Irish Americans

views updated May 29 2018


by Brendan A. Rapple


The island of Ireland lies west of Great Britain across the Irish Sea and St. George's Channel. It is divided into two separate political entities: the independent Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland, a constituent of the United Kingdom. Dublin is the capital of the former, Belfast of the latter. The country is divided into four provinces: Leinster, Munster, Connaught, and Ulster. All of the first three and part of the fourth are situated within the Republic of Ireland. Ulster is made up of nine counties; the northeastern six constitute Northern Ireland. The area of the Republic of Ireland is 27,137 square miles, that of Northern Ireland is 5,458 square miles. The entire island, with a total area of 32,595 square miles, is a little larger than the state of Maine. The population of the Republic of Ireland in 1991 was approximately 3,523,401, that of Northern Ireland 1,569,971. About 95 percent of the Republic's population is Roman Catholic; most of the rest are Protestant. Over 25 percent of Northern Ireland's population is Roman Catholic; about 23 percent is Presbyterian; about 18 percent belong to the Church of Ireland; the rest are members of other churches or of no stated denomination.


Ireland was occupied by Celtic peoples, who came to be known as Gaels, sometime between 600 and 400 b.c. The Romans never invaded Ireland so the Gaels remained isolated and were able to develop a distinct culture. In the fifth century a.d. St. Patrick came to Ireland and introduced the Gaels to Christianity. Thus began a great religious and cultural period for the country. While the rest of Europe was swiftly declining into the Dark Ages, Irish monasteriespreserving the Greek and Latin of the ancient worldnot only became great centers of learning, but also sent many famous missionaries to the Continent. Toward the end of the eighth century Vikings invaded Ireland and for over two centuries battled with the Irish. Finally in 1014 the Irish under King Brian Boru soundly defeated the Viking forces at the Battle of Clontarf. An important legacy of the Viking invasion was the establishment of such cities as Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Limerick, and Wexford. In the second half of the twelfth century King Henry II began the English Lordship of Ireland and the challenge of the Anglo-Norman Conquest commenced. By the close of the medieval period many of the Anglo-Norman invaders had been absorbed into the Gaelic population.

English kings traveled to Ireland on several occasions to effect order and increase allegiance to the Crown. The English were generally too occupied with the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and with the War of the Roses (1455-1485) to deal adequately with the Irish, however. By the sixteenth century English control over Ireland was limited to a small area of land surrounding Dublin. Consequently, Henry VIII and his successors endeavored to force the Irish to submit through military incursions and by "planting" large areas of Ireland with settlers loyal to England. A forceful resistance to the English reconquest of Ireland was led by the Northern chieftain Hugh O'Neill at the end of the sixteenth century. Following O'Neill's defeat in 1603 and his subsequent flight to the Continent, the Crown commenced the large-scale plantation of Ulster with English; Scottish Presbyterians soon followed. During the seventeenth century Ireland, continuing its steady decline, came increasingly under England's rule. In 1641 the Irish allied themselves to the Stuart cause; however, after the defeat and execution of King Charles I in 1649 Cromwell and his Puritans devastated much of Ireland, massacred thousands, and parceled out vast tracts of land to their soldiers and followers. Hoping to regain some of their property, the Catholic Irish sided with the Catholic James II of England but their fortunes further declined when James was defeated by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. To keep the Irish subservient and powerless the English enacted a series of brutal penal laws, which succeeded so well that eighteenth century Catholic Ireland was economically and socially wasted.

In 1800, two years after the defeat of the rebellion of Protestant and Catholic United Irishmen led by Wolfe Tone, the Act of Union was passed, combining Great Britain and Ireland into one United Kingdom. The Catholic Emancipation Act followed in 1829 chiefly due to the activities of the Irish politician Daniel O'Connell. During the 1830s and 1840s a new nationalist movement, Young Ireland, arose. A rebellion that it launched in 1848, however, was easily defeated. The second half of the 1840s was one of the grimmest periods in Irish history. Due to the great famine caused by the crop failure of Ireland's staple foodthe potatomillions died or emigrated. The second half of the nineteenth century saw increased nationalistic demands for self-government and land reform, most notably in the activities of the Home Rule Movement under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell. Though home rule was finally passed in 1914, it was deferred because of the onset of World War I. On Easter Monday in 1916 a small force of Irish nationalists rebelled in Dublin against British rule. The rising was a military failure and had little support among the public. However, the harsh response of the British government and particularly its execution of the rising's leaders won many over to the cause. After the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921, the Irish Free State, whose constitutional status was tied to the British Commonwealth and required allegiance to the Crown, was established. The Free State was composed of 26 of Ireland's 32 counties; the other six remained part of Britain. In 1949 the 26 counties became the Republic of Ireland, an independent nation. Although the Republic has consistently maintained its claim over the six counties of the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and declared its wish to reunite the whole island into a sovereign nation, in recent decades it has placed more emphasis on economic and social rather than nationalistic issues. Nevertheless, the status of the six counties of Northern Ireland remains a highly critical concern for politicians in Dublin, Belfast, and London.


The Irish like to boast that St. Brendan sailed to America almost a millennium before Christopher Columbus; but even if St. Brendan did not make it to the New World, Galway-born William Ayers was one of Columbus's crew in 1492. During the seventeenth century the majority of the Irish immigrants to America were Catholics. Most were poor, many coming as indentured servants, others under agreements to reimburse their fare sometime after arrival, a minority somehow managing to pay their own way. A small number were more prosperous and came seeking adventure. Still others were among the thousands who were exiled to the West Indies by Cromwell during the 1640s and later made their way to America. There was an increase in Irish immigration during the eighteenth century, though the numbers were still relatively small. Most of the century's arrivals were Presbyterians from the northern province of Ulster who had originally been sent there from Scotland as colonists by the British crown. Many of these, dissenters from the established Protestant church, came to America fleeing religious discrimination. In later years, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, it was common to assign the term Scotch-Irish to these Ulster Protestant immigrants, although they thought of themselves as strictly Irish. There were also numerous Irish Quaker immigrants, as well as some Protestants from the south. A significant minority of eighteenth century immigrants were southern Catholics. Most of these were escaping the appalling social and economic conditions as well as the draconian penal laws enacted by the British to annihilate the Celtic heritage and the religion of the Catholic majority. Some of these Catholic arrivals in America in time converted to Protestantism after encountering severe anti-papist discrimination as well as an absence of Catholic churches and priests. The preferred destinations of most of the eighteenth century Irish immigrants were New England, Maryland, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, and Virginia.


