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Irish Americans

The Irish In America Part: 1


Through the lives of selected characters synonymous with Irish American history (Andrew Jackson, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Fighting Tom Sweeny, Patrick Cleburne, Bridget Murphy Kennedy, John L. Sullivan, The Silver Kings, Diamond Jim Brady and others), this period of 1650 through the turn of the 20th century. We profile the Irish involvement in the American Revolution, the Age of Jackson, the Mexican and Civil Wars, the California Gold Rush, the building of great American cities and the taming of the American West. Contrasted is the suffering of the Irish people at home under British Rule and their fight for freedom and justice.  Powerful, moving, and insightful, The Irish In America is a unique documentary encompassing the long and difficult struggle of the Irish immigrant experience. It is a tale of how a resilient people turned poverty into prosperity and changed the American continent forever.

Irish Americans 

Are citizens of the United States who can trace their ancestry to Ireland. A total of 36,278,332 Americans—estimated at 11.9% of the total population—reported Irish ancestry in the 2008 American Community Surveyconducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.   Roughly another 3.5 million (or about another 1.2% of Americans) identified more specifically with Scotch-Irish ancestry. The Irish diaspora population in the United States is roughly six times the modern population of Ireland.

The only self-reported ancestral group larger than Irish Americans is German Americans.   The Irish are widely dispersed in terms of geography, and demographics. Irish American political leaders have played a major role in local and national politics since before the American Revolutionary War: eight Irish Americans signed the United States Declaration of Independence, and twenty-two American Presidents, from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama, have been at least partly of Irish ancestry.

Irish immigration to America – Irish diasporaScotch-Irish American and Irish Catholic18th to mid-19th century

Irish Immigration Memorial in Davenport, Iowa

According to the Dictionary of American History, approximately “50,000 to 100,000 Irishmen, over 75 percent of them Catholic, came to America in the 1600s, while 100,000 more Irish Catholics arrived in the 1700s.”  Indentured servitude was an especially common way of affording migration, and in the 1740s the Irish made up nine out of ten indentured servants in some colonial regions.

Most colonial settlers coming from the Irish province of Ulster came to be known in America as the “Scotch-Irish”. They were descendants of Scottish and English tenant farmers who had been settled in Ireland by the British government during the 17th-century Plantation of Ulster.   An estimated 250,000 migrated to America during the colonial era.   The Scotch-Irish settled mainly in the colonial “back country” of the Appalachian Mountain region, and became the prominent ethnic strain in the culture that developed there.   The descendants of Scotch-Irish settlers had a great influence on the later culture of the United States through such contributions as American folk musicCountry and Western music, and stock car racing, which became popular throughout the country in the late 20th century.

Irish immigrants of this period participated in significant numbers in the American Revolution, leading one British major general to testify at the House of Commons that “half the rebel Continental Army were from Ireland.”   Irish Americans signed the foundational documents of the United States—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—and, beginning with Andrew Jackson, served as President.

The early Ulster immigrants and their descendants at first usually referred to themselves simply as “Irish,” without the qualifier “Scotch.” It was not until more than a century later, following the surge in Irish immigration after the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s, that the descendants of the Protestant Irish began to refer to themselves as “Scotch-Irish” to distinguish them from the predominantly Catholic, and largely destitute, wave of immigrants from Ireland in that era.   The two groups had little initial interaction in America, as the 18th century Ulster immigrants were predominantly Protestant and had become settled largely in upland regions of the American interior, while the huge wave of 19th-century Catholic immigrant families settled primarily in the Northeast and Midwest port cities such as Boston, New York, or Chicago. However, beginning in the early 19th century, many Irish migrated individually to the interior for work on large-scale infrastructure projects such as canals and, later in the century,railroads.

Irish settlement in the South

During the colonial period, the Scotch-Irish settled in the southern Appalachian backcountry and in the Carolina piedmont.   They became the primary cultural group in these areas, and their descendants were in the vanguard of westward movement through Virginia into Tennessee and Kentucky, and thence into Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. By the 19th century, through intermarriage with settlers of English and German ancestry, the descendants of the Scotch-Irish lost their identification with Ireland. “This generation of pioneers…was a generation of Americans, not of Englishmen or Germans or Scotch-Irish.”

