Immigration and Immigrants: Ireland
Immigration and Immigrants: Ireland
Immigrants from Ireland played a critical role in the development of the new American nation. As indentured servants, they formed the backbone of the labor force that allowed the colonies to thrive. As artisans, tradesmen, merchants, and patriots, they made the foundation of the United States possible. The first census of the United States in 1790 found 3.17 million Americans of European descent, of which 400,000 to 517,000, or 14 to 17 percent, were of Irish origin. In 1820, the year when the Department of State began collecting statistics about immigrants and their country of origin, the Irish accounted for almost half of the total number of immigrants. For the years 1820–1830, the Irish were the largest group of immigrants entering the country, consistently outnumbering the second-place British by a factor of at least two to one. As these figures indicate, the Irish formed a significant portion of the American population well before the great immigration waves of the mid-nineteenth century. However, unlike the later influx of Irish Catholics during the Famine, the Irish immigrants of the mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries were predominantly Protestant. Their American contemporaries grouped all immigrants from Ireland under the label "Irish," but among themselves the Irish had more subtle distinctions based largely on religious affiliation.
Although it is a trap to view the conflict among the peoples of Ireland as solely based on religious differences, religious labels were often used as shorthand to indicate deeper cultural and political identities. Catholicism was the religion of the oldest groups in the country: the native Irish and the descendants of the twelfth-century English conquerors who had adopted the customs of Gaelic culture. Descendants of English colonists of the Elizabethan era, the self-named Protestant Ascendancy, were members of the Church of Ireland. The last significant religious grouping was that of Dissenters, Protestants not affiliated with the Church of Ireland. This group included Quakers, Methodists, and, most significant to Irish immigration, the Ulster Scots—Presbyterians of Scottish descent who colonized Ulster during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. In the past, the historiography of Irish immigration was heavily influenced by Irish nationalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a process that envisioned Irish immigrants as a homogenous, predominantly Irish Catholic whole. However, scholarship of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries favors a more nuanced treatment of the different immigration patterns of the Protestant and Catholic Irish.
immigration before the american revolution
Eighteenth-century Irish immigration, especially before the American Revolution, was dominated by Protestants, particularly the Ulster Scots. It is estimated that between 250,000 and 400,000 Irish Protestants arrived in America during the eighteenth century, 75 percent of whom were Presbyterians from Ulster. In the pre-Revolutionary period, there were two significant waves of Ulster Scots immigration, in 1754–1755 and 1771–1775, with large numbers originating in the northern counties of Antrim, Derry, and Down. Faced with pressures in Ireland created by landholding practices, economic decline, and a degree of religious intolerance, Ulster Scots saw emigration to America as an increasingly attractive opportunity for bettering the fortunes of their families and communities.
Most Ulster Scots were tenant farmers who survived by a mix of cultivation, livestock breeding, and either linen or wool production. Changes in landholding practices had the deepest-felt and most immediate impact on this lifestyle. In the early part of the eighteenth century, the original leases granted to Scottish Presbyterians for the colonization of Ulster began to come due. The implementation of the Ulster Plantation was rather successful, and the Anglo-Irish landlords no longer felt the need to keep a population of Scottish settlers as a buffer between themselves and the native Irish. Leases were renewed with shorter terms and higher rates (a process known as rack-renting), some leases were auctioned to the highest bidder (canting), and large renewal fees were tacked onto the transaction. As a result of these practices, access to land grew more restricted and competitive. The Ulster Scots found themselves up against native, Catholic Irish families who were willing to pay the high rents in order to live on their ancestral lands. As their access to land diminished, the Ulster Scots farmers discovered they had a way to obtain ready passage money; by a practice known as the "Ulster Custom," tenants were reimbursed by their landlords at the end of their lease for any improvements they made to the land during their tenancy.
Many may not have chosen to immigrate because of higher rents. However, several economic factors increased the pressure on the northern tenant farmers' incomes. As their rents increased, the Ulster Scots also faced higher food prices, at the same time finding they could no longer make as much money producing textiles. The linen industry declined in the second half of the eighteenth century, going into full recession during the 1770s. A currency and capital shortage placed stress on other crafts, creating a lull in trade overall. Agrarian violence rose as it became more and more difficult to make a living off the land, with such notable outbreaks as the Oakboys in 1764 and the Steelboys in 1770–1771. As Dissenters, Ulster Scots also bore a measure of religious intolerance—being required to tithe to the Church of Ireland in addition to supporting their own presbyteries—that may have increased their desire to leave the Anglican-run establishment of Ireland. Given all these factors, and the exacerbation of an ever-growing population, many tenant-farmers opted to accept their reimbursement and take their chances overseas.