In the early years of the nineteenth century Protestants, many of whom were skilled tradesmen, continued to account for the majority of Irish immigrants. There were also numerous political refugees especially after the abortive United Irishmen uprising of 1798. However, by the 1820s and 1830s the overwhelming majority of those fleeing the country were unskilled, Catholic, peasant laborers. By this time Ireland was becoming Europe's most densely populated country, the population having increased from about three million in 1725 to over eight million by 1841. The land could not support such a number. One of the main problems was the absence of the practice of primogeniture among the Irish. Family farms or plots were divided again and again until individual allotments were often so small perhaps only one or two acres in sizethat they were of little use in raising a family. Conditions worsened when, in the wake of a post-Napoleonic Wars agricultural depression, many Irish were evicted from the land they had leased as tenants because the landlords wanted it used for grazing. The concurrent great rise in population left thousands of discontented, landless Irish eager to seek new horizons. Moreover, the increase in industrialization had all but ended the modest amount of domestic weaving and spinning that had helped to supplement the income of some families. In addition, famine was never distanta number of severe potato failures occurred during the 1820s and 1830s before the major famine of the 1840s.

As the passage from Britain to the Canadian Maritimes was substantially cheaper than that to the United States, many Irish immigrants came first to Canada, landing at Quebec, Montreal, or Halifax, and then sailed or even walked down into America. After about 1840, however, most immigrants sailed from Ireland to an American port. Whereas most of the Irish Catholic immigrants during the eighteenth century became engaged in some sort of farming occupation, those in the subsequent century tended to remain in such urban centers as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia or in the textile towns where their unskilled labor could be readily utilized. The immigrants were impoverished but usually not as destitute as those who came during the famine. Many readily found jobs building roads or canals such as the Erie. Still, times were tough for most of them, especially the Catholics who frequently found themselves a minority and targets of discrimination in an overwhelmingly Protestant nation.


It was the cataclysmic Potato Famine of 1845-1851, one of the most severe disasters in Irish history, that initiated the greatest departure of Irish immigrants to the United States. The potato constituted the main dietary staple for most Irish and when the blight struck a number of successive harvests social and economic disintegration ensued. As many as 1.5 million individuals perished of starvation and the diverse epidemics that accompanied the famine. A great number of the survivors emigrated, many of them to the United States. From the beginning of the famine in the mid-1840s until 1860 about 1.7 million Irish immigrated to the United States, mainly from the provinces of Connaught and Munster. In the latter part of the century, though the numbers fell from the highs of the famine years, the influx from Ireland continued to be large. While families predominated during the Famine exodus, single people now accounted for a far higher proportion of the immigrants. By 1880 more single women than single men were immigrants. It has been estimated that from 1820 to 1900 about four million Irish immigrated to the United States.

Though the majority of Irish immigrants continued to inhabit urban centers, principally in the northeast but also in such cities as Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco, a significant minority went further afield. Only a small number went west to engage in farming, however. Most Irish immigrants were indeed peasants, but few had the money to purchase land or had sufficient skill and experience

"T he first time I saw the Statue of Liberty all the people were rushing to the side of the boat. 'Look at her, look at her,' and in all kinds of tongues. 'There she is, there she is,' like it was somebody who was greeting them."

Elizabeth Phillips in 1920, cited in Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigrant Experience, edited by Ivan Chermayeff et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1991).

to make a success of large-scale agriculture. Still, despite the great exploitation, oppression, and hardships suffered by many nineteenth-century Irish immigrants, the majority endured and their occupational mobility began to improve slowly. Their prowess and patriotic fervor in the Civil War helped to diminish anti-Irish bigotry and discrimination. As the years went by, the occupational caliber of Irish immigrants gradually improved in line with the slow amelioration of conditions in Ireland. By the end of the century a high proportion were skilled or semi-skilled laborers or had trades. Moreover, these immigrants were greatly aided by the Irish American infrastructure that awaited them. While life was still harsh for most immigrants, the parochial schools, charitable societies, workers' organizations, and social clubs aided their entry into a society that still frequently discriminated against Irish Catholics. Furthermore, the influx of even poorer southern and eastern European immigrants helped the Irish attain increased status.

In the twentieth century immigration from Ireland has ebbed and flowed. After World War I Irish immigration to the United States was high. After Congress passed legislation limiting immigration during the 1920s, however, the numbers declined. Numbers for the 1930s were particularly low. After World War II numbers again increased; but the 1960s saw emigration from Ireland falling dramatically as a result of new quota laws restricting northern Europeans. Accordingly, the number of Irish-born legal residents now in the United States is far lower than it was in the mid-twentieth century. From the 1980s onward, however, there has been an unprecedented influx of undocumented Irish immigrants, especially to such traditionally Irish centers as New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. These have been mainly young, well-educated individuals who have left an economically troubled country with one of the highest rates of unemployment in the European Community (EC). They prefer to work illegally in the United States, frequently in Irish-owned businesses, as bartenders, construction workers, nannies, and food servers, exposed to the dangers of exploitation and apprehension by the law, rather than remain on the dole at home. Their number is unknown, though the figure is estimated to be between 100,000 and 150,000.

Acculturation and Assimilation

The Irish have been present in the United States for hundreds of years and, accordingly, have had more opportunity than many other ethnic groups to assimilate into the wider society. Each successive generation has become more integrated with the dominant culture. In the eighteenth century the Protestant Irish relatively easily became acculturated and socially accepted. However, it was far more difficult for the vast numbers of Catholic Irish who flooded into the United States in the post-famine decades to coalesce with the mainstream. Negative stereotypes imported from England characterizing the Irish as pugnacious, drunken, semi-savages were common and endured for at least the rest of the nineteenth century. Multitudes of cartoons depicting the Irish as small, ugly, simian creatures armed with liquor and a shillelagh pervaded the press; and such terms as "paddy-wagons," "shenanigans," and "shanty Irish" gained popularity. Despite the effects of these offensive images, compounded by poverty and ignorance, the Irish Catholic immigrants possessed important advantages. They arrived in great numbers, most were able to speak English, and their Western European culture was similar to American culture. These factors clearly allowed the Irish Catholics to blend in far more easily than some other ethnic groups. Even their Catholicism, once disdained by so many, came to be accepted in time. Though some prejudices still linger, Catholicism is now an important part of American culture.

Today it is no longer easy to define precisely what is meant by an Irish American ethnic identity. This is especially so for later generations. Intermarriage has played a major role in this blurring of ethnic lines. The process of assimilating has also been facilitated by the great migration in recent decades of the Irish from their ethnic enclaves in the cities to the suburbs and rural regions. Greater participation in the multicultural public school system with a corresponding decline in parochial school attendance has played a significant role as well; another major factor has been the great decrease of immigrants from Ireland due to immigration laws disfavoring Europeans. Today, with 38,760,000 Americans claiming Irish ancestry (according to the 1990 census), American society as a whole associates few connotationspositive or negativewith this group. Among these immigrants and their ancestors, however, there is still great pride and a certain prestige in being Irish.

