Shanty Irish were poor Irish people who had not a pot to piss in. Many shanty Irish came over on the boat during the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. They came in great numbers to America and settled in some of the first ethnic ghettos or shanty towns in Boston, New York, Cleveland, and other cities across the U.S. Many came with nothing but the clothes on their back and whatever they could carry.
Shanty Irish is what the upper class Irish call the lower class Irish. When the impoverished Irish emigrants hit the shores of America they would settle in any place they could afford. Once they established themselves and had regular income they could improve their circumstances.
Anyone who has read Angela's Ashes or seen the movie version knows that Frank McCourt was shanty Irish. His talent for writing and maybe a little luck provided an escape from misfortune. He succeeded in raising himself to lace curtain Irish (or close to it).
The term shanty Irish is probably considered archaic these days. I still hear it used at some family gatherings. Several female elders in my family made it perfectly clear that they were not shanty Irish. They made every effort to live decent and respectable lives to avoid such a depreciative label.
In my early twenties I was packing groceries at Riverside Market. One fine day my great aunt came into the store with one of my more respectable aunts, the one who asked my dad why he bought a house in that neighborhood. The great aunt approached me and gently grabbed my arm.
"Why don't you get a gentleman's haircut?" she aked.
I leered down at her with a malicious, Irish rebel grin and replied, "Because I'm no gentleman."
I could almost hear her muttering to me auntie, "Oh dear, shanty Irish, oh dear, oh my."
My Italian brother-in law used to call us Irish pigs, probably a derivative of Pig in the Parlor Irish. We called him a few names too. It was all in good fun. Joan Walsh remembers her mother putting food from the cooking pots into serving dishes because "only shanty Irish eat from the pot." Her Protestant neighbor would call them shanty Irish if their grass got too high or the house needed painted.
I asked Mike, my Irish co-worker, what shanty Irish was, just to get some feedback.
"Me," he said and added, "Shanty Irish are the poor Irish and lace curtain Irish are the rich Irish. We're shanty Irish, ha ha ha ha ha."