The majority of Ulster Scots emigrated in groups, either with their families or with their local church community. The majority also relied on the Ulster Custom to pay their passage in advance; however, during the recession of the 1770s, the majority traveled as indentured servants or "redemptioners" who had to repay their ship's captain within a certain period of disembarking. A symbiotic shipping relationship between Ireland and America in the eighteenth century encouraged the flow of raw materials to Ireland and passengers to America. Departing from the ports of Belfast, Newry, Derry, and Larne, with occasional departures from the southern Irish ports of Dublin, Waterford, and Cork, Ulster Scots immigrants landed principally in Newcastle, Delaware, and Philadelphia. A portion of Ulster Scots, those with artisanal skills or a surplus of capital, remained on the American seaboard and made their living as trades- or craftsmen. In general, though, Ulster Scots immigrants continued to make their living by farming, becoming pioneer settlers in the backcountry of early America; in the South they also raised cattle and helped create the cattle economy. From Newcastle and Philadelphia they moved to where land was available, first in the Delaware Valley, then to the Cumberland Valley and beyond. By the 1760s the Ulster Scots fanned out into the South Carolina piedmont, into western Pennsylvania, and across the Cumberland Gap into Tennessee and Kentucky. Initially, their lives were full of hardship. They endured around-the-clock labor on isolated frontier farms, housed in rough log cabins; the women bore tremendous workloads on the frontier. The Ulster Scots focus on acquiring more land often placed them in contact and conflict with surrounding Native American tribes. In America the transplanted Ulster Scots found themselves acting as a buffer between British and Native Americans, much as their ancestors had served as a boundary between the Anglo-Irish and native Irish. With time and good fortune, the Ulster Irish were able to increase their standing in America. The seaboard merchants and professionals made their mark in American politics, medicine, law, and finance, speculating on the further development of the west. The backcountry pioneers eventually were able to move up from log cabins to respectable farmhouses.
Nearly 100,000 Irish Catholics immigrated to America in the eighteenth century. It is especially difficult to get a clear picture of those who made the journey in the pre-Revolutionary period. Unlike the Ulster Scots, they tended to travel singly, and it is assumed they were wanderers—underclass servants, migrant workers, and transported criminals—with few ties to their ancestral lands in Ireland. In addition to the increased competition for resources created by Ireland's rapidly growing population, economic factors forced these immigrants from their homeland. Southern Ireland experienced a famine in 1740–1741, a potato failure in 1765, and a grain failure in 1766–1767. Cottage textile production was hurt by a handloom weaving collapse in Cork in 1769 and the linen depression of the 1770s. Living at the very margins in Ireland, this free-floating group of Irish Catholics felt that it was preferable to live as indentured servants in America, hoping for better opportunities once their terms of indenture were up. These immigrants followed the same shipping patterns as the Ulster Scots, landing predominantly in Newcastle and Philadelphia.
Around 20 percent of Irish Catholic servants worked for merchants, artisans, or tradesmen in cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore. The majority of Irish Catholic indentured servants became agricultural laborers. Those working in the middle colonies of Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey worked as farmhands. Although they had to endure harsh adjustments to America's more variable climate and a corn-based diet, their masters tended to treat them relatively humanely. Servants in the South encountered a more exploitative environment, driven by the aristocratic tastes and heavy debts of the planter class. Indentured servants on plantations found their masters treated them as property, whereas northern masters only laid claim to their time. In both the North and South conditions were far from easy as shown by a disproportionately high percentage of advertisements for Irish-born runaway indentured servants. Those Irish who did successfully serve out their contracts were given "freedom dues" of clothing, tools, seed, and provisions, but rarely land. With this new stock, they often went on to become farmers or pioneers farther inland from their place of indenture, or wandering farm laborers. A minority became workers in towns and cities.
irish americans and the american revolution
The period of the American Revolution saw a marked decline in immigration from Ireland. The war, with its closure of sea lanes, disrupted shipping and the passenger trade along the Atlantic. In addition, any potential passengers were hesitant to risk the danger of being taken up from their journey abroad and impressed into the British military. However, even as the tide of incoming Irish stemmed to almost nothing, the Irish who had immigrated in the earlier years of the 1770s took on a significant role in the violent birth of the new American nation.