Still, there exists in some circles the belief that the Irish are less cultured, less advanced intellectually, and more politically reactionary and even bigoted than some other ethnic groups. The results of numerous polls show, however, that Catholic Irish Americans are among the best educated and most liberal in the United States. Moreover, they are well represented in law, medicine, academia, and other prestigious professions, and they continue to be upwardly socially mobile. Traditionally prominent in the Democratic ranks of city and local politics, many, especially since the Kennedy presidency, have now attained high positions in the federal government. Countless more have become top civil servants. Irish acceptability has also grown in line with the greater respect afforded by many Americans to the advances made by the Republic of Ireland in the twentieth century.


Ireland's cultural heritage, with its diverse customs, traditions, folklore, mythology, music, and dance, is one of the richest and most distinctive in Europe. Rapid modernization and the extensive homogenization of western societies, however, has rendered much of this heritage obsolete or, at best, only vaguely perceived in contemporary Ireland. With their extensive assimilation into American culture there has been a decline in continuity and appreciation of the domestic cultural heritage among Irish Americans as well. Nevertheless, there exist many elements in the Irish American culture that are truly unique and lend this group a distinct cultural character.

Irish music and song brought to America by generations of immigrants have played a seminal role in the development of America's folk and country music. Elements of traditional Irish ballads introduced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are easily discernible in many American folk songs. Irish fiddle music of this period is an important root of American country music. This earlier music became part of a rural tradition. Much of what was carried to America by the great waves of Irish immigration during the nineteenth century, on the other hand, became an important facet of America's urban folk scene. With the folk music revival of the 1960s came a heightened appreciation of Irish music in both its American and indigenous forms. Today Irish music is extremely popular not only among Irish Americans but among many Americans in general. Many learn to play such Irish instruments as the pipes, tin whistle, flute, fiddle, concertina, harp, and the bodhrán. Many also attend Irish céilithe and dance traditional reels and jigs to hornpipes.


March 17 is the feast of St. Patrick, the most important holiday of the year for Irish Americans. St. Patrick, about whose life and chronology little definite is known, is the patron saint of Ireland. A Romano-Briton missionary, perhaps from Wales, St. Patrick is honored for spreading Christianity throughout Ireland in the fifth century. Though Irish Americans of all creeds are particularly prominent on St. Patrick's Day, the holiday is now so ubiquitous that individuals of many other ethnic groups participate in the festivities. Many cities and towns hold St. Patrick's Day celebrations, parties, and, above all, parades. One of the oldest observances in the United States took place in Boston in 1737 under the auspices of the Charitable Irish Society. It was organized by Protestant Irish. Boston, especially in the districts of South Boston, still holds great celebrations each year, though the holiday is now more closely identified with Catholic Irish. The largest and most famous parade is held in New York City, with the first parade in that city dating back to 1762. In the early years this parade was organized by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick; in 1838 the Ancient Order of Hibernians became sponsor and still holds the sponsorship today. New York's main cathedral is dedicated to St. Patrick. Most people celebrating St. Patrick's Day strive to wear something green, Ireland's national color. Green dye is often put in food and drink. The mayor of Chicago regularly has the Chicago River dyed green for the day. If people cannot find a shamrock to wear they carry representations of that plant. According to legend the shamrock, with its three leaves on the single stalk, was used by St. Patrick to explain the mystery of the Christian Trinity to the pagan Irish. In Ireland St. Patrick's Day, though still celebrated with enthusiasm, tends to be somewhat more subdued than in the United States due to a greater appreciation of the religious significance of the feast.


Hardly any true folk costume is still worn in Ireland. The brat, a black hooded woolen cloak, is sometimes seen on old women in County Cork. During the nineteenth century the shawl was found by many women to be a cheaper substitute for the cloak and even today older rural women might be shawled. The heavy white báinín pullovers, traditionally worn in the west and northwest of Ireland by fishermen whose sweaters each bore a unique and identifiable cable pattern, is now frequently seen throughout the nation. Traditional homespun tweed trousers are still sometimes worn by Aran Islander men. In America the Irish rarely wear any traditional costume. The main exception is the kilt which is sometimes worn by members of céilí bands and traditional Irish dancers. This plaid skirt is actually Scottish, however, and was adopted in the early twentieth century during the Gaelic Revival.


For the most part Irish Americans eat generic American food as well as the cuisine of other ethnic groups. Many Irish Americans do cook some of the dishes that make up the distinctive Irish cuisine, which is frequently served in Irish restaurants and pubs throughout America. There is a good market for the many shops in America that sell such Irish favorites as rashers (bacon), bangers (sausages), black and white pudding, and soda bread. Potatoes have traditionally constituted the staple of the Irish diet. The Irish also consume such dairy products as butter, milk, and cheese in large quantities. Many eat oatmeal stirabout or porridge for breakfast. Irish stew is a favorite dish. Smoked Irish salmon, imported from Ireland, is a popular delicacy. Other traditional foods include: soda bread, made with flour, soda, buttermilk, and salt (sometimes with raisins); coddle, a dish originating in Dublin that is prepared with bacon, sausages, onions, and potatoes; and drisheens, made from sheep's blood, milk, bread crumbs, and chopped mutton suet. Corned beef and cabbage, sometimes served with juniper berries, was a traditional meal in many parts of Ireland on Easter Sunday and is still consumed by many Irish Americans on this and other days. Boxty bread, a potato bread marked with a cross, is still eaten by some on Halloween or the eve of All Saint's Day. Also on the table at Halloween are colcannon, a mixture of cabbage or kale and mashed potatoes with a lucky coin placed inside, and barmbrack, an unleavened cake made with raisins, sultanas, and currants. A ring is always placed inside the barmbrack. It is said that whoever receives the slice containing the ring will be married within the year. Tea, served at all times of the day or night, is probably the most popular Irish beverage. Irish coffee, made from whiskey and coffee, is truly an Irish American invention and is not drunk much in Ireland. Though Scotch and whiskey are synonymous to many in other countries, the Irish believe that their whiskey, uisce beatha (the water of life), is a finer drink. Irish stout, particularly the Guinness variety, is well-known throughout the world.


Sceitheann fíon fírinne (Wine reveals the truth); Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin (There's no fireside like your own fireside); Más maith leat tú a cháineadh, pó s (Marry, if you wish to be criticized); Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí (Give praise to the young and they will flourish); An té a bhíos fial roinneann Dia leis (God shares with the generous); Is maith an scáthán súil charad (The eye of a friend is a good mirror); Is fada an bóthar nach mbíonn casadh ann (It's a long road that has no turn); Giorraíonn beirt bóthar (Two people shorten the road).


The health of Irish Americans is influenced by the same factors affecting other ethnic groups in the western world: old age, pollution, stress, excessive use of tobacco and alcohol, overly rich diet, employment and other economic problems, discord in marriage and personal relationships, and so on. The chief cause of death is heart-related diseases, exacerbated by the Irish fondness for a rich diet traditionally high in fat and caloric content. Alcohol plays a strong role in Irish American social life, and alcohol-related illnesses are commonthe rate of alcoholism is high. Irish Americans also have an above-average rate of mental health diseases, with organic psychosis and schizophrenia being particularly prevalent.

