Here is a short extract from Chapter 8 of my book "Have Ye No Homes To Go To? The History of the Irish Pub." This section looks at the history of the Irish pub in the USA.
The book is available on Amazon, etc.
Up to 1830, the majority of Irish immigrants to North America were Protestant. By 1840 they accounted for a little over 10 percent. The 1830s and 1840s were the age of mass Catholic emigration to America. Leaving behind a desolate and famine ravaged the country the numbers were staggering. From 1840 to 1900 3.6 million Irish people emigrated to the United States with over 1.7 million coming between 1840 and 1860. In each decade between 1820 and 1869 the Irish accounted for over 35 percent of the immigration. From 1841 to 1850 the figure was a staggering 46 percent. After 1860 the figure gradually dropped until it was a little over 2.5 percent in the decade from 1911 to 1920. Catholic emigrants overwhelmingly settled in urban areas. By 1920 90 per cent of Irish immigrants lived in cities and towns. Three-quarters lived in seven industrialised urban zones: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The vast majority of these immigrants ended up in low paid, low skilled jobs but for some, saloon-keeping was viewed as a road to financial success. The image of a saloon in Ireland and England is generally that of a high Victorian style establishment with ornate decoration and expensive furnishings typically located in an urban environment. The Crown Saloon in Belfast is perhaps the most famous and elaborate example. In America, it was used to describe a wider range of establishments. The Irish, like other ethnic groups, sought to recreate their social environment in a new context. The Italians brought their restaurants: the Irish their pubs. Some countries brought a cuisine: the Irish brought their alcohol. Emigration is recognised as a stressful process and psychologists have long noted the propensity of stressed emigrants to revert to native comfort foods. In a country where most business areas were dominated by Protestants, the ownership of a saloon was a way for an Irish person to gain a football in commercial life. The costs of entry were low and many fine establishments evolved from humble saloons. However, the Irish didn’t have the pub trade all to themselves. German pubs with beer gardens and elaborate dance floors were popular with the social elites.
At the time of the American Revolution in 1775, there were saloons in Philadelphia called The faithful Irishman, The Lamb and Three Jolly Irishmen. By 1820 the Southwark part of the city was heavily populated by Irish immigrants and of the eighty-three liquor licences in the municipal area thirty-one of them were held by recognisable Irish names. The situation in nearby Worcester was even more pronounced. By 1880 two-thirds of the applicants were Irish even though they only accounted for less than a third of the population. While just one-sixth of the city’s population were born in Ireland half of the saloon keepers were Irish and another 10 percent Irish American.
As far back as 1868 Michael ‘King’ Mc Donald, the so-called ‘gambler King of Clarke Street’ was a powerful politician, saloon keeper and illegal gambling boss in Chicago. While the German beer gardens tended to the prosperous the Irish saloons were various. Richard Lindberg, biographer of Michael Mc Donald and noted Chicago historian wrote they ran the gamut ‘from simple, unpretentious basement dives with dirt floors and wooden planks propped up by barrels to elegantly festooned showplaces like the kind Hal Varnell kept on Randolph Street.’ ‘Prince Hal’ was a notorious gambler and political kingmaker who was later appointed warden of the Cook County Insane Asylum. The Chicago Inter-ocean newspaper carried a report on his saloon saying it was ‘fitted up with the most skilful contrivances and appliances for the perpetration of crimes so dark they cannot be named.’
In her thesis, Emerald Pub to Silver Saloon; Building an Irish saloon community in the American mining west Michelle A. Charest studied saloon proprietorship in Virginia City in 1870. She found the Irish were the largest group of ethnic saloon keepers followed by the Germans. Irish men controlled eighteen saloons—26 percent of the drinking establishments in the town—while Germans owned fourteen, or 19 percent of the total. However, it was the Germans who were the best represented when total population was taken into account.
