On St. Patrick’s Day, celebrate, but remember

Loc­al his­tor­i­an Ken Mil­ano shows off his­tor­ic­al ar­ti­facts found in his re­search for his forth­com­ing book, “The Kens­ing­ton Ri­ots.” STAR PHOTO / SAM NE­W­HOUSE

In his new­est book, loc­al his­tor­i­an and former Star colum­nist Ken Mil­ano writes of the his­tory of Ir­ish im­mig­rants in the River Wards. While it’s not a pretty tale, great­er un­der­stand­ing can help lead to a great­er ap­pre­ci­ation for all things Ir­ish this week­end.

On St. Patrick’s Day this Sunday, many loc­al res­id­ents will don green, knock back a few beers, and proudly drive around with Ir­ish flags hanging from their cars, a long­stand­ing St. Patrick’s Day tra­di­tion.

Those tra­di­tions re­main stead­fast in the areas’ Ir­ish com­munit­ies and bey­ond, and giv­en the his­tory of the Ir­ish in the River Wards, tra­di­tion and cul­tur­al pride are very im­port­ant.

What some folks today might not know is that 160 years ago, Ir­ish im­mig­rants were so hated in Kens­ing­ton in par­tic­u­lar that they were the tar­get of three days of deadly vi­ol­ence that left a Cath­ol­ic church burnt to the ground, and an es­tim­ated 28 men dead.

Just ask Ken Mil­ano, a gene­a­lo­gist whose sixth book on loc­al his­tory, The Kens­ing­ton Ri­ots, is ex­pec­ted to be pub­lished this sum­mer.

Ac­cord­ing to Mil­ano, in 19th-cen­tury Phil­adelphia, when the coun­try was in its in­fancy, slightly more seni­or Amer­ic­ans hated the im­mig­rant Ir­ish with a pas­sion. Mil­ano, who for many years wrote the column “The Rest is His­tory” for Star, said that he knows the in­di­vidu­als who fought in the Kens­ing­ton ri­ots by name.

In 1844, Ir­ish im­mig­rants had es­tab­lished a small com­munity around St. Mi­chael’s Church, at 2nd and Jef­fer­son streets in the Olde Kens­ing­ton area, roughly equidistant from the bound­ar­ies of North­ern Liber­ties and Fishtown. 

Mil­ano has read di­ar­ies from a Quaker wo­man of this time peri­od, who wrote of people walk­ing around car­ry­ing “Pad­dies” – ef­fi­gies of Ir­ish­men, with potato neck­laces, pipes stuck in their mouths, and bottles stuck in their hands, and then leav­ing those ef­fi­gies strung up by the necks in Ir­ish neigh­bor­hoods – ef­fect­ively lynch­ing Ir­ish­men in ef­figy.

But that ap­palling be­ha­vi­or was just a pre­curs­or to the Kens­ing­ton Ri­ots, the three bloody days in May 1844 Mil­ano fo­cused on in his new book.

Mil­ano said that while people of­ten as­so­ci­ate the in­flux of Ir­ish im­mig­rants and op­pos­i­tion to them with the potato fam­ine, that wasn’t un­til 1845. Pri­or to that, the mostly Prot­est­ant River Wards were very troubled by the Cath­ol­ic Ir­ish im­mig­rants. 

River Wards res­id­ents who traced their lin­eage back to the Re­volu­tion­ary War didn’t think that Ir­ish im­mig­rants un­der­stood Amer­ic­an re­pub­lic­an­ism, Mil­ano said. Since the vot­ing age then was 21, they didn’t think an im­mig­rant should be able to get the right to vote less than five years after mov­ing to Amer­ica – they thought it should take 21 years of liv­ing in the U.S.A. to earn the right to vote.

And in schools, Ir­ish chil­dren would re­fuse to read from the King James Bible, which wasn’t seen as prop­erly Cath­ol­ic. So the Ir­ish were charged with try­ing to take the bible out of the classroom. The “long arm of the Pope” was seen in this re­fus­al by Ir­ish im­mig­rants, Mil­ano said.

Lewis Lev­in, a con­ver­ted Jew who was a tem­per­ance ad­voc­ate and be­came a U.S. Con­gress­man, was a fiery anti-Ir­ish orator and mem­ber of the “Nat­iv­ist” party, which priv­ileged “Nat­ive” Amer­ic­ans – those who had been here longer, that is.

The day be­fore the Kens­ing­ton Ri­ots, in fact, Lev­in got in­to a street fight with some Ir­ish­men who were mock­ing the Nat­iv­ists, Mil­ano said.

So Lev­in and the Nat­iv­ists de­cided to hold a rally at 2nd and Amer­ic­an streets, which was, at the time, in the heart of the biggest Ir­ish pop­u­la­tion.

“I liken it to the Ku Klux Klan try­ing to hold a rally in North Philly,” Mil­ano said.

Now home to the Crane Arts Cen­ter, in 1844 there was in that area a pop­u­lar “nanny goat mar­ket” – what today would be called a farm­er’s mar­ket – Ir­ish homes, the Ir­ish Hi­ber­ni­an Hose Com­pany of fire­fight­ers, and at 2nd and Jef­fer­son streets, St. Mi­chael’s Church, com­plete with rect­ory and nun­nery.

By May 8, it was all burned to the ground.

It was three days of slug­fests, brawl­ing, shoot­ing, stone throw­ing, vi­ol­ence and death, in the streets of Kens­ing­ton, Mil­ano said, by the end of which the mil­it­ary was called in to quell the vi­ol­ence.

Mil­ano’s book of­fers all the his­tor­ic­al de­tails, but what is per­haps most im­port­ant to the glee­fully green this Sunday is pride — in home, cul­ture, coun­try, and all things Ir­ish, des­pite the past. 

The Kens­ing­ton Ri­ots by Ken­neth Mil­ano is forth­com­ing from The His­tory Press.

Re­port­er Sam Ne­w­house can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at sne­w­house@bsmphilly.com.

You can reach at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.

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