In the earlier days of emigration the Irish, like numerous other groups, brought their folk medical remedies to America. Most of these, especially those associated with herbs, are unknown to the majority of contemporary Irish Americans; however, a number of traditional medical beliefs survive. In order to maintain good health and prevent illness many Irish recommend wearing holy medals and scapulars, blessing the throat, never going to bed with wet hair, never sitting in a draft, taking laxatives regularly, wearing camphor about the neck in influenza season, taking tonics and extra vitamins, enjoying bountiful exercise and fresh air, and avoiding physicians except when quite ill. Some traditional treatments are still used, such as painting a sore throat with iodine or soothing it with lemon and honey, putting a poultice of sugar and bread or soap on a boil, drinking hot whiskeys with cloves and honey for coughs or colds, and rubbing Vicks on the chest or breathing in hot Balsam vapors, also for coughs and colds.

Just as other groups in America, the Irish worry about the ever rising cost of medical care. Many would like improved medical insurance plans, whether national or private. The thousands of undocumented Irish throughout the United States who are not medically insured are particularly apprehensive of the frequently high expense of medical treatment.


Irish is a Celtic language of Indo-European origin, related to the ancient language of the Gauls. Linguistic scholars usually consider at least four distinct stages in the development of Irish: Old Irish (c. 600-900); Middle Irish (c. 900-1400); Early Modern Irish (c.1400-1600); and Modern Irish (c.1600-present). There are three fairly distinct dialects, those of Ulster, Munster, and Connaught. Beginning in the nineteenth century, Irishuntil then widely spoken throughout Irelandbegan a rapid decline mainly due to the Anglicization policies of the British government. Since the founding of the Irish Free State in 1921, however, the authorities have made great efforts to promote the widespread usage of Irish. Under the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland, Irish is decreed as the official language, though special recognition is given to English. Irish is still extensively taught in most schools. The result is that competence in Irishas well as general interest in the languageis higher today than at any time in the Republic's history. Nevertheless, despite all efforts to render Irish a living national language, it is clear that it remains the daily language of communication for only about four percent of the population, most of whom live in small Gaeltacht (southwest, west, and northwest) areas. Only a tiny number of Northern Ireland's population speak Irish.

The decline in the usage of Irish and the triumph of English as the first language for most Irish throughout the nineteenth century, though undoubtedly a great loss for nationalistic and cultural reasons, proved to be a boon to Irish immigrants to the United States. Almost alone among new immigrants, apart from those from the British Isles, most spoke the language of their adopted country. Today, there is a resurgence of interest in the Irish language among many Irish Americans. In cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, classes in learning Irish are extremely popular. A growing number of American colleges and universities now offer courses in Irish language.


Dia dhuit ("dee-ah guit")Hello; Conas atá tú? ("kunus ah-thaw thoo")How are you; Fáilte romhat ! ("fawilteh rowth")Welcome; Cad as duit? ("kawd oss dit")Where are you from; Gabh mo leithscéal ("gauw muh leshgale")Excuse me; Le do thoil ("leh duh hull")Please; Tá dhá thaobh ar an scéa ("thaw gaw hayv air un shgale")There's something to be said on both sides; Más toil le Dia ("maws tule leh dee-ah")God willing; Tá sé ceart to leor ("thaw shay k-yarth guh lore") It's all right; Beidh lá eile ag an bPaorach ! ("beg law eleh egg un fairoch")Better luck next time; Buíochas le Dia ("bu-ee-kus leh dee-ah")Thank God; Is fusa a rá ná a dhéanamh ("iss fusa ah raw naw ah yeaanav")Easier said than done; Go raibh míle maith agat ("guh row meela moh ugut")Thank you very much; Slán agat go fóill ("slawn ugut guh fowil") Good-bye for the present.

Family and Community Dynamics

It is difficult to discuss the Irish American family in isolation from the broader society. Irish assimilation into the American culture has been occurring for a long time and has been quite comprehensive.


Traditionally the average age of marriage for the Irish was older than for numerous other groups. Many delayed getting married, wishing first to attain a sufficient economic level. Large numbers did not marry at all, deciding to remain celibate, some for religious reasons, others, it has been suggested, due to a certain embarrassment about sex. Today delayed marriages are less common and there is probably less sexual dysfunction both within and outside marriage. Furthermore, those Irish whose families have long been established in America tend to have a more accepting attitude towards divorce than do the more recently arrived Irish. Many young Irish Americans are more inclined than their elders to look favorably on divorce. The negative attitude of the Catholic church toward divorce still affects perceptions, however. Many Irish Americans, even those who obtain a civil divorce, seek to procure a church annulment of their marriages so that they may remarry within Catholicism. Though Irish Americans frequently intermarry with other groups there remains a strong leaning toward marrying within one's own religion.


In remote times in Ireland the Irish generally treated death in a boisterous and playful manner. It is possible that the storytelling, music playing, singing, dancing, feasting, and playing of wake diversions during the two or three days the dead person was laid out prior to burial owed something to pre-Christian funeral games. Such activity may also have stemmed in part from a welcoming of death by an exploited and destitute people. Today, however, wakes among Irish Americans are much more sedate and respectable and generally last only one night. The main purpose of a wake is for relatives, neighbors, and friends to visit in order to pay their respects to the dead person and to offer condolences to the family. Though food and drink are still invariably offered to visitors, the traditional over-indulgence of eating and drinking rarely occurs. In years past the dead body was laid out on a bed in the person's own house. Today the wake often takes place in a funeral home with the body lying in a casket. Catholic dead often have rosary beads entwined in their crossed hands, and some are dressed in the brown habit or shroud of the Franciscan Third Order. Flowers and candles are usually placed about the casket. The laid-out corpse always has somebody standing beside it. This is mainly out of respect for the dead person. Many years ago, however, there was a practical reason for watching the body, namely to guard it from the predations of body-snatchers who would sell it to medical schools. The caoine or keening of women over the corpse is no longer heard in America. This custom has also, except for rare occasions, died out in Ireland. It is common for visitors to a wake to say a short silent prayer for the soul of the dead person.


The traditional Irish American mother remained at home to take care of the household. Female dominance of domestic life was common and the mother generally played a disproportionate role in raising the children. Not all Irish women were tied to the house, however. Many were also active in community oriented projects, such as charity activities, parochial work, and caring for the old and sick. In addition, many others displayed great independence and resolve last century when, fleeing the famine and terrible conditions in Ireland, they emigrated alone to the United States, a bold act for women of the period. This will and determination remains one of the most dominant character traits of contemporary Irish American females. Modern Irish American women are as likely, if not more so, to be as successful as their peers from other groups. Few today are content to devote their lives to traditional housework, with the great majority working in either part-time or full-time jobs. Great numbers have thrived in such professional spheres as academia, law, business, politics, and a variety of other occupations.


