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 firstname.lastname@example.org.