander. But, before the war, Fr. Hubert was serving in Baton Rouge. So, it is not clear how the two met.

Lt.-Col. Nolan achieved some fame at the Battle of Manassas for his quick thinking. At  particularly bitter fighting at the Deep Cut, his men ran out of ammunition. Nolan quickly rallied his men to hurl stones and rocks at the Yankees, then literally just a stone’s throw away. The Mostly Irish Confederates did indeed hurl the works over a railroad embankment, holding their position until reinforcements arrived. Fr. Sheeran, another chaplain from New Orleans, would record in his diary that after the battle, many Union soldiers were found with broken skulls.

Lt.-Col. Nolan was badly wounded at the Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam). He was evacuated to a Richmond hospital and from there, he was sent on recruiting duty to Mobile. Many refugees from New Orleans and Baton Rouge had evacuated to Mobile at the time. His wife, Ellen, joined him in Mobile. He rejoined the First Louisiana Infantry Regiment just before the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863. Bravely, he lead his men in an attack on Culp’s Hill. Almost immediately, he was cut down by a 12 pound artillery shell. He was killed within 24 hours of his return to his unit. What was left of his body was buried in a nearby orchard in a shallow grave. Soon afterward, through the kindness of a local Catholic woman, Isabella “Belle” Gubernator, and aided by the estimable Regimental chaplain, Fr. Hubert, Lt.-Col. Nolan was re-buried in consecrated ground at the nearby Conewago Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. LTC Nolan received the a Catholic, marked burial, rare for a Confederate soldier or officer.

It was said that the death of Lt.-Col. Nolan was a blow to the kindly priest, Fr. Hubert. Another chaplain remarked upon hearing of Nolan’s death, “it was a great loss for Fr. Hubert!”

Later, , after Gen. Lee’s surrender, Fr. Hubert remained in Virginia long enough to coordinate with Federal authorities the future removal of Lt.-Col. Nolan’s body to New Orleans. See here for a picture of Micheal Nolan, but notice the web site states erroneously that Nolan was buried in Richmond.


After the war, Michael Nolan’s body was indeed returned to New Orleans for re-burial. The logistics of removing a body in 1866 were enormous. He was accorded a large funeral. The funeral cortege was said to be more than two miles long. Fr. Hubert and Fr. Sheeran presided.

After his death, his widow, Ellen apparently sank into poverty. In the 1870 census she was living with the William and Kate Behan family. Ellen claims no property and is listed as “Domestic Servant.” Michael and Ellen did not have any children. Ellen was among hundreds of others who were cited for failure to pay taxes in 1870, 1872, 1874, 1876, and 1878. She sold her property at a sheriff’s sale in 1879.

And so passed a patriotic Fenian and his family.


Kathrine B. Jeffrey, First Chaplain of the Confederacy (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 2020), p. 50, 53, 73.

Gardner’s 1861 New Orleans City Directory

Michael Dan Jones, The Fighting First Louisiana Infantry Regiment (Michael Dan Jones 2016), p. 15.

New Orleans Daily Crescent, Aug. 20, 1866, p. 1

Who Were the Emmet Guards?

Who were the Emmet Guards? I first wrote about the Emmet Guards here. They were an Irish militia started in 1850. It appears James Nelligan’s father, David Nelligan helped start the Emmet Guards. Their captain at the outset of the war was James Nelligan. Who were the other members and what were their backgrounds? They did not leave memoirs. They did not leave a unit history. But, from public records, we can glean some hints about who they were and what they were. The Confederate service records tells us who they were. Some public records then help describe their background.

The Emmet Guards, as the name suggests, were overwhelmingly Irish. Some of their members included:

Thomas Long enlisted in the Emmet Guards on July 1, 1861. He was probably new to the Guards. He was sworn in by Capt. Nelligan himself. Thomas Long was a laborer, according to the 1860 census. He was born in Ireland. He was 36 years old in 1861. He claimed $100 in personal possessions. He and his wife, Bridget, lived in a boarding home. They were married by Fr. J. Monahan (St. Anthony of Padua Catholic church) in 1858. Thomas signed his own name, as did his witness and best man, P. Bourke.

Roger McKeown started as corporal when he enlisted on April 28, 1861. He was sworn in by Capt. Nelligan himself, suggesting he was a member of the Guards before the war fever started. Cpl. McKeown was promoted to First Sergeant in October, 1861, very early in the war. He was killed at the Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam). He was a steward before the war, according to his service record. Born in Belfast, he was 27 years old in 1861.

