Sisters of Charity

Sarah Matilda White, 1853

More Irish seem to arrive here every day,
like rats fleeing a ship that’s going down.
Their women troll our streets for men at night;
their children run wild all day in shanty-town.

They come in coffin ships, with little more
than faith and hunger. Ignorant, unskilled,
they seem hell-bent on making themselves less,
like prodigal sons content to live in swill.

People who have nothing will rob the poor
to feed their children. Now I lock the house
and clutch my purse, as fearful as the rich.
They’re starved of hope, desperate, and unwashed.

But I do like that flock of Irish nuns
who swoop like crows, catching truants by the ear
and marching them to school, then wake the tarts
to steer them toward respectable careers.

They are taking thousands of white fugitive slaves
who can’t imagine better lives beyond
full stomachs, work, and a hovel called home,
and teaching them to dream of a free dawn!



The Irish famine refugees met with vehement racism from nativeborn American whites when they arrived in America. Many newspaper articles and cartoons depicted them as inferior to blacks. Father John Hughes (1797–1864), a fierce advocate of abolition and the rights of Irish immigrants, was the first Roman Catholic bishop, and then archbishop, of New York. He fought strenuously on behalf of the Irish, forcing reforms in the anti-Catholic public schools, inviting Roman Catholic religious orders to come to the city, and instituting a system of parochial schools (including four universities).

Copyright © 2015 Marilyn Nelson. Published with permission of Namelos Editions.