Irish Immigrants From the Famine Settled in America

I've written about the Coffin (or death) Ships that transported Irish Immigrants who were fleeing from the famine to North America, resulting in a 30% loss of life (see tag below). As soon as they arrived in New York they were met by the tavern and boarding house runners, who worked for a commission to induce them to their establishments. It was quite the scene. The immigrants were weak and sick from the voyage when the runners descended upon them, before they were even able to get off the ship. They vied with each other over the passengers, even grabbing their luggage to take them to their over-priced and overcrowded run-down unsanitary boarding houses. Then these Irish immigrants were met by an overwhelming hostile Protestant Christian America who didn't want them there. In the public schools of New York their Catholic faith was taught as the "whore of Babylon" (a reference to the book of Revelation).

When the economy was strong, Irish immigrants to America were welcomed. But in the mid-1850's the economic times weren't good, so it could be especially difficult since Americans considered them to be taking away their jobs. Being already low in the pecking order, the Irish suffered a great amount of discrimination. "No Irish Need Apply" was a familiar comment in job advertisements. They found work though. A job, a wage, was what they were seeking, and they didn't really care too much about the detail. Being unskilled, uneducated and typically illiterate, they accepted the most menial jobs that other immigrant groups did not want. They were forced to work long hours for minimal pay. Their cheap labor was needed by America's expanding cities for the construction of canals, roads, bridges, railroads and other infrastructure projects, and in the mining and quarrying industries.

Because of these factors this new wave of Irish immigrants sought refuge among their own kind. They set up sizable ethnic ghettos in cities along the north eastern seaboard. Here's a map of where they settled based on statistics from the 1890 census. A census I saw in 1900 showed that 95% of the population of Dubuque, Iowa, where my great grandfather Tom resided, was Catholic, most of whom were probably Irish.

The Civil War was probably the turning point. So many thousands of Irish whole-heartedly participated in the war (they made up the majority of no less than 40 Union regiments), that they gained a certain amount of respect and acceptance from Americans as a result. And second or third generation Irish-Americans were moving up the social and managerial ladder from their early laboring work. The Irish, as a group, were gaining footholds in the workplace, especially in the labor or trade union movement, and in the police and the fire services. Some were even entering the professions. Of course, this was not the lot of the majority.

At the turn of the century, Irish born immigrants made up 2.12% of the US population. More importantly, Irish Americans – those Americans born to Irish parents – made up 6.53%. A sizable group, indeed. The large Irish populations of cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York were able to get their candidates elected to power, so launching the Irish American political class.

Irish Catholic immigrants brought their religion and their political might with them. They changed America.

As a result of the potato famine, the Irish became a large and important part of American society. Those who came to the United States during and following the potato famine played a major role in the development of this country, and today more than 40 million Americans, or roughly 15 percent of the population in the United States, claim Irish ancestry. Irish immigrants were substantially involved in the early labor union movement in the United States, and the history of 20th-century urban American politics is inextricably linked to the development of Irish-American politics.

The Catholic Church was relatively small and a minor institution in America until Irish immigrants, following the potato famine, swelled its ranks and helped develop it into one of the largest and most influential religious institutions in the country. Irish immigrants of the post-famine period were also instrumental in building the country’s infrastructure and in developing the parochial school system, which continues to be a model for other private schools today.

“Fleeing starvation with few or no material possessions, they brought their music and song and tales of home as they spread out across the land, until there was not a corner they didn’t touch or leave their mark upon,” writes Patricia Harty in the introduction to her collection, the book Greatest Irish Americans of the 20th Century.

And we danced!!!

The Riverdance (it kicks in gear at 3:20):

Lord of the Dance (the exciting finale--stay for the encore!):


[Much of the information above was gleaned directly from The Irish Immigration Toolkit, and The Irish-American Dispora. Another great resource is the book, The Irish Americans: A History.See also the Wikipedia article Irish American.