There is no Roger McKeown in the 1860 census for New Orleans or for Louisiana. Indeed, the 1861 City Directory lists no McKeown at all. The 1855 City Directory also lists no McKeowns. He appears to have been one of the many, faceless, almost nameless Irish immigrants in the sixth largest city in the country.

George M. Morgan was elected First Lieutenant of the Emmet Guards. He was a lawyer. He lived at 13 Commercial Place, near the wharves. He also lived in the 11th ward and had attained modest financial success. He was born in Louisiana.

John McMullen served in the Emmet Guards through 1861, when they became Co. D. First Louisiana Infantry Regiment. There was one John McMullen listed in the 1861 City Directory. He lived at 431 S. Charles, close to the Irish part of the city. He drove a cab. He enlisted on April 28 1861, when the Emmet Guards were transferred into the Confederate army. He was promoted several times, eventually becoming First Sergeant. He died in 1864. His service record mentions that he was a “faithful, dutiful and gallant” soldier, who participated in every battle in which the regiment was engaged.

William L. Doyle served in Co. D of the First Louisiana Regiment. He also served in other companies within the same regiment. He enlisted on April 28, 1861, likely as a pre-war member of the Emmet Guards. He was a clerk, aged 22 years when he enlisted. As a clerk, William was at the top of the food chain for Irish immigrants. He was wounded at the Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam). This William Doyle appears to be the person known as “M. Doyle” in the 1860 census. This M. Doyle lived in the Third Ward, very close to the Emmet Guards Armory. He was born in Louisiana and was not married. He lived in a boarding house before the war.

During the war, William participated in several battles. He was captured and returned to active service with the First Louisiana Regiment. He was detailed by Gen. Lee himself to support Jackson Hospital in Richmond.

Thomas O’Neil enlisted on April 28, 1861., probably as a member of the pre-war Emmet Guards. He was enlisted by Capt. James Nelligan. He was 25 when he joined. Thomas was a “light laborer” before the war. He lived in a boarding house at the time. He was born in Ireland and was unmarried. He was wounded at the Battle of Malvern Hill. Thomas was captured by the Federals at the Battle of Chancellorsville. He took the oath of allegiance and was then released. Later, Thomas found his way to St Louis, Missouri. In St. Louis, he was accused of talking “disloyal language” at the supper table of a boarding home. His language was accused of being disloyal to the USA. He was described by the proprietor of the boarding house as a deserter. The landlady was named Mary O’Neill.

Thomas was described as a member of a militia in New Orleans prior to the war. In St. Louis, he worked at his trade, carpentry. He was arrested in 1864 as a deserter from the rebel army. His statement at the supper table was supportive of Bill Anderson, the bushwacker, who killed Union soldiers at Centralia, Missouri. Thomas said the Federal soldiers had previously killed and scalped professed rebels. He also stated support of the Confederacy. Thomas was described by a witness as a “rebel and a dangerous man.” There is no record explaining what became of Thomas O’Neil. But, it appears he was a committed rebel, despite his desertion.

St. Patrick’s Day in the South

How did the early Irish immigrant share his ethnic identity? The earliest Irish immigrants came in the 1820’s and 1830’s. They were generally more prosperous than the famine immigrants. Many were refugees from the 1798 rebellion. From early on, the Irish in the Old South celebrated both their Irish identify and St. Patrick’s Day. In Charleston, the Irish formed the Charleston Hibernian Society. The members met every fourth Thursday for “sentiment, song and supper.” Reflecting an ecumenical approach, they rotated the presidency with a Protestant president one year and a Catholic president the next year. In 1833, the Society toasted both to the king’s health as well as and the death of the Irish patriot, Robert Emmet. By 1841, the Charleston Hibernian Society had built a magnificent “Hibernia Hall” on Meeting Street.

In 1831, the Louisville Irish met and toasted St. Patrick’s Day. The toasts of James Price, Clement Kennedy and others were published in the Louisville Courier.

In New Orleans and Savannah, the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations grew larger each year. The Catholics and Protestants joined in the same celebrations. In 1824, the Savannah Hibernian Society followed a requiem Mass with a parade to the City Hotel lead by Father Robert Browne and the pastors of the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches. At four p.m., the mayor of the city, along with the Spanish and British consuls awarded Charleston Bishop John England, an Irish native, with honorary membership. Then the crowd retired for dinner and watched the unveiling of a “transparency:” a female figure clothed in green with a wreath of shamrocks, intended to represent the “genius of Ireland.” Then came tunes and toasts honoring Ireland, Georgia and the United States.