Irish American families have traditionally been large. Today many families still tend to produce an above-average number of children. This may be due in part to the continued adherence of many Irish to the teachings of the Catholic church on contraception. How Irish Americans rear their children depends to a great extent on the socio-economic background of the family. Generally, however, children are treated firmly but kindly. They are taught to be polite, obey their parents, and defer to authority. The mother often plays the dominant role in raising children and imparting values; the father is frequently a distant figure. In many families negative reinforcement, such as shaming, belittling, ridiculing, and embarrassing children, is as common as positive reinforcement. There has always been a tendency to imbue children with a strong sense of public respectability. It even has been argued that this desire to be thought respectable has deterred many Irish from taking chances and has impeded their success. Overt affection displayed by parents toward their children is not as prevalent as in some other ethnic groups.


In earlier generations, often more attention was paid to the education of sons than to that of daughters. It was generally thought that girls would become homemakers and that even if some did have a job such work would be considered secondary to their household duties. Today, however, though some Irish parents, particularly mothers, still "spoil" or indulge their sons, the education of daughters is a major concern.

Irish American families encourage achievement in school. In this they follow the traditional respect of the Irish for education. This dates back to when Irish monks helped preserve Latin and Greek learning in Europe, as well as the English language itself, by copying manuscripts during the fifth through eighth centuries when Ireland attained the name of "Island of Saints and Scholars." In addition, Irish Americans well understand that academic success facilitates achievement in wider social and economic spheres. The result is that Irish Catholics are among the top groups in the United States for educational attainment. They are more likely than any other white gentile ethnic group to go to college and are also more likely than most other ethnic groups to pursue graduate academic and professional degrees. While many Irish attend public schools, colleges, and universities, numerous others go to Catholic educational institutions. During the nineteenth century, however, many Irish parochial schools placed a greater emphasis on preventing Irish children from seduction by what many felt to be the Protestant ethos of the public schools. There is strong evidence that attendance at today's Catholic educational institutions, many of which have high standards, facilitates high levels of educational achievement and upward social mobility. Contrary to some beliefs, they are not deterrents to either academic or economic success. Among the most renowned Catholic universities attended by Irish Americans are Boston College and the University of Notre Dame.


Some early Catholic Irish immigrants converted to the pervasive Protestantism in America. However, the vast majority of subsequent Catholic immigrants, many holding their religion to be an intrinsic part of their Irish heritage as well as a safeguard against America's Anglo establishment, held steadfastly to their faith and, in so doing, helped Roman Catholicism grow into one of America's most powerful institutions. Since the late eighteenth century many aspects of American Catholicism have possessed a distinctly Irish character. A disproportionate number of Irish names may be found among America's past and present Catholic clergy. Scores of Irish laymen have been at the forefront of American Catholic affairs. The Irish have been particularly energetic supporters of the more concrete manifestations of their church and have established throughout America great numbers of Catholic schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, community centers, and orphanages, as well as churches, cathedrals, convents, and seminaries.

Until the mid-twentieth century, the life of Catholic Irish Americans revolved around their parish. Many children went to parochial schools, and the clergy organized such activities as sports, dances, and community services. There was little local politics without the participation of the priests. The clergy knew all the families in the community and there was great pressure to conform to the norms of the tightly knit parish. The parish priest, generally the best-educated individual of the congregation, was usually the dominant community leader. At a time when there were far fewer social workers, guidance counselors, and psychologists, parishioners flocked to their priest in times of trouble. Today the typical parish is less closed mainly due to the falling off in religious practice over the last decades of the twentieth century and the increased mainstreaming of parishioners. Nevertheless, there still remains a strong identification of many Catholic Irish with their parish.

The American Catholic church has undergone great changes since the 1960s, due largely to the innovations introduced by the Second Vatican Council. Some Catholic Irish Americans, wishing to preserve their inherited church practices, have been dismayed by the transformation. Some, alienated by the modernization of the liturgy, have been offended by what they consider a diminution of the mystery and venerability of church ritual with respect to the introduction of the vernacular, new hymns, and guitar playing at services. Some have attempted to preserve the traditional liturgy by joining conservative breakaway sects, and others have adopted different branches of Christianity.

Most Irish Americans have embraced the recent developments, however. The traditional Irish obedience to ecclesiastical authority is no longer certain as Rome asserts an uncompromising stance on many issues. Many Irish Catholics are now far more inclined to question doctrines and take issue with teachings on such subjects as abortion, contraception, divorce, priestly celibacy, and female priests. Certain members of the clergy have shown discontent; priests, nuns, and brothers have been leaving their orders in large numbers and there has been a concurrent decline in Irish vocations to the religious life. The numbers of Irish receiving the sacraments and attending mass and other church services have substantially declined; and many have abandoned puritan attitudes toward lifestyle issues, especially sex. Nevertheless, most Irish American Catholics are still faithful to many teachings of their church, and continue to identify as Catholics despite some disagreements with Vatican teachings.

Employment and Economic Traditions

The great majority of Catholic Irish immigrants in the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century languished at the bottom of America's economic ladder as unskilled laborers. Though some were farm workers, many more worked in such areas as mining, quarrying, bridge and canal building, and railway construction. So many Irish were killed working on the railroad that it was commonly speculated that "there was an Irishman buried under every tie." Others were dockworkers, ironworkers, factory-hands, bartenders, carters, street cleaners, hod-carriers, and waiters. Irish women generally worked in menial occupations. Multitudes were employed as domestic servants in Anglo-Protestant households, while others worked as unskilled laborers in New England textile mills. Some Irish became quite successful but their numbers were few. The handful who attained white-collar status were frequently shopkeepers and small businessmen. There was an exceedingly meager number of Irish professionals. Those Irish who made the long trip to the western states tended to have somewhat more prestigious jobs than their compatriots in the East and North. This is due in part to the large numbers of Chinese in the West who did much of the manual laboring work. Many Irish participated in the California Gold Rush.

In the years after the Civil War the occupational lot of the Irish began to improve as more entered skilled trades. Many moved into managerial positions in the railroad, iron, construction, and other industries. Some went into business for themselves, especially in the building and contracting sectors. Numerous others became police officers, firefighters, streetcar conductors, clerks, and postoffice workers. The Irish held many leadership positions in the trade union movement. Entertainment and athletics were other fields in which they began to attain greater recognition. It was more difficult for Irish women to move into higher prestige jobs, as there were far fewer opportunities for women in general at this time. Still, many attained upward occupational mobility by becoming teachers, nurses, and secretaries. Many Irish American nuns held positions of responsibility in hospitals, schools, and other Catholic social institutions.

By the beginning of the twentieth century Catholic Irish Americans were clearly ascending the occupational ladder. Though most remained members of the working class, large numbers moved into the ranks of the lower middle classes. Throughout the century this improvement in socioeconomic status has continued. Today the Irish are well represented in academia, medicine, law, government service, politics, finance, banking, insurance, journalism, the entertainment industry, the Catholic clergy, and most other professions.

Politics and Government

The vast majority of Irish Catholic immigrants to the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries arrived as Democrats, a political stance imbued by years of oppression at the hands of the British. Not surprisingly, most favored the democratic policies of Thomas Jefferson and their vote greatly assisted his election to the presidency in 1801. Their political inclinations were again manifest in 1829 in their support for the populist politics of Democrat Andrew Jackson, America's seventh president and the nation's first of Irish (Protestant) background. Understanding that they were clearly unable to match the Anglo-Protestant establishment in the world of business and economics, Irish Catholics, many of whom entered the United States with fundamental political experience gained through mass agitation movements at home, realized that politics would provide them with a potent vehicle for attaining influence and power. In the years after the Civil War the Irish metier for political activity became increasingly evident. To many today the Irish control of New York's Tammany Hall, the center of the city's Democratic Party, is a resolute symbol of their powerful and sometimes dubious involvement in American urban politics. Though graft, cronyism, and corruption were once an integral part of many of their political "machines" in New York and other cities, Irish politicians were frequently more successful than their Anglo-Protestant counterparts in reaching the people, feeding the poor, helping the more unfortunate obtain jobs, and organizing other practical social welfare activities. The Irish political "machine" generally had a strong democratic, reformist, and pragmatic agenda, which frequently extended to Jews, Italians, Germans, Poles, and other nationalities.

The phenomenon of Irish domination of the political life of numerous cities continued well into the twentieth century. Two extremely influential and powerful figures of the old "machine" style were James Michael Curley (1874-1958), mayor of Boston for four terms, and Richard J. Daley, mayor of Chicago from 1954 to 1976. Irish involvement in both state and national politics also gained prominence in the twentieth century. Alfred Emanuel Smith (1873-1944), the grandson of Irish immigrants, was the first Irish Catholic to receive the nomination of a major party (Democratic) in a presidential election; he was defeated by Herbert Hoover. An Irish Catholic reached the White House in 1960 with the election of the Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963. His brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, another prominent Democratic politician who served as attorney general in the Kennedy administration, was assassinated in 1968. A third brother, Edward, has been one of the most liberal and effective champions of social reform in the history of the Senate. Two other twentieth century Presidents, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan (both Republicans) were of Irish Protestant background. Numerous other Irish American politicians have gained state and national attention in recent decades. Both Mike Mansfield and George J. Mitchell were Senate majority leaders. Thomas O'Neill and Thomas S. Foley both served as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Another influential politician and 1976 presidential candidate was Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota.

Despite the notable presence this century of such influential reactionaries as the demagogue Father Charles Coughlin and the communist-baiter Senator Joseph McCarthy, Catholic Irish Americans are among the most likely to advocate the right of free speech. They also tend to be more supportive of liberal issues than many other white ethnic groups. For example, they have traditionally promoted such causes as racial equality, welfare programs, environmental issues, and gun control. Irish Americans have been and still are among the most stalwart supporters of the Democratic Party. Beginning in the late twentieth century, however, there has been a movement by some toward the Republican Party.


The Irish, either as regulars or as volunteers, have served in all of America's wars. They fought with distinction in the Revolutionary War, most siding with Washington. It is estimated that as many as 38 percent of Washington's army was composed of Irish Americans, even though they made up only 10 percent of the population. Of the generals, 26 were Irish, 15 of whom were born in Ireland. In the Civil War most Irish sided with the Union and great numbers fought in the Yankee armies. "The Fighting 69th" was probably the most famous Irish regimental unit, though 38 other Union regiments had "Irish" in their names. The contribution of the Irish to the Confederate cause was also significant. As many as 40,000 Confederate soldiers were born in Ireland and numerous others were of Irish ancestry. Irish Americans continued to fight in America's armies in subsequent wars and were particularly prominent, with many gaining decorations, in the two World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Their ready and distinguished participation in America's military conflicts has helped the Irish to gain respectability in the eyes of generations of other Americans and to assimilate into mainstream American life.


The Irish have contributed greatly to the labor movement in America. Their struggle for American workers' rights began as an outgrowth of their fight against oppression in Ireland. American capitalist injustice in industry was not too different in principle from persecution by English landlords at home. Even in the antebellum years the Irish were active in workers' organizations, many of which were clandestine, but it was during the second half of the nineteenth century that their involvement in labor activities became especially prominent. Particularly well known are the activities of the Molly Maguires, anthracite coal miners of Pennsylvania who in the 1860s and 1870s violently resisted the mostly English, Scottish, and Welsh mine bosses. Found guilty of nine murders, ten Mollies were hanged in 1876. This did not deter Irish involvement in American labor activities, however. Terrence V. Powderly (1849-1924), the son of an Irish immigrant, was for years leader of the Knights of Labor, the first national labor organization, which was founded in 1869. He later became commissioner general of immigration. Peter James McGuire (1852-1906), a carpenter, was another leading union activist. A founder of the American Federation of Labor, he was its secretary and first vice-president. He is perhaps best known today as the "Father of Labor Day." Irish women have also been prominent in America's labor movement. The Cork-born Mary Harris ("Mother") Jones (1830-1930), after losing all her possessions in the Chicago fire of 1871 began a 50-year involvement in organizing labor unions and in striving to improve workers' conditions and wages throughout the United States. Today, a nationally circulated magazine devoted to liberal issues bears her name. Another famous Irish female in the labor movement was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964) who co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920 and later became head of the United States Communist party. Kerry-born Michael Joseph Quill (1905-1966) founded the Transport Workers Union of America in 1934 and was its first president. In 1937 Joe Curran became the National Maritime Union's first president. George Meany (1894-1979), grandson of an Irish immigrant, was president of the combined American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) from 1955 to 1979. Irish American participation in America's unions and labor movement has been and continues to be of vital importance and benefit to the well-being of American society.


The attention of many Irish Americans of different generations has been sharply focused on the political affairs of Ireland ever since the Catholic civil rights movement began in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. This movement was a response to decades of institutionalized and private discrimination against Catholics in this region since the creation of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom in 1921. This discrimination by the Protestant majority was pervasive in such spheres as voting, housing, and employment. For the past three decades Northern Ireland has been convulsed by political upheaval, the frequently controversial tactics of an occupying force of British soldiers, Protestant and Catholic paramilitary activity, riots, killings, bombings, hunger strikes, internment without trial, and patent violations of human rights. The reactions of numerous Irish Americans have been forceful. In 1970 the Northern Ireland Aid Committee (NORAID) was formed to provide material help to Catholics in Northern Ireland. The Irish National Caucus, a Washington-based lobbying group, has been vociferous in its call for a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and for a reunification of the whole nation. Many Irish American politicians have campaigned intensely to find a settlement to Northern Ireland's problems. Among the most prominent have been Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Senator Daniel P. Moynihan of New York, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O'Neill, and former Governor of New York Hugh Carey. These and other Irish American politicians and lobbying groups have consistently exerted pressure on successive administrations to use their influence with London, Belfast, and Dublin to help amend human rights abuses in Northern Ireland and to aid in the provision of social and economic justice in that region. After the Anglo-Irish Agreement was reached in England in November 1985 Congress, responding in part to pressure from Irish Americans, passed a multi-billion-dollar aid bill for Northern Ireland. The future of this region is by no means clear, despite the recent cease-fire by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), but it is expected that Irish Americans will continue influence the policy of the major players in this conflict.