The relatively small number of Irish Catholics concentrated in a few medium-sized cities, where they were highly visible, especially in CharlestonSavannah and New Orleans.   They became local leaders in the Democratic party, generally favored preserving the Union in 1860, but became staunch Confederates after secession in 1861.

Bishop John England, (born September 21, 1820–died April 11, 1842)

In 1820 Irish-born John England became the first Catholic bishop in the mainly Protestant city of Charleston, South Carolina. During the 1820s and ’30s, Bishop England defended the Catholic minority against Protestant prejudices. In 1831 and 1835, he established free schools for free African American children. Inflamed by the propaganda of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a mob raided the Charleston post office in 1835 and the next day turned its attention to England’s school. England led Charleston’s “Irish Volunteers” to defend the school. Soon after this, however, all schools for “free blacks” were closed in Charleston, and England acquiesced.

Beginning as unskilled laborers, Irish Catholics in the South achieved average or above average economic status by 1900. David T. Gleeson wrote:

“Native tolerance, however, was also a very important factor in Irish integration [into Southern society]…. Upper-class southerners, therefore, did not object to the Irish, because Irish immigration never threatened to overwhelm their cities or states…. The Irish were willing to take on potentially high-mortality occupations, thereby sparing valuable slave property. Some employers objected not only to the cost of Irish labor but also to the rowdiness of their foreign-born employees. Nevertheless, they recognized the importance of the Irish worker to the protection of slavery…. The Catholicism practiced by Irish immigrants was of little concern to Southern natives.”

— David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815–1877 

Irish nationalist John Mitchel lived in Tennessee and Virginia during his exhile from Ireland and was one of the South’s most outspoken supporters during the American Civil War through his newspapers the Southern Citizen and the Ricmond Enquirer.

Mid-19th century and later

The Chicago River, dyed green for the 2005 St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

Irish immigration had greatly increased beginning in the 1820s due to the need for labor in canal building, lumbering, and civil construction works in the Northeast.   The large Erie Canal project was one such example where Irishmen were many of the laborers. Small but tight communities developed in growing cities such as PhiladelphiaBostonNew York and Providence.

From 1820 to 1860, 1,956,557 Irish arrived, 75% of these after the Great Irish Famine (orThe Great HungerIrishAn Gorta Mór) of 1845–1852, struck.   The Famine hurt Irish men and women alike, especially those poorest or without land.   It altered the family structures of Ireland because fewer people could afford to marry and raise children, causing many to adopt a single lifestyle. Consequently, many Irish citizens were less bound to family obligations and could more easily migrate to the United States in the following decade.

Of the total Irish migrants to the U.S. from 1820 to 1860, many died crossing the ocean due to disease and dismal conditions of what became known as coffin ships.

Gravestone in Boston Catholiccemetery erected in memory of County Roscommon native born shortly before The Great Famine.

Most Irish immigrants to the United States favored large cities because they could create their own communities for support and protection in a new environment.   Another reason for this trend was that Irish immigrants could not afford to move inland and had to settle close to the ports at which they arrived.   Cities with large numbers of Irish immigrants included Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, as well as PittsburghBaltimoreDetroitChicagoSt. LouisSt. PaulSan Francisco, and Los Angeles. In 1910, there were more people in New York City of Irish heritage than Dublin‘s whole population, and even today, many of these cities still retain a substantial Irish American community.   Mill towns such as LawrenceLowell, and Pawtucket attracted many Irish women in particular. The best urban economic opportunities for unskilled Irish women and men included “factory and millwork, domestic service, and the physical labor of public work projects.”

Irish women’s initial experiences in the United States were largely shaped by the types of roles they fulfilled in their homeland. Although Irish culture gave more authority to husbands and fathers, it simultaneously recognized female power. In most cases in Ireland, wives handled money within the family, and a large number of them even worked in cities away from the home in domestic work or sales. Although older women asserted this kind of power, daughters were seen as less valuable than sons due to the patriarchal nature of society. As a result, young women had little hesitation in migrating, and their families saved money in order help finance the trip abroad.   Limited social and economic opportunities for daughters in Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century caused a wave of young women to search for better possibilities in the United States.   The pull factors of the United States, especially job availability, caused Irish women to view their “journey with optimism, in a forward-looking assessment that in America they could achieve a status that they never could have at home.”