The Natchez Hibernian Society had its annual celebration in a local hotel. The members enjoyed an evening of “song, sentiment, wit, and sociability.” Some less prosperous laborers collected near the market house on St. Patrick’s Day and enjoyed liquid refreshment. The became inebriated and fought any passerby. The local sheriff came and arrested two or three of the miscreants.

The more well-off Irish formed the Hibernian societies. These societies charged dues that tended to deter the laborers from joining. But, the middle class Irish set a different sort of example and encouraged the working class to avoid trouble.

Louisville Courier, March 21, 2831, p. 2

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 60-63.

The Montgomery Guards, Blessing of the Flag

Before the War, the New Orleans Daily Delta was not a pro-Irish immigrant newspaper. The Delta had published a series of articles condemning the Irish for causing all sorts of ills in the city. They were forever “kicking up rows and breaking heads,” said the newspaper. Yet, the Daily Delta reported the consecration of the Irish Flag to be borne by the Montgomery Guards. The Montgomery Guards were named for Gen. Richard Montgomery, Irish born, who served in the Continental army during the American Revolution. He had risen through the ranks of the British army, but took up the patriot cause. He fell at Quebec. For the Irish in the 1850’s, he was a great Irish-American hero.       

War Drums

By March, 1861, Louisiana had already seceded. Ft. Sumter and Lincoln’s levy of 75,000 troops had not yet occurred. But, war looked very likely by St. Patrick’s Day, 1861. The Montgomery Guards were the oldest Irish militia in New Orleans. In the 1800’s, militias were more than martial organizations. They served a prominent social role, as well. And, the Montgomery Guards were at the top of the Irish social ladder. Indeed, they had been criticized over the years for the expense of their uniforms. That large expense limited their membership to only the most successful Irish immigrants.

In times like war, the Irish trusted the social norms they had always known. In 1861, the Montgomery Guards celebrated St. Patrick’s Day be seeking the blessing of the church on their flag. The flag was beautiful. It was green with fringe. On one side, there was a wreath of cotton plants, with the words, “Montgomery Guards, organized 8th January, 1861.” On the other side, there was a wreath of cotton plants, with the words, “Louisiana, our home: her cause is ours.”

St. Patrick’s Day

On St. Patrick’s Day, the Guards marched with their flag from their armory in what is now downtown New Orleans to St. Alphonsus church.  St. Alphonsus is uptown in the area now known as the Irish channel. At the church, the esteemed Fr. Duffy blessed their flag. Representatives from other militia units attended. The commander of the Louisiana Greys, Capt. Dean, attended. Sponsors of the flag included two Misses Redmond, Ann Farrell, two Misses O’Neil, Miss O’Shea, Gen. E.L. Tracy, Gen. Denis Cronan, Capt. C.D. Dreux (Orleans Cadets), Capt. C.E. Girardey (Louisiana Guards), and Capt. Dean. Fr. John B. Duffy exhorted the Montgomery Guards that defending their country with the spirit of a Christian soldier was to serve God.

After the blessing, the Guards marched around town and returned to their armory. They held a celebration with including food and drink. The Daily Delta said this was the only St. Patrick’s Day celebration that year.

New Orleans Daily Delta, March 19, 1861, p. 2, col. 6

New Orleans Daily Picayune, March 19, 1861, p. 4, col. 6

Irish Immigrants and Slaves

How did the Irish get along with slaves in the South? A very few bought slaves. Maunsel White in Plaquemines Parish, near New Orleans, owned four plantations and some 192 slaves. Frederick Stanton, of Natchez made a good living as a cotton factor. By the time of his death in 1859, he owned 333 slaves across sixteen plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. For that time period, to be a planter was the height of society. City Directories in England and Ireland listed the gentry and the local nobility. The gentry and nobility held a special place. They were an economic engine in the old world. Similarly, the City Directories in the Southern cities reserved a special section for planters. Planters were the gentry and nobility of the new world.

But, most Irish who owned slaves owned just a few. In Mississippi, merchants P.H. McGraw and P.J. Noonan each owned one slave in 1860. In New Orleans, Dennis Donovan, drayman, owned three slaves, who probably worked as teamsters for him. Fr. Mullon, the hero to Irish in New Orleans, owned two slaves. I previously wrote about Fr. Mullon here.

