Anti-Irish Riots Erupt in Philadelphia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During a period of rising immigration from European and intercultural friction in the United States, nativists rioted against Irish-Catholic workers in Philadelphia.

Summary of Event

Rapid population growth, industrialization, and cultural conflicts characterized urban America life during the 1840’s and helped produce bloody anti-Irish riots in Philadelphia’s industrial suburbs of Kensington and Southwark in the summer of 1844. Already the second largest U.S. city in 1840, Philadelphia saw its population grow Philadelphia;population growth by more than one-third during the 1840’s, from twenty-five thousand to thirty-six thousand people. Hard-pressed by the Great Famine that had devastated the potato crops Potatoes;and Irish immigration[Irish immigration] in their homeland, Irish immigrants stimulated this growth and made up 10 percent of Philadelphia’s population in 1844. Nativism, U.S.;and anti-Irish riots[AntiIrish Riots] Irish immigrants;rioting against Philadelphia;anti-Irish riots Immigration;to United States[United States] Roman Catholics;and anti-Irish riots[AntiIrish Riots] Roman Catholics;immigrants [kw]Anti-Irish Riots Erupt in Philadelphia (May 6-July 5, 1844) [kw]Irish Riots Erupt in Philadelphia, Anti- (May 6-July 5, 1844) [kw]Riots Erupt in Philadelphia, Anti-Irish (May 6-July 5, 1844) [kw]Erupt in Philadelphia, Anti-Irish Riots (May 6-July 5, 1844) [kw]Philadelphia, Anti-Irish Riots Erupt in (May 6-July 5, 1844) Nativism, U.S.;and anti-Irish riots[AntiIrish Riots] Irish immigrants;rioting against Philadelphia;anti-Irish riots Immigration;to United States[United States] Roman Catholics;and anti-Irish riots[AntiIrish Riots] Roman Catholics;immigrants [g]United States;May 6-July 5, 1844: Anti-Irish Riots Erupt in Philadelphia[2310] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 6-July 5, 1844: Anti-Irish Riots Erupt in Philadelphia[2310] [c]Immigration;May 6-July 5, 1844: Anti-Irish Riots Erupt in Philadelphia[2310] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 6-July 5, 1844: Anti-Irish Riots Erupt in Philadelphia[2310] Cadwalader, George Clark, Hugh Kenrick, Francis Patrick Kramer, Samuel Levin, Lewis Charles McMichael, Morton

Prior to the development of commuter railroads and automobiles, most urban residents lived near their workplace, and cities were densely populated. Low-income newcomers such as the Irish resided in cheap, substandard housing and experienced all the ills of disorderly urban growth that were familiar to longtime Philadelphians. Lacking in job skills and capital, Irish immigrants typically filled the bottom rungs in the emerging industrial order’s occupational ladder.

Title page of a Douay Bible, which was at the heart of the anti-Irish riots. The page features an illustration of New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

(Library of Congress)

As its population grew, Philadelphia expanded its involvement in large-scale manufacturing. By 1840, half of Philadelphia’s sixteen thousand working adults labored in manufacturing, and 89 percent of the workers in Kensington toiled in industrial trades. American-born whites predominated in such well-paying craft occupations as ship carpenter and ironmaker, leaving their lower-paying jobs requiring less skill, such as weaving, to Irish newcomers. Perceiving European immigrants and African Americans as competitors, many white American workers used violence to drive them from trades and neighborhoods.

During the 1830’s, Philadelphia, Philadelphia;labor unions Labor unions;Philadelphia like other major cities, hosted a strong working-class trade union and political movement. At its height, the General Trades Union of Philadelphia City and County (GTU) counted more than ten thousand members who represented more than fifty different trades. Collective action in an 1835 general strike for a ten-hour day succeeded in winning shorter hours and wage hikes in numerous workplaces. GTU activists voted against conservative Whigs opposed to strikes and Roman Catholic immigrants. The Panic of 1837 weakened the GTU and undermined the solidarity of its culturally and occupationally diverse constituency.





During the 1840’s, native-born Protestant Americans who were skilled workers fought for a dwindling supply of jobs and received little help from the financially weakened GTU. Evangelical Protestants from all social classes joined moral reform campaigns for temperance Temperance movement;in United States[United States] and strict observance of the Sabbath. Temperance and Sabbatarianism symbolized American-born white workers’ efforts to survive hard times through personal discipline. Workers made up the majority of temperance societies in industrial suburbs such as Kensington and Southwark. Moral reforms often attacked immigrant cultural institutions, such as the Roman Catholic Church and Sunday tavern visits. Economic contraction and moral reform eroded the GTU’s bonds of working-class solidarity, which might have prevented ethnic conflict in 1844.

The American Republican Party American Republican Party , dedicated to eliminating the influence of Catholic immigrants in public life, exploited the anxieties of native-born workers. The party flourished briefly in eastern cities during the mid-1840’s, drawing support from American-born workers and middle-class professionals, such as Philadelphia’s Lewis Charles Levin Levin, Lewis Charles , a struggling lawyer and aspiring politician from South Carolina.

In the spring of 1844, American Republicans campaigned against attempts of Catholic voters to protect their children from Protestant religious instruction in the public schools. Protestant-dominated Philadelphia schools used the King James Version of the Bible Bible;in schools[Schools] as a classroom textbook. Objecting that the King James Version was not authoritative, Catholics preferred the Douay Bible;Douay Bible, which included annotations written by Vatican officials. Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic bishop, Francis Patrick Kenrick, Kenrick, Francis Patrick wanted public schools to allow Catholic students to bring their own Bibles to class or be exempted from Protestant religious instruction. American Republicans accused Philadelphia Catholics of plotting to remove the Bible from the schools entirely and to have papist priests take over classrooms.

In April, 1844, American Republicans staged rallies across Philadelphia to whip up support for their nativist program. Violence between the Irish and nativists broke out when nativists gathered near Irish neighborhoods. American Republicans American Republican Party scheduled a mass meeting for May 6 in Kensington’s third ward, a neighborhood that was home mainly to Irish weavers. On May 6, rain drove hundreds of nativists who traveled to the third ward rally to seek cover at the Nanny Goat Market, a covered lot of market stalls. Approximately thirty Irish waited at the market, and one yelled, “Keep the damned natives out of the market house; it don’t belong to them. This ground is ours!” Samuel Kramer Kramer, Samuel , the editor of the pro-American Republican American Republican Party Native American newspaper (named for Anglo-American nativists, not American Indians), tried to finish his speech against the Catholic proposals for the Douay Bible, Bible;Douay but Irish hecklers drowned him out. A shoving match escalated into fistfights and gunfire as nativists and Irish battled for control of the market house. Police arrived at dusk and temporarily restored order. Four men died, three of them nativists, and many more were wounded in the fighting.

The next day, nativists massed in Kensington for revenge. The Native American Native American (newspaper) ran the headline: “Let Every Man Come Prepared to Defend Himself!” A parade of nativists marched through Kensington under a U.S. flag and a banner declaring, “This is the flag that was trampled underfoot by Irish Papists.” Nativist mobs rampaged through Kensington for two more days, burning homes and invading two Catholic churches, where rioters defaced religious objects and looted valuables. Although Sheriff Morton McMichael McMichael, Morton tried to calm public disorder, police were too few in number to stop the violence. Needing reinforcements, McMichael called on General George Cadwalader, Cadwalader, George the commander of the First Brigade of Pennsylvania state militia, stationed in Philadelphia. On May 10, state troops brought peace to the city and kept it under martial law for a week.

Tension continued in June, amid criticism of city officials and militia commanders for failing to prevent violence. American Republicans still had public support, and Catholics worried about more violence. Catholics feared that nativists would use July 4 patriotic celebrations as a pretext to riot. Parishioners at St. Philip’s Church in Southwark, just south of Philadelphia, hoarded weapons inside the church in order to defend it. Hearing of the arms cache, on July 5, Levin Levin, Lewis Charles led thousands of nativists, including volunteer militia with cannons, to St. Philip’s to demand the weapons. Stung by earlier criticism, Cadwalader’s militia promptly seized the church and ordered nativists away. When the mob refused to move, Cadwalader Cadwalader, George opened fire and a pitched battle involving cannon and rifle fire ensued for a day and a half. Helped by city police, the militia eventually prevailed in fighting that left two rioters dead and dozens of state troops and civilians wounded.

The American Republican Party campaigned on the riots by attacking reigning politicians as the allies of Irish Catholics and making martyrs of the nativists killed in the riots. In October, Levin Levin, Lewis Charles and another American Republican won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, and nativists captured several county offices, mostly on the strength of votes from working-class Kensington and Southwark. The American Republicans faded during the late 1840’s, but nativists returned during the 1850’s under the aegis of the American, or Know-Nothing, Party.


The riots forced Irish Philadelphians to band together as an ethnic group. The most prominent Irish opponent of the mobs was Hugh Clark Clark, Hugh , a prosperous master weaver and ward politician. Clark had stridently opposed striking Irish journeymen weavers prior to 1844. Master weavers, some of them Irishmen like Clark, cut journeymen’s wages in the wake of the Kensington riot, confident that few non-Irish workers would protest the cuts. Bishop Kenrick Kenrick, Francis Patrick urged conciliation and softened his public position on the Bible Bible;Douay controversy. American Republican anger at police and militia actions temporarily stalled police reform, but during the 1850’s, Philadelphia and other cities established professional police departments to prevent more riots like those of 1844.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Susan G. Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986. Examines public celebrations that frequently turned violent, such as the parade that became a riot in Kensington.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feldberg, Michael. The Philadelphia Riots of 1844: A Study of Ethnic Conflict. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975. The most comprehensive account of the anti-Irish riots yet published.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gabaccia, Donna R. Immigration and American Diversity: A Social and Cultural History. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. Survey of American immigration history, from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twenty-first century, with an emphasis on cultural and social trends, with attention to ethnic conflicts, nativism, and racialist theories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knobel, Dale T. Paddy and the Republic: Ethnicity and Nationality in Antebellum America. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1986. Study of nativistic stereotypes of the Irish that fed the Philadelphia riots.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lannie, Vincent P., and Bernard C. Diethorn. “For the Honor and Glory of God: The Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844.” History of Education Quarterly 8, no. 1 (Spring, 1968): 44-106. Penetrating examination of the Bible controversy in Philadelphia schools that helped to fuel the riots.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Montgomery, David. “The Shuttle and the Cross: Weavers and Artisans in the Kensington Riots of 1844.” Journal of Social History 5, no. 4 (Summer, 1972): 411-446. Analysis of the Philadelphia riots that examines the conflict in terms of social class.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paulson, Timothy J. Irish Immigrants. New York: Facts On File, 2005. Broad survey of Irish immigration history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warner, Sam Bass, Jr. The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Its Growth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968. General history of Philadelphia that analyzes the riots in the context of other disturbances and police reform.

Irish Immigration to Canada

American Era of “Old” Immigration

Great Irish Famine

Fenian Risings for Irish Independence

American Protective Association Is Formed

Categories: History