The Riots of Philadelphia

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIII (12) start of chapter

In 1844 the memorable riots of Philadelphia occurred. It was the old story again. Sectarian bigotry and ignorant prejudice appealed to by reckless firebrands and intriguing politicians; lies, calumnies, and misrepresentations; old falsehoods dug up and furbished afresh, and new falsehoods invented for the occasion; clamour from the press, the platform, and the pulpit—with the grand cry, 'The Bible in danger!—Save it from the Papists!' The only possible ground of this affected alarm for the Bible was the simple fact that the Catholics required that when their children were compelled to read the Bible in the Public Schools, it should be the recognised Catholic version of the Scriptures and not the Protestant version. But the world knows how easy it is to get up a cry, and how it is oftentimes the more effective when based on entire falsehood. Add, then, to this dishonest cry, unreasoning hatred of the foreigner, and bitter hostility to the foreigner's creed, and you have the combustibles, which only required a match and an opportunity, in order to ensure an explosion. And a terrible and savage explosion of human passion it was, scattering confusion and death through one of the fairest cities of the Union, and casting discredit on its boasted civilisation. There was a 'Protestant Association' at its vicious work in those days, and among its most active members were Irishmen, who had brought with them across the ocean the old fierce spirit of Orangeism, which so far blinded their reason and stifled their sense of honour, that they were not ashamed then, as on subsequent occasions, to join with the Native American and Know Nothing party, in their mad crusade against the 'foreigner' —that foreigner their own countryman! During the riots the Orange flag, the symbol of fraternal strife in the old land, in which its children should leave behind them their wicked animosities, was displayed during the shameful riots of 1844.(39) Where there was anything like the semblance of an organisation for defence, the Irish Catholics displayed a courage worthy of their cause; but the means of resistance were not sufficient, nor were they taken in time, and the result is thus described in the words of an excellent Episcopalian clergyman, who felt, with poignant shame, the dishonour cast by national prejudice and brutal fanaticism upon his beautiful city. The author of the 'Olive Branch' thus sums up the wicked deeds of the rioters:—

The Native American party has existed for a period hardly reaching five months, and in that time of its being, what has been seen? Two Catholic churches burnt, one thrice fired and desecrated, a Catholic seminary and retreat consumed by the torches of an incendiary mob, two rectories and a most valuable library destroyed, forty dwellings in ruins, about forty human lives sacrificed, and sixty of our fellow citizens wounded; riot, and rebellion, and treason, rampant, on two occasions, in our midst; the laws set boldly at defiance, and peace and order prostrated by ruffian violence.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

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