In 1899 John Koren studied crime figures in an attempt to see if the widespread vilification of the Irish in America as drunken criminals was statistically valid. The Irish ranked third behind the Scottish and Canadian ethnic groups and were on a par with the Polish, English and Americans. He concluded that ‘Irish saloons stand for immoderate drinking and drunkenness in greater measure than any other.’ A stereotype had been created and any drunken act by an Irish person was an indication of the nation’s propensity to alcohol and criminality while other ethnic groups with similar statistical profiles were ignored. Koren was an avowed teetotaler but didn’t envisage damnation for the drinkers. They weren’t a riotous company intent upon reducing itself to intoxification but ‘a well-behaved group of men who play cards together, read, smoke and drink a glass of beer…not a single one of the many such groups observed did drinking seem to be the most important thing.’
The Five Points area of lower Manhattan was once synonymous with the Irish, poverty, violence and alcoholism. In 1835 renowned frontiersman Davy Crockett visited the area. He compared the Irish of his acquaintance in the western states to the Five Pointers: ‘In my part of the country, when you meet an Irishman, you find a first-rate gentleman; but these are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell's kitchen.’ Charles Dickens passed the same way in 1852 and referred to ‘hideous tenements which take their names from robbery and murder; all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here.’ Jocelyn Greene described the area in her 2014 novel Yankee in Atlanta: ‘If Broadway was Manhattan’s artery, Five Points was its abscess; swollen with people, infected with pestilence, inflamed with vice and crime. Groggeries, brothels and dance halls put private sin on public display. Although the neighbourhood seems fairly self-contained, more fortunate New Yorkers were terrified of Five Points erupting, spreading its contagion to the rest of them.’
The area was originally a pond filled in the authorities to build accommodation for the rapidly expanding immigrant population. However, the builders didn’t take account of the softness of the ground and the condition of the tenements deteriorated quickly. The Irish population in New York City rose from 961,719 in 1850 to 1,611,304 by 1860 and the vast majority of these newly arrived citizens were housed in these abysmal tenements of lower Manhattan. The buildings were often little more than outhouses. In the late nineteenth century, a report on tenement life around Five Points counted one bath tub for 1321 families and one water tap for a floor of apartments. It was an area heavily polluted by industry. Businesses using naphtha, benzene and other flammables made fire a daily hazard. The area was notorious for the number of saloons, brothels and groggeries—the majority owned by Irish and Germans. According to Wilson’s Business Directory of New York City, the sixth ward had a population of 24,000 in 1860. There were 204 groceries and 169 saloons or porter houses. The groceries—more commonly referred to as groggeries—were similar to the spirit groceries of the homeland. The New York Clipper—the first newspaper in the United States dedicated entirely to the entertainment industry—described a typical establishment as having ‘a grease covered counter’ and ‘an inevitable bar’ at the back. Behind the bar the set up was basic: ‘a score of tall necked bottles...a beer barrel stands in the extreme corner, and in these articles we have the most lucrative portion of the grocer’s trade for no purchaser enters the murky store without indulging in a consolatory drink, be their sex as it may.’ Billiards tables and prostitutes were common. Crowne’s Grocery was the best known. It was, according to one of the local Protestant charitable organisations, ‘the most redoubtable stronghold of wickedness on Five Points if not in New York’ and was memorably described by George Foster in his 1850 book New York by gas light: ‘It is not without difficulty we should effect an entrance through the baskets, barrels and boxes, Irish women and sluttish housekeepers, white, black, yellow and brown, thickly crowding the walk right up to the threshold- as if the store were too full of its commodities and customers and some of them had tumbled and rolled outdoors.’ He noted piles of cabbages, potatoes, squashes, eggplants, tomatoes, turnips, eggs, dried apples, chestnuts and beans piled around the floor. Hardware was also in evidence: ‘boxes containing anthracite and charcoal, nails, plug tobacco etc, etc which are dealt out in any quantity from a bushel or a dollar to a cent’s worth...firewood, seven sticks for six-pence, or a cent apiece, and kindling wood three sticks for two cents.’ He described the casks of molasses, rum, whiskey, brandy and all sorts of cordials. The latter, he said, are ‘carefully manufactured in the back room where a kettle and furnace with all the necessary instruments of spiritual devilment, are provided for the purpose.’ After describing a myriad other food stuffs available he describes the bar: ‘Across one end of the room runs a long low black counter armed at either end with bottles of poisoned fire water, doled out at three cents a glass to the loafers and bloated women who frequent the place.’