Irish Immigration

views updated

Irish Immigration

Nearly two million Irish people came to the United States from Ireland in the 1840s. Most of them crossed the ocean to escape the potato famine. Potatoes were the main crop grown by farmers in Ireland, and a fungus infestation devastated crops nationwide in 1845. Families sold everything they owned for money, and it still was not enough. Many starved.

As the Irish immigrants found steady work that allowed them to save money, they sent for friends and relatives. This kept a continuous flow of Irish coming into America. In total, about 3.5 million Irish from Ireland immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1880. In the years between 1820 and 1860, the Irish accounted for one-third of all immigrants to America. Many more Irish emigrated from Britain, but because Britain was the point of departure, they were counted as British, not Irish, in immigration records.

Though not the poorest in Irish society, those who came to the United States were incredibly poor by American standards. Many of them did not have money beyond the ship fare, so they settled near the port at which they arrived. The main port of entry was Ellis Island , near New York City. New York City eventually was home to more Irishmen than Dublin, Ireland.

An 1870 census (a periodic count of the population) revealed that the Irish comprised 14.5 percent of the populations of large American cities. They dominated the population in New England and accounted for 22 percent of New York 's population that year. They and the Germans made up the largest immigrant group in 1870.


Irish immigrants were laborers who took dangerous jobs that no one else wanted. The men worked the coal mines and built railroads and canals while the women worked as domestic (household) help. American businesses wasted no time in taking advantage of the cheap labor supplied by the Irish. Companies threatened to replace uncooperative employees with cheap Irish workers; this led to more tension between the Irish and the rest of the population.

Because of the tension between the Irish and everyone else, finding jobs became increasingly difficult for Irish immigrants. It was not uncommon for storefront windows to boldly feature handwritten signs that read “NINA” (No Irish Need Apply).

Second- and third-generation Irish immigrants (children and grandchildren of those who had sailed to America) often took jobs as police officers, firefighters, and schoolteachers. These generations achieved higher levels of education, which allowed them to earn more money.


The Irish were disliked by nearly every other ethnic group, and also by native-born Americans, because of their poor living conditions, their willingness to work for low wages, and their religion. Protestants (Christians who are not Catholics) and Catholics had a long history of conflict based on varying beliefs and an unwillingness to tolerate one another. The Irish were Catholic. In America, most Catholics were members of upper-class society. They were not accustomed to having to include or accept members of the lower class. The tension created by these class differences was an obstacle not easily overcome.

Protestant Americans watched as millions of Catholics flooded their shores. Catholic churches were appearing on every street corner in some neighborhoods. It seemed to some as though Protestant neighborhoods were being overrun with Catholics. These Irish Catholics brought with them foreign customs and rituals that Americans and other ethnic groups did not understand. Conflict was virtually unavoidable. The Irish became the target of violence in big cities throughout the Northeast. Catholic churches were burned, and riots broke out.

Getting by

Persecution was not new to the Irish. Ireland was under British rule, so most Irish immigrants had never known freedom as Americans understood it. In their homeland, the Irish were controlled politically, economically, and religiously. They often formed secret organizations, usually with the help of their village priest, to meet their educational and economic needs. These societies allowed the Irish to form a strong identity. They stuck together for the sake of survival. This experience helped them as immigrants in America as well.

The Irish were excellent organizers. They recognized the value of teamwork, and their ability allowed them to break into the American political system. Since most of them lived in big cities, they were able to take control of politics like no other ethnic group had ever done. The Irish put the power into the hands of the working class and established loyalty among that large voting group. They formed political machines (organized political groups that ensure the loyalty of voters by repaying them for their votes with favors such as money, jobs, or gifts) that took over major American cities from the mid-eighteenth into the twentieth century. Although political machines were considered unethical, they allowed the Irish to survive in a hostile environment.