Individual and Group Contributions

It would constitute a thoroughly invidious task to provide a comprehensive record of the vast number of Irish Americans who have attained prominence over the past few centuries. The following list is necessarily selective, and countless other individuals might also have been named.


There have been numerous Irish Americans who have achieved prominence in the arts. In the fine arts, for example, the following three achieved particular fame: Mathew Brady (1823-1896), Civil War photographer; James E. Kelly (1855-1933), sculptor; Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), painter. Others include: Mathew Carey (1760-1839), author, book publisher, and political economist; Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), one of the greatest figures in American literature; Ring Lardner (1885-1933), short story writer and sports journalist; Mary O'Hara Alsop (1885-1980), popular novelist who focused on animal life; Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953), one of America's most eminent playwrights; F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), popular novelist and short story writer; James T. Farrell (1904-1979), author whose work, notably his Studs Lonigan trilogy, centered on working-class Irish American families on Chicago's South Side; John O'Hara (1905-1970), novelist and short story writer; Mary McCarthy (1912-1989), novelist and critic; Mary Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), novelist and short story writer of the American South; and William F. Buckley (1925 ), editor, critic, commentator, novelist.


Numerous Irish Americans have made their mark in the world of business and finance: William Russell (1812-1872), founder of the Pony Express; William Russell Grace (1832-1904), entrepreneur and first Roman Catholic mayor of New York; John Philip Holland (1840-1914), Clare-born father of the modern submarine; Anthony Nicholas Brady (1843-1913), wealthy industrialist whose interests extended from railroads to electric companies; Andrew Mellon (1855-1937), banker, art collector, and philanthropist; Samuel S. McClure (1857-1949), leading journalist and newspaper publisher; Henry Ford (1863-1947), auto manufacturer; James A. Farrell (1863-1943), head of United States Steel Corporation; and Howard Hughes (1905-1976), wealthy and eccentric industrialist, aerospace manufacturer, and movie maker.


John R. Gregg (1867-1948), inventor of the Gregg system of shorthand; and William Heard Kilpatrick (1871-1965), philosopher and leader in the Progressive Education movement, are among prominent Irish American educators.


A great number of Irish Americans have attained distinction in the entertainment industry: Victor Herbert (1859-1924), Dublin-born conductor and popular composer of operettas; Will Rogers (1879-1935), humorist and actor; John McCormack (1884-1945), popular Westmeath-born tenor; Buster Keaton (1895-1966), famous silent film comedian; Emmett Kelly (1898-1979), well-known circus clown; James Cagney (1899-1986), movie actor; film director John Ford (born Sean Aloysius O'Feeny; 1895-1973); Spencer Tracy (1900-1967), movie actor; Ed Sullivan (1901-1974), newspaper columnist and television personality; Bing Crosby (1901-1977), singer and movie and radio actor; Pat O'Brien (1900-1983), movie, radio, and television actor; John Huston (1906-1987), film director; John Wayne (1907-1979), movie actor; Errol Flynn (1909-1959), movie actor; Maureen O'Sullivan (1911 ), movie actor; Gene Kelly (1912 ), dancer, actor, singer; Tyrone Power (1913-1958), movie actor; Mickey Rooney (1920 ), movie actor; Maureen O'Hara (1920 ), movie actor; Carroll O'Connor (1924 ), television actor; Grace Kelly (1929-1982), movie actor and later Princess of Monaco; Jack Nicholson (1937 ), movie actor; and Mia Farrow (1945 ), movie actor.


Activists in the labor movement not mentioned already include: Leonora Barry (1849-1923), feminist and activist for women's suffrage; Mary Kenney O'Sullivan (1864-1943), active labor organizer; and Daniel Tobin (1875-1955), president of the Teamsters Union and a leader of the American Federation of Labor.


Several Irish Americans who have won renown in the military field have been mentioned. Others include: Lydia Barrington Darragh (1729-1789), Dublin-born heroine of the Revolutionary War and spy for George Washington; John Barry (1745-1803), Wexford-born "Father of the American Navy"; Margaret Corbin (1751-1800), heroine of the Revolutionary War; General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), leader of the Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II; William J. Donovan (1883-1959), World War I hero and later founder of the Office of Strategic Services; and Audie Murphy (1924-1971), the United States's most decorated soldier of World War II who later became a movie actor.


The fields of politics and law have had more than their share of eminent Irish Americans; the following few may be added to those named earlier: Sir Thomas Dongan (1634-1715), Irish-born governor of New York in 1682; Sir William Johnson (1715-1774), army officer and superintendent of Indian Affairs; Pierce Butler (1744-1822), Carlow-born American political leader who signed the U.S. Constitution; Nellie Tayloe Ross (1876-1977), first female governor (of Wyoming 1925-1927) and first female director of the Mint (1933-1953); Sandra Day O'Connor (1930 ), the first female Supreme Court Justice; William G. Brennan (1906 ), Supreme Court Justice.


Famous Irish American religious leaders include: Archbishop John Joseph Hughes (1797-1864), first Roman Catholic archbishop of New York; John McCloskey (1810-1885), first American cardinal of the Roman Catholic church; James Gibbons (1834-1921), Francis Joseph Spellman (1889-1967), Richard J. Cushing (1895-1970), and Terence Cooke (1921-1983), all Roman Catholic cardinals; Archbishop Fulton John Sheen (1895-1979), charismatic Roman Catholic church leader; Father Andrew Greeley (1928 ), priest, sociologist, and novelist. Two famous humanitarians are Father Edward Joseph Flanagan (1886-1948), Roman Catholic priest who worked with homeless boys and who founded Boys Town in Nebraska; and Thomas A. Dooley (1927-1961), medical doctor who performed great humanitarian work in southeast Asia.


Irish Americans have been eminent in sports as well, including: John L. Sullivan (1858-1918), James John "Gentleman Jim" Corbett (1866-1933), Jack Dempsey (1895-1983), and Gene Tunney (1898-1978), all heavyweight boxing champions; Babe Ruth (1895-1948), baseball player; Ben Hogan (1912 ), golfer; Maureen "Little Mo" Connolly (1934-1969), tennis star who won the U.S. women's singles championship three times; and Jimmy Connors (1952 ), another famous tennis player.



Gryfons Publishers and Distributors.

Publisher specializing in new and reprinted works on Irish history and culture, particularly focusing on Gaelic royalism and heritage.