Buying Slaves as a Kindness

We do not know now the circumstances of Fr. Mullon owning slaves. It may be that he bought slaves as a kindness. Some slaveowners, such as Thomas Jackson, future Civil War general, purchased slaves to help a particular slave remain near his/her family. This author’s ancestors owned one slave in Louisville, while operating a boarding house. Another Irish ancestor owned a slave also while running a boarding house in New Orleans. At least in the Price family, those instances of slave ownership were brief and did not last longer than a few years. Patrick Murphy came to Natchez to work on construction projects. He saved his money and speculated in slaves. He sold one African-American slave, George, for $1,500 on the eve of the Civil War.

Living in Proximity

The more common experience for most Irish was simply living in close proximity to slaves and freedmen. Mobile’s sixth ward housed Irish immigrants and slaves. It was common for slaves to have some measure of relative freedom in the cities. So, the white establishment saw the closeness between Irish and slaves as a concern. City officials responded by passing laws preventing “illicit” trade between free persons, white and back, and slaves. In Vicksburg, in 1859, John “Red Jack” McGuiggan was convicted of selling forged passes to slaves. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The timing, in 1859, probably contributed to the harsh sentence.

Martha Ann Logan of Mobile, was brought to court for having interracial sexual relationship with a slave named David. A local reporter described the offense as “disgusting,” but what would be described in Boston as “goodly and fashionable.” Catherine Harrington was prosecuted for “trafficking” (i..e., selling liquor) with slaves. Kitty Donigan was prosecuted for “harboring a slave.” Irish saloon keepers throughout the South illegally sold liquor to slaves.

Irish Were not Abolitionists

Of course, the over-arching question in the 1850’s was slavery and the fear of abolitionists. Some Southern leaders saw the Irish as potential abolitionists. But, the Irish fear of evangelical Protestants rendered such a possibility unlikely. Too, there were instances of Irish attacking slaves. Employers of workers on the Brunswick canal had to separate the Irish workers form the slaves, to prevent the attacks by the Irish. Patrick Murphy slapped a slave girl in Natchez for alleged insolence. When the white owner told Murphy he could not strike slaves on his property, Murphy packed up his tools and left. On another occasion when a slave owner let a slave sit at the same table as Murphy, the proud Irishman said he was “not one of them to sit at second or nigroes [sic] table.”

P. Kennedy in Virginia insisted slaves were better fed and clothed than the poor Irish farmers. He complained about Yankees who went to Europe to make money, complain about slavery and stir up English ladies. He said it would be better for the Irish laborer if he was half as well-fed and taken care of as the slaves in whom the owner had an interest. Kennedy was saying the slaves was treated better because his owner had invested money in him. Kennedy allowed there were some bad masters. But, he added, there was no comparison to bad landlords in Ireland. Irish landlords would drive out their tenants to the roadside to starve. He believed no one could justly criticize slavery. We might disagree today, but certainly, the state of the Irish tenant farmer was quite bad at the time.

Like most slavery questions of the time, the Irish interaction with slaves was complicated.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 122-125.

Accused of being Abolitionists

Perhaps the worst accusation made against the Know Nothing party, in the mind of the average Southerner, native born or not, was that the Know Nothing party secretly supported abolitionism. As a secret organization, with secret handshakes and the like, it was easy for outsiders to view Know Nothings with suspicion. In the South, abolitionists were seen as evangelical extremists. For the average Irish Catholic, extreme Protestantism awoke their greatest fears. The accusation of supporting abolition of slavery hurt the Know Nothings more than the anti-Irish prejudice.

Father Patrick Lynch, also a slave holder, wrote an article entitled, “The Secret Sect.” He argued that the blatant Americanism so prevalent in the North was wedded to abolitionism. By “Americanism,” he meant the anti-immigrant fervor. He argued that Irish Catholics were loyal to the South and its institutions, while the American Party was not. Fr. Lynch lived in Charleston, and was one of the first native born priests in America. Abolitionists were indeed quite evangelical. They were often seen as fanatics. In truth, the Know Nothings tried to remain neutral on slavery. In a time when the slavery divide was increasingly pronounced, neutrality itself raised suspicion. The nascent Republican party became more attractive. Many Northern Know Nothings joined the Republican party by 1860. Southern Know Nothings were then left with a party seen as un-patriotic. The Democrat party gained even more members.

And, in the process, the Irish became more secure in their Irishness.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 79-80, 119-120.