TOM DEIGNAN writes about the deadly “Orange Riots” in New York City in 1871.
Thanks in large part to Martin Scorsese’s epic movie, Gangs of New York, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio and Liam Neeson, the New York Draft Riots are now more or less permanently lodged in the consciousness of most Irish-Americans who are interested in their history.
A slew of books written prior to the movie’s release also helped. There is Peter Quinn’ s epic 1994 novel, The Banished Children of Eve, as well as Kevin Baker’s equally accomplished tome Paradise Alley written a decade later.
And the books just keep on coming. In 2005, Barnet Schecter published yet another well-received study of the Draft Riots entitled The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America (Walker & Company).
But there were another series of Irish American riots in July. They were about as deadly as the Draft Riots. And they forced Irishman to fight Irishman. True, such fighting was seen during the Draft Riots too: Immigrant police officers had to arrest, even fire upon, their rampaging countrymen. Irish-born soldiers from the frontlines of the U.S. Civil War were also called in to put down Irish rioters.
But during the Riots of July 12, 1871 – the so-called Orange Riots – ancient troubles from Ireland were transported directly to American soil.
The Catholic-Protestant tension you see to this day in Northern Ireland unfolded in a bloody way on the streets of New York, first in 1870, then more ferociously in 1871.
When all was said and done, scores were dead, hundreds were injured, and the Irish-dominated political machine of Tammany Hall collapsed. The Orange Riots also “made clear that there could never again be an Irish America including Protestants and Catholics,” according to scholar Timothy J. Meagher.
So what exactly were these Orange Riots, and how did they come about?
TWEED’S RISE AND FALL
That the Orange Riots led to the downfall of Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall is quite ironic. After all, Tweed rose to power by brokering – some might say in an exploitative fashion – a peace deal between Irish Democrats and Protestant reformers in the wake of the Draft Riots of 1863.
But by 1870, anti-Tammany (which often meant the same thing as anti-Irish Catholic) forces of reform were swirling around a vulnerable Boss Tweed. The New York Times and other elites never missed an opportunity to groan about corruption at Tammany Hall, and their belief that New York City had become a scrubby outpost of Dublin.
In this context, the annual march of the American Orange Order was held on the West Side of Manhattan. The Orange Order was formed in Ireland in 1795 “to maintain and uphold the Protestant Faith,” according to their charter.
The group was named for William III, Prince of Orange, who defeated the Catholic James II at The Battle of the Boyne in Ireland in 1690.
As far back as the 1820s, according to The Encyclopedia of the City of New York, there was tension between Irish Catholics and Protestants during the July 12 march, which still attracts controversy to this day in Northern Ireland.
Famed exiled United Irishman Thomas Addis Emmet noted that in July of 1824 the Orange marchers received a “humiliating thrashing” from the “Green Irish.”
The “Orange Irish” population of New York had historically been significant. But, following the massive Famine immigration of Catholics in the 1840s and 1850s, it was soon dwarfed by the Irish Catholic population. Once the Tammany Democrats sided with Irish Catholics, it was clear that any hostility Protestant New York Irish (who were generally Republican) had for their Catholic Irish counterparts would likely grow.
BOYNE DAY PARADE
So, in July of 1870, as Michael A. Gordon notes in his authoritative study The Orange Riots: Irish Political Violence in New York City, 1870 and 1871, two thousand or so Orangemen gathered in lower Manhattan and marched all the way uptown to Elm Park at Ninety-Second Street, where a Boyne Day Picnic was planned. Significantly, the march was also joined by members of the American Protective Association (APA), a nativist group best known for its hostilities towards Catholics in general and Irish immigrants in particular.
As is often the case with events such as this, accounts differ as to which side caused fists to fly and shots to be fired. Gordon and others say the Orangemen taunted Irish Catholic laborers along the parade route, singing tunes such as “Protestant Boys” and “Croppies, Lie Down.” There was even one report of a pistol being fired into a Catholic church.
Some on the Orange side said it was the immigrants who launched an unprovoked attack on the peaceful parade.
Either way, Irish Catholic workers eventually broke down the Elm Park gates, “scaled fences, and attacked those inside,” Gordon has written.
“Fighting spilled onto nearby streets, then eastward to Central Park, then down to Eighty-Second Street, and finally onto Eighth and Ninth A venue streetcars as Orangemen and APA members tried to hurry their families to safety.”
Only a burst of rain cooled off the battle, which at one point covered some 30 city blocks according to Gordon.
Eight people died, and blame tended to fall on the city’s Irish Catholic community. The New York Daily Tribune used the riot as an opportunity to blast Tweed and Tammany lawlessness, saying the Irish supported “free murder, free drunkenness and free rioting.” This was an echo of the decades-old nativist charge that the Irish favored “rum, Romanism and rebellion.”
With the Draft Riots still fresh in New Yorkers’ minds, all the stereotypes about the city’ s Irish returned to prominence.
Famed diarist George Templeton Strong captured the mood of many when he wrote that the Orange Irish “were set upon by a swarm of base and brutal Celts.”
In the wake of the July 1870 violence, one question loomed: What was going to happen at the parade of 1871?
THE PARADE MUST GO ON
Proving that Tweed was not the only person able to exploit a situation, The New York Times launched a massive exposé on Tammany corruption just days before the 1871 Boyne Day Parade approached.
With Democrats and reformers slinging mud at each other, tensions were high as the July 12 parade approached. In fact, New York Democratic mayor A. Oakley Hall – taking advice from the city’s Ancient Order of Hibernians and Knights of St. Patrick – thought the best solution was to pressure his police chief into canceling the parade at the last minute, on July 11.
But Governor John T. Hoffman swiftly overruled the cancellation, promising National Guard protection for the Orange marchers.
Rumors of Catholic and Protestant rioters flooding the city swarmed as July 12, 1871 dawned. This year the Orangemen were marching down Eighth Avenue from Twenty-Ninth Street. Bricks and bats had already flown sporadically before the 2:30 start time.
When the parade did kick off, all hell broke loose. A shower of “tossed bottles, refuse, boots, kettles, stones, and other missiles” (Gordon’s words) rained down on the marchers.
Tribal hatreds over 200 years old and rooted in Ireland had made their way to New York City. A full-blown Irish Civil War had broken out on Manhattan’s West Side.
Well over 60 people, mostly Irish immigrants, were killed on July 12, 1871. Gordon notes that none of the dead were Orangemen.
The city’ s Republican elites smelled blood alright, but it was, if you will, political blood. With the Irish Catholics weakened by the Orange Riots of 1871, their opponents believed that now was the time to finish off Tammany and its Irish supporters.
The Times and other papers continued to print charges of Tammany corruption. Famed cartoonist Thomas Nast penned vivid illustrations, as he had been doing for two decades, blaming Tweed, Tammany, and the Irish for more violence.
As Kenneth T. Ackerman writes in his recent biography of Tweed, “the political fallout from the back-to-back debacles – the Orange Riots and the Times disclosures,” was too much for Tweed and Tammany to survive.
Interestingly, the Orange Parade was never held after 1871 (according to Gordon). But the Orange Riots dislodged Tammany from power. Following a reformer-led investigation by the so-called Committee of Seventy, Tweed was arrested, and the city’s middle and upper classes breathed easier feeling that these violent-minded agents of Rome no longer roamed the halls of power in New York.
Of course, as they did eight years earlier, many were roaming New York’s graveyard, burying their dead. The Troubles that these banished children of Eve thought they had left behind were haunting them still. ♦
This article originally appeared in the August / September 2006 issue of Irish America.