The iron industry had early development in Berks County. During the eighteenth century it steadily grew in importance; and in 1835 the extensive Reading Iron Works were established. This together with the building of canals drew here a large number of Irish settlers.
It is estimated that as many as 4.5 million Irish arrived in America between 1820 and 1930. Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States. In the 1840s, they comprised nearly half of all immigrants to this nation.
Irish immigrants faced discrimination and were vilified as lazy, drunken, dishonest, and as Catholics, un-American. The gallantry of Irish soldiers during the Civil War, such as the heavily-Irish 116th Pennsylvania, which beat back Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, greatly helped counter the latter prejudice, but the rest of the 19th century still found most Irish immigrants and their first and second generation descendants at the bottom of the social and economic scale. Strikes and violent confrontations between miners, steelworkers, oil workers, and others against increasingly remote, wealthy, and autocratic owners did little to help.
Children of the immigrants generally fared better than their parents in adapting to the new land and the new language. They quickly learned English in school thanks to the patient, but no-nonsense, ministrations of teachers. The youngsters also helped their parents by speaking their new language at home, although in some cases that was forbidden by the elders who feared the loss of their foreign culture.
The city’s total foreign-born stock in 1900 was 5,922 (which increased to 7,861 five years later), with almost half of them from Germany. Surprisingly, the next largest group, 1,005, came from Poland, which made Reading the largest Polish population center per capita in the entire state. They were followed by 461 from Ireland, 432 from England and Wales, 353 from Italy, 274 from Russia and the rest from various other countries. The figures for the eastern and southern European countries signaled the start of a whole new era of immigrant for Reading/Berks.
Crime statistics from those early years of the 20th Century reflect the difficulties this throng of multi-tongued strangers, many of them unable to find jobs beyond that of laborer, posed for the community. City officials were not hesitant to provide ethnic details in their records. A report from Mayor Edward Yeager lists origins of all prisoners in Berks County Jail in 1903. The largest number, 1,192, were described as “Americans.” Others, listed in order, were Irish, German, “colored,” English, “Polander,” Italian and Hungarian.
It is also worth noting that most “crimes” reported that year (without identifying nationalities of the culprits) were relatively innocent:
Drunk, 517; drunk and disorderly, 160; vagrancy, 129; drunk and begging, 88; runaways, 59; disorderly conduct,46; begging, 44; corner loafing, 39; exposing person, 4; insulting ladies, 2; stealing flowers, 1.
There were more serious infractions, of course, but considering the strained social conditions and the fact that they were committed over an entire year, they were remarkably few:
Larceny, 50; assault and battery, 6; embezzlement, 5; robbery, 3; assault, 3; assault with intent to kill, 2, and murder,
The many difficulties led Irish Americans to form strong community supports such as churches, parochial schools, colleges, social groups, beneficial societies and political groups. These all helped promote many second and third generation Irish Americans into the middle class, and into positions of social, economic, and political power in Pennsylvania and the nation.