By the middle of the 1770s, many Ulster Scots immigrants had established themselves firmly enough in their new land to have moved beyond the constant labor and hand-to-mouth existence of frontier life. Ulster Scots found themselves intensely interested in the Revolutionary crisis precisely because they were more established; their financial and physical security was tied up in their American colleagues and contacts and depended heavily on the outcome of the war. They were also quick to adopt the republicanism espoused by the proponents of the Revolution, exposed as they were in their Presbyterianism to the radical republican ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment. In general, the Ulster Scots immigrants were pro-Revolutionary. As a result, the American armies of New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania had a disproportionately high number of Ulster Scots soldiers. Ulster Scots were especially prominent in the Revolutionary Pennsylvania government, with such men as Thomas McKean as chief justice, Joseph Reed as president of the executive council, and George Bryan as vice president.
Although evidence is sketchy, it is believed that Catholic Irish immigrants were more conservative and slower to choose sides between the British and American causes. Some may have felt the Revolution was a chance to prove their loyalty to the crown by serving in royalist forces against the rebels. However, dissatisfaction with the British handling of Irish affairs along with the lure of advancement within American society may have won over many. Indentured servants among Catholic Irish immigrants may have been most attracted to military service, which could very well reward them with an early termination of the indentures, business connections, and the possibility of land grants out west.
In the long run the service of Irish immigrants in the American Revolution earned the Irish in America better living conditions than those Irish living under British rule. As members of the early Republic, the Irish gained access to civil and military offices, voting, and membership in the professions of law and medicine. Even Irish Catholics benefited. Although there were still legal barriers to Catholic office-holding in some states, they did win other rights not held before. There was even an increased toleration for Catholic religion, which contributed to the solid establishment of the Catholic Church in America by 1790. The Irish Catholic immigrant John Carroll was consecrated the first bishop of Baltimore in this period.
immigration from 1783 to 1829
Patterns of immigration changed markedly in the postrevolutionary period. America was now a competitive market, no longer providing the benefits of common British membership, and Irish shippers were forced to diversify their goods and broaden their geographic range. Immigrants now had greater opportunities to sail into ports in New York and New England, as well as Delaware and Philadelphia. There was also a sharp decline in the practice of indentured servitude in the 1780s. The American Revolution questioned the morality of both indenture and slavery, and captains were suspicious of the willingness of American courts to uphold articles of indenture. As the new American nation found its feet, other types of work were advertised that did not require indentures. By 1800 Irish indentured servants were no longer a factor in immigration from Ireland. Shipping agents preferred the security of paying passengers, such as farmers, artisans, small businessmen, schoolmasters, and physicians.
The end of the eighteenth century also saw a rise in the number of Catholic Irish entering America, although they were still outnumbered by Irish Protestants. The failed 1798 Rebellion of the United Irishmen forced many surviving Protestants and Catholics to flee prosecution or subsequent sectarian violence in Ireland. The United Irishmen themselves, with their classical republican tradition, turned to America as a natural sanctuary. Their skills in political organization and newspaper publishing along with the timing of their arrival had a significant impact on the debate between Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans. Irish Protestants and Catholics united behind the Republican banner in opposition to the Federalists' implementation of the Alien and Sedition Acts and their attempts to keep United Irishmen out of America. The United Irishmen immigrants, such as the successful newspaperman Matthew Carey, pushed for a wider political franchise and a more egalitarian and accessible legal system. Their ideas became the hallmarks of what Americans proudly called democracy by the end of the War of 1812. The post-Revolutionary period saw increasing numbers of Irish and those of Irish descent successfully involved in American politics. Some became influential in local and regional party politics, especially in Philadelphia and New York, while others like the Scots-Irish Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun were elected to the highest national offices.
After 1800 the competition for Irish land coupled with the increased commercialization of agriculture pushed more and more Catholics out of Ireland. The era of Irish Catholic immigration had begun, with the numbers of Catholic immigrants doubling every twenty years—a full forty years before the Great Famine. By the 1810s Irish Societies were appearing in major American cities to help new immigrants find housing, jobs, and community. Ulster Scots adopted the label "Scotch-Irish" in this period to distinguish themselves from the growing enclaves of Catholic Irish immigrants. However, this was the most overt sign of sectarian differences. It seemed for the brief period of the 1820s, up through the inauguration of President Andrew Jackson, that the Irish in America would be able to put aside the religious and cultural differences that had marked them so profoundly in Ireland. This time of relative peace was broken by a mass southern Irish migration in the 1830s that sparked Irish sectarian differences and further fueled the rise of the anti-immigrant, anti–Irish Catholic hatred known as nativism.
See alsoAlien and Sedition Acts; Anti-Catholicism; Boston; Catholicism and Catholics; Democratic Republicans; Farm Making; Federalists; Jackson, Andrew; Livestock Production; Presbyterians; Work: Agricultural Labor; Work: Artisans and Crafts Workers, and the Workshop; Work: Indentured Servants .
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