Contact: David Wooten.

Address: P.O. Box 1899, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203-1899.

Telephone: (501) 834-4038.

Fax: (501) 834-4038.

E-mail: [email protected].


Irish America Magazine.

Established in 1984, the magazine publishes information about Ireland and Irish Americans, including book, play, and film reviews.

Address: Irish America, Inc., 432 Park Avenue South, No. 1000, New York, New York 10016-8013.

Irish Echo.

Established in 1928, this publication contains articles of interest to the Irish community.

Contact: Jane M. Duffin, Editor.

Address: 803 East Willow Grove Avenue, Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania 19038.

Telephone: (215) 836-4900.

Fax: (215) 836-1929.

Irish Herald.

Established in 1962, this newspaper covers Irish American interests.

Contact: John Whooley, Editor.

Address: Irish Enterprises, 2123 Market Street, San Francisco, California 94114.

Stars and Harp.

Carries profiles of Irish Americans and their contributions to the formation of the United States.

Contact: Joseph F. O'Connor, Editor.

Address: American Irish Bicentennial Committee, 3917 Moss Drive, Annandale, Virginia 22003.

Telephone: (703) 354-4721.

The World of Hibernia.

Upscale lifestyle magazine devoted to Irish American culture and notable Irish Americans.

Contact: Thomas P. Farley, Editor.

Address: 217 First St., Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey 07423.

E-mail: [email protected].



WFUV-FM (90.7).

"Míle Fáilte" presented by Séamus Blake, Saturdays 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.; "A Thousand Welcomes" presented by Kathleen Biggins, Saturdays 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.; "Ceol na nGael" presented by Eileen Fitzsimons and Marianna McGillicuddy, Sundays 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Contact: Chuck Singleton, Program Director.

Address: Fordham University, Bronx, New York 10458.

Telephone: (718) 817-4550.

Fax: (718) 365-9815.

WGBH-FM (89.7).

Celtic program presented by Brian O'Donovan, Sundays 12:00 to 2:00 p.m.

Contact: Martin Miller, Programming Director.

Address: 125 Western Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts 02134.

Telephone: (617) 492-2777.

Fax: (617) 787-0714.

WNTN-AM (1550).

"The Sound of Erin," Saturdays 10:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Contact: John Curran or Bernie McCarthy.

Address: P.O. Box 12, Belmont, Massachusetts 02178.

Telephone: (617) 484-2275 (John Curran); (617) 326-4159 (Bernie McCarthy).

WPNA-AM (1490).

Irish programming each Saturday 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Contact: Bud Sullivan, the Hagerty Family, Mike O'Connor, Mike Shevlin, or Joe Brett.

Address: Alliance Communications, Inc., Radio Station WPNA, 408 South Oak Park Avenue, Oak Park, Illinois 60302.

Telephone: (708) 974-0108 (Bud Sullivan); (708) 834-8110 (the Hagerty Family); (708) 771-2228 (Mike O'Connor); (708) 282-7035 (Mike Shevlin); (312) 746-4561 (Joe Brett).

Organizations and Associations

American Irish Historical Society (AIHS).

The goal of the AIHS is to promote awareness among Americans of Irish descent of their history, culture, and heritage. To attain that end the AIHS presents lectures, readings, musical events, and art exhibitions. Each year the Society awards its gold medal to an individual who best reflects the Society's ideals. The Society's journal, The Recorder, is published semi-annually in the winter and summer, and contains articles on a wide range of Irish American and Irish topics with a primary focus on the contribution of the Irish in American history.

Contact: Thomas Michael Horan, Executive Director.

Address: 991 5th Ave., New York, New York 10028.

Telephone: (212) 288-2263.

Fax: (212) 628-7927.

E-mail: [email protected].


Ancient Order of Hibernians in America (AOH).

Founded in Ireland in the early sixteenth century the AOH established its first American branch in New York City in 1836. Today the AOH, its membership almost 200,000, is the largest Irish American organization with divisions throughout the country. Originally founded to protect the Catholic faith of its members, the AOH still has this as one of its chief aims. It also seeks to promote an awareness throughout America of all aspects of Irish life and culture. The AOH publishes a bimonthly newspaper, The National Hibernian Digest.

Contact: Thomas D. McNabb, Secretary.

Address: 31 Logan Street, Auburn, New York 13021.

Telephone: (315) 252-3895.

Irish American Cultural Association (IACA).

Promotes the study and appreciation of Irish culture.

Contact: Thomas R. McCarthy, President.

Address: 10415 South Western, Chicago, Illinois 60643.

Telephone: (773) 238-7150.

Irish American Cultural Institute (IACI).

Founded in 1962 this non-profit foundation, whose purposes are non-political and non-religious, fosters the exploration of the Irish experience in Ireland and America. Among its programs are: Irish Perceptions, which facilitates tours and presentations in America of leading Irish actors, lecturers, musicians, and artists; Irish Way, which takes American high school students on a summer educational tour of Ireland; Art and Literary Awards, which provides grants aimed at stimulating the arts in Ireland; and the Irish Research Fund, which supports scholarly work by citizens of any country that illuminates the Irish American experience. IACI also awards a visiting fellowship in Irish Studies at University College, Galway, and scholarships for American undergraduate students to the University of Limerick. IACI publishes Éire-Ireland, a quarterly scholarly journal of Irish studies, and Dúcas, a bimonthly newsletter. The Institute has 15 chapters throughout the United States.

Contact: James S. Rogers, Director of Operations.

Address: University of St. Thomas, 2115 Summit Avenue, Mail No. 5026, St. Paul, Minnesota 55105-1096.

Telephone: (612) 962-6040.

Fax: (612) 962-6043.

Irish American Partnership.

Individuals and organizations promoting stronger cultural ties between the United States and the Republic of Ireland. Encourages participation in the unique cultural practices and appreciation of the histories of both countries.

Contact: Joe Leary, President.

Address: 33 Broad Street, 9th Floor, Boston, Massachusetts 02109.

Telephone: (617) 723-2707.

Fax: (617) 723-5478.

E-mail: [email protected].

Irish Genealogical Society (IGS).

Promotes and encourages the study of Irish genealogy and other types of Irish studies.

Contact: Joseph M. Glynn, Jr., Director.

Address: 21 Hanson Avenue, Somerville, Massachusetts 02143.

Telephone: (617) 666-0877.

Irish Heritage Foundation (IHF).

Promotes Irish heritage and cultural awareness in the United States.

Contact: John Whooley, President.

Address: 2123 Market Street, San Francisco, California 94114.

Telephone: (415) 621-2200.

Irish National Caucus.

Founded in 1974, the Irish National Caucus, with a membership of about 200,000 Irish Americans, is a powerful lobbying group that seeks to publicize the violations of human rights in Ireland. Though it does not support any specific solution to the Irish problem, its ultimate objective is to achieve, by political, legal