The Irish Immigrant Community of the Far West Village
In 1991, the U.S. Congress proclaimed March Irish-American Heritage Month. Today we thought we would look at one part of our neighborhood that housed a large Irish immigrant community which greatly affected its development, the Far West Village.
The beginnings of what would become a huge wave of Irish immigration to New York City began in the early 19th century. Many of the first immigrants came to dig the Erie Canal which began in 1818, and then returned to the growing Irish neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan. At this time, the transatlantic shipping service between New York and Liverpool was established, and New York, with 771 miles of wharfage, was becoming a center of global commerce. In the 1820s and 1830s, some Irish immigrants held positions as skilled artisans, but most came to work as domestic servants, construction workers, and longshoremen, helping to construct New York’s port.
Two significant waves of Irish immigration followed this period: one during the famine years of 1845 through the 1850s, and another after the American Civil War. By the end of the 19th century, the edge of the West Village was dominated by the Irish. Along St. Luke’s Place could be found a row of houses inhabited by the Irish middle-class, descendants of earlier immigrants. To the west of this prosperous enclave, dozens of tenements had emerged, housing working-class Irish immigrants, most of whom had arrived in the United States in the past twenty years. Much like the immigrants who had come before them, these residents worked in unskilled and semi-skilled positions, as seamstresses, washerwomen, factory workers, janitors, truck drivers, and longshoremen. Longshoremen’s work was especially brutal, low-paying, erratic, seasonal, and localized. When there was no work at the pier where a worker was normally hired, he could try to pick up work at another pier, but there was often an enormous amount of competition for these gigs. Still, this process was easiest for Irishmen, who were selected over workers of other ethnicities. Strikingly, 95 percent of the longshoremen working between Canal Street and Chelsea at this time were Irish.
New Catholic churches and schools, stables, blacksmith shops, and feed stores were built in the area to serve the growing Irish population. One such church was St. Veronica’s Roman Catholic Church at 149-155 Christopher Street, built in 1890 and designed by John J. Deery. The new parish was founded in 1887 and organized by archbishop Michael A. Corrigan due to the rapid increase in the population of Catholics in the city at this time and to stem the overflow felt at nearby St. Joseph’s R.C. Church at 365 Sixth Avenue. For the first fifty years, the parish was primarily Irish, within what had become largely catholic Greenwich Village.
The parish would also take over what was formerly P.S. 107 at 272 West 10th Street, as part of a deal with the New York Central Railroad in exchange for property the parish owned that the railroad needed for its new elevated freight line (now known as The High Line). The school was originally designed in 1885 by David I. Stagg, the NYC Board of Education’s Superintendent of School Buildings from 1872 to 1886. Located to the rear of the church, St. Veronica’s parochial school was dedicated in 1932.
With the opening of the Ninth Avenue El in 1868, this far western section of Greenwich Village was less desirable to those who could afford single-family row houses. Many such houses were tenementized (converted from single-family houses to multi-family) or new tenement housing was erected. One such building as identified in the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension I was 661 Washington Street. The property was bought by Irish-born James Roon (c. 1829-c. 1891) and his wife Anastasia in 1883. A liquor dealer on Tenth Avenue, Roon was later the grandfather to future New York City mayor James J. Walker. The property at No. 661 at the time of purchase was the site of a four-story brick factory and two-story brick stable. The buildings were altered into a five-story tenement, designed by Joseph M. Dunn. The 1900 U.S. Federal Census shows that all of the occupants were Irish-born or Irish descendants.
Middle-class Irish saloons filled out the growing neighborhood. Saloons and bars, which appeared on every block, were particularly important fixtures during this period. Many were opened by the older generation of Irish immigrants (as seen in the case of Roon), who had accrued some wealth and could open such businesses with relative ease. Often, saloon and bar owners were also leaders of the community, and of the county societies specifically, reinforcing these sites as political places. For instance, in the mid-20th century, Whitey Munson, the grandfather of the longtime owner of the White Horse Tavern, James Munson, was a boss at the docks, and a dominant figure in the longshoremen community and the Irish community at large. At the saloons, politicians could meet residents, residents could canvass on behalf of politicians, and the community could connect over its Irish heritage. Workers could drink and socialize at the bars well, and many would spend their entire paycheck at a bar after a day’s labor. If someone ran out of money, or gave it to his family, loan sharks would provide additional money with devastating interest rates.
To learn more about our efforts to protect the Far West Village and landmark the interior of the White Horse Tavern, click HERE.