The female exodus of the mid-nineteenth century stands out in American history as the only major group of immigrants that was over fifty percent women.   Because of the decrease in marriages in Ireland, single Irish women, called “unprovided-for ‘girls’”, traveled to the United States to find employment and/or start families of their own. Frustrated by the hardships of Irish farm life and alone in a new country without the help of other family members, female immigrants tended to settle in urban areas to find work.   Occupational options, such as domestic work, white-collar work, nursing and teaching, granted more authority to young women in the United States than in Ireland. Recognizing their own successes as single women, most decided to postpone marriage and taught their daughters to do the same. In fact, the majority of the most successful Irish women in America never married, and a significant number of them were nuns.

Employment, not marriage, continued to be Irish women’s priority throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, and women outnumbered men in cities and mill towns where they worked in “factory jobs and millwork, domestic service and, later in the century, clerical and shop work.”   However, Catholicism preached the centrality of women in the home, and Irish immigrants still respected the Church as the most important institution in their lives. Consequently, Irish women still pursued marriage and bore many children as long as they could meet economic needs.   Couples that could not support large families often had many children regardless of their economic status, and due to discrimination against Irish men in the workplace and their tendency to desert their wives, women usually bore the brunt of family responsibility.

A second wave of post-famine Irish immigration continued from 1855 to 1921, largely resulting from a changing rural economy and the lure of high paying jobs in America, when the Emergency Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 imposed a “quota system” that significantly limited immigration. These later immigrants mostly settled in industrial towns and cities of the NortheasternMid-Atlantic, and Midwestern United States where Irish American neighborhoods had previously been established.

The Orange riot of 1871 as depicted in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The view is at 25th Street looking south down Eighth Avenue

In 1871, New York’s Orange Riots were incited by Irish Protestants celebrating the Battle of the Boyne with parades through predominantly Catholic neighborhoods. 63 citizens, mostly Irish Catholics, were massacred in the resulting police-action.  During the American Civil War, Irish Americans volunteered in high numbers for the Union Army, and at least thirty-eight Union regiments had the word “Irish” in their title. 144,221 Union soldiers were born in Ireland; additionally, perhaps an equal number were of Irish descent.   Many immigrant soldiers formed their own regiments, such as the Irish Brigade.

New York Draft Riots, Rioters and Federal troops clash. July 13, 1863–July 16, 1863

However, conscription was resisted by some Irish and others as an imposition on liberty. When the conscription law was passed in 1863, draft riots erupted in New York. The New York draft coincided with the efforts of Tammany Hall to enroll Irish immigrants as citizens so they could vote in local elections. Many such immigrants suddenly discovered they were now expected to fight for their new country. The Irish, employed primarily as laborers, were usually unable to afford the $300 as a “commutation fee” to procure exemption from service, while more established New Yorkers receiving better pay were able to hire substitutes and avoid the draft.   Many of the recent immigrants viewed freed slaves as competition for scarce jobs, and as the reason why the Civil War was being fought.   African Americans who fell into the mob’s hands were often beaten, tortured, or killed, including one man, William Jones, who was attacked by a crowd of 400 with clubs and paving stones, then hung from a tree and set alight.   The Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, which provided shelter for hundreds of children, was attacked by a mob, although the largely Irish-American police force was able to secure the orphanage for enough time to allow orphans to escape.


Irish immigrants fell into three linguistic categories: monolingual Irish speakers, bilingual speakers of both Irish and English, and monolingual English speakers. Estimates indicate that there were around 400,000 Irish speakers in the United States in the 1890s, located primarily in New York CityPhiladelphiaBostonChicago and Yonkers.   The Irish speaking population of New York reached its height in this period, when speakers of Irish numbered between 70,000 and 80,000.   This number declined during the early 20th century, dropping to 40,000 in 1939, 10,000 in 1979 and 5,000 in 1995.   According to the latest census, the Irish language ranks 66th out of the 322 languages spoken today in the U.S., with over 25,000 speakers. New York State has the most Irish Gaelic speakers, and Massachusetts the highest percentage, of the 50 states. Daltaí na Gaeilge, a nonprofit Gaelic language advocacy group based in Elberon, New Jersey, estimated that about 30,000 speak the language as of 2006. This, the organization claimed, has seen an increase from only a few thousand at the time of its founding in 1981.

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