Irish American Immigration History

AN EDUCATIONAL resource for understanding the history of irish immigration

Irish immigration has played a key role in shaping the history and culture of the United States. As early as the 17th century, people were leaving Ireland in search of a better life in America. Surges in immigration were often spurred by economic conditions, especially famines that drove many Irish people to flee the country out of desperation. Assimilation in America wasn’t always easy for the Irish, but today, Ireland has left an indelible mark on the fabric of American life, from the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations to the many valuable contributions of Irish Americans to national politics, education, and the arts.

The Roots of Irish American Immigration

Irish footprints were already present in America long before the mass (immigration) to the United States in the 19th century. The first settlers arrived in smaller numbers, seeking new opportunities far from the constraints of their homeland. Irish Catholics left to escape laws that discriminated against them at home, while crop failures in the 1740 famine led others to look for a new home. Still others saw opportunity in the establishment of Southern plantations, which required laborers to produce agricultural products.

The Great Famine and Mass Immigration

Perhaps the largest influx of Irish immigration to America was the Great Famine, which took place from 1845 to 1852. The famine was caused by a blight on potato crops, which destroyed the primary food source for many people, especially the poor. This catastrophe led to mass starvation and the spread of contagious diseases among the malnourished people. An estimated one million people died, and around two million more left the country in search of better conditions elsewhere, many of them bound for America. The voyage was very dangerous, requiring travel on overcrowded and unsanitary ships where disease outbreaks could run rampant. Many immigrants died on the journey, but those who made it across the Atlantic Ocean sought jobs in places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Irish Americans in the 19th Century

As more and more Irish people settled in the United States, they created their own communities, living close to each other in cities so they could support one another. Economic conditions were difficult, with many Irish immigrants working in factories, on railroads, or in domestic service. They worked hard to improve their lot, but it wasn’t easy, especially since they also faced anti-Irish discrimination. Nativists horrified by the influx of poor, Irish-speaking, Catholic immigrants formed a political movement called the Know-Nothings, and they used both political power and violence to attack and oppress Irish Catholics. However, the Civil War distracted and splintered this movement, and after the war, the Irish immigrants were eager to get involved in politics themselves, using the power of the ballot box to help them move up the social and economic ladder.

Cultural Assimilation and Political Influence

By the late 1800s, the Irish had established significant political power in American cities, and nativists turned their hatred toward new immigrants from China and Eastern Europe. The Irish, being white and from the British Isles, became accepted as Americans, assimilating into the cities where they lived while still maintaining elements of their own cultural heritage. Many cities elected Irish mayors, including John F. Fitzgerald, who was the mayor of Boston and the grandfather of President John F. Kennedy. And as Irish immigrants had children, the second generation took advantage of public schooling to learn English and gain skills that would help them get better jobs than their parents had.

The Legacy of Irish Americans Today

Today, Irish Americans are an integral part of the fabric of America, making numerous contributions to the success of the nation while also sharing their own cultural traditions. Tens of millions of Americans have Irish heritage, and millions more enjoy Irish music, Irish literature, or a pint of Irish beer on St. Patrick’s Day. Irish involvement in the labor movement has led to improvements in working conditions and workers’ rights, advocacy that continues today under the leadership of Irish Americans like Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions. And the cultural contributions of Americans with Irish roots, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bruce Springsteen, are appreciated worldwide.

This page was last updated by Marco Permunian