Immigration issues in Maine? Been there, done that

Irish and French-Canadian immigrants were critical to the growth of Maine during the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Eileen Eagan stares out into the distance.
Eileen Eagan, associate professor emerita of history at the University of Southern Maine.

An interview with Eileen Eagan, associate professor emerita of history at the University of Southern Maine, about the experience of Irish and French-Canadian immigrants in Maine during the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

How did the Irish find their way to Maine?

Eagan: Some came directly to Portland. It’s interesting that many came to Maine via Canada because it was cheaper to travel to Nova Scotia or even Newfoundland than Boston or New York. There was little in the way of immigration control. It was pretty easy unless you obviously had a disease or said you were an anarchist.

How were the Irish received?

Eagan: You can imagine. There are different kinds of nativism, and lot of it has to do with race and religion. By and large, the Protestants didn’t like them because they were Catholics. There was also a racial component. Even in England, there was a sense of the Irish being “black.” So there really was a kind of racial animus toward them. The (contemporary newspaper) cartoon depictions of the Irish in particular were similar to cartoons depicting African Americans.

It was the usual thing. People liked them because they would do the labor, and they didn’t have to pay them much. But even the nice, liberal Protestants thought the Irish were too rowdy and drank too much.

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What would the economic impact have been without this wave of Irish immigrants?

Eagan: Who else was going to build the Cumberland and Oxford Canal? Portland wouldn’t have been an industrial trading city without the Irish longshoremen, and it would have been hard to keep middle-class people here if you didn’t have the Irish women doing the domestic work.

Did Irish workers displace others?

Eagan: They did take jobs from African Americans. There’s no getting around it. The longshoremen competed with the African Americans for jobs. They didn’t take jobs from the Yankees (the native-born Protestant population). It wasn’t as if the Yankees wanted to come down and work on the docks.

Does the competition between the Irish and African Americans account for some of the historic animus between the groups?

Eagan: I think a lot of that was because they were being pitted against each other for crummy jobs. It’s interesting that there was a period in New York when there was more solidarity between African Americans and the Irish. There was more intermarriage than people remember. But people were able to manipulate hostility between the groups. Politicians became skilled in exploiting that.

Another key group were the French-Canadians. Can you talk about their journey to Maine and their work in the state’s mills?

Eagan: The flood of French-Canadian immigrants came after the Civil War. There was a decline in the farming communities of Quebec, and the coming of the railroad made the journey to Maine for jobs in the mills easier. The mills advertised for immigrant workers. They said, ‘Come get a job in Biddeford or Lewiston.’

How was the language barrier addressed?

Eagan: Some schools were already teaching French, but as more French came, they founded Catholic schools. There were even orders of nuns from Quebec who came down and started schools and could then talk to them in French.

How were the French received?

Eagan: Well, the mills loved them. Like the Irish, the French had a lot of children, so you could also have child labor since nobody made enough to support their families on the adults’ wages. And the women worked in the mills. There’s a myth that women didn’t work in the mills. In fact, a lot of Irish and French women did work in the mills or canning factories.

You could say there’s still a backlash against French Canadians. Because of the language and their religion, the feelings against them haven’t entirely disappeared. I was shocked when I moved to Maine that people would use the word “French” as an insult. One difference between the French and the Irish is that the French tried to keep their language. The French were determined for at least a generation to keep the language, but then, for their children’s sake, they learned English.

What would the economic impact have been with no wave of French-Canadians?

Eagan: The mills could never have survived. The Yankees had a lower birth rate. Once, there had been a surplus of farmers’ daughters to work in the mills, but there really weren’t enough of them for the textile or paper mills. If it weren’t for immigration, there just would not have been enough people. The same is true for Irish longshoreman. In those days, loading ships was very labor intensive and very dangerous.

Besides the Irish and French, what other groups have played a role in Maine’s growth?

Eagan: Before the Civil War, free blacks came to Maine via the Underground Railroad because the state was a relatively safe place. Many black men worked on the railroads as porters, and the women worked in the segregated boarding houses where porters would stay on A Street and B Street in Portland next to Union Station.

There were Scandinavians, Greeks and the Armenians, who worked in pottery factories and then started small businesses. Before WWI, there were Jewish immigrants who settled on Munjoy Hill and built synagogues and even a retirement home. There were also Chinese immigrants who worked in laundries in Maine. In Portland, there were 20 Chinese laundries that did work for hotels. Italians came in the 1880s-90s, with many working in stone cutting and quarrying. That’s a case where a group brought needed skills with them.

Were there organized anti-immigrant efforts in Maine?

Eagan: In the 1840s and 50s, there was the Know-Nothing party. (Formally called the American Party, this national party was founded to fight immigration and Catholicism.) In Maine, there was the burning of a Catholic church in Bath (in the 1854 anti-Catholic riot). So, some of that was in Maine, and, of course, you have the more informal racism.

The rise of the (Maine Ku Klux) Klan in the 20s was anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic. This rise came after WWI and the Red Scare. The 20s were the time of Sacco and Vanzetti, and people were reading about anarchists. Also, groups such as Catholics were getting more assertive.

To be fair, there were some economic issues. Some of it was job related. It is true that Irish were taking some jobs, and in some areas the job issue was a zero-sum game. But what did they really have to be worried about by the Irish, the French or the Jews?

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 limited Chinese immigration, and then the 1924 Exclusion Act set quotas that favored western and northern Europeans and excluded Asians and eastern Europeans and also Italians, and Jews.

What parallels do you see between past and present debates about the role of immigrants in Maine’s workforce?

Eagan: Maine is a funny place. Obviously, Maine could use more people, and so could North Dakota. But the economic argument is still going on.

One thing that is different is that there are now people here who are trying to be nice to the immigrants. In the past, not a lot of people wanted to be nice. So, whether it’s Catholic Charities or other groups, it’s better in some ways. But there are the people who aren’t so nice. If I want to be upbeat, I’d say there are more people who are welcoming.

The cultural issues aren’t new. For the Irish and French, the transitions from working in an agrarian culture to working in factories was not an easy thing. And figuring out religion in the workplace isn’t new. For example, you had Orthodox Jews and the question of working on Saturdays.

What can be learned from the experience of past immigrant groups?

Eagan: One of the lessons is not to be too freaked out. People should calm down because eventually things change, immigrants adapt, people adapt. I also think new immigrants can learn something from the old immigrants. It’s important for them to know that they aren’t the first people to go through this. How did the previous immigrants adapt? The trick is that you can adapt by learning some new things and keeping some old things. The main thing is that it’s not all or nothing.


Peter Weed

Peter Weed’s journalism career has included covering wine and crime for the Napa (Calif.) Register, serving as deputy sports editor for the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune, and working as a sports editor and special sections editor for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Along the way, he has seen grown journalists on deadline cry, upend desks and throw chairs into walls. He also taught for three years at the University of Missouri while pursuing graduate studies. Peter has done freelance work for clients ranging from multinational companies to local hunger-relief nonprofits and is the East Coast editor at large for MovieMaker Magazine, for which he has written about biker gangs, British gangsters, French criminals and other denizens of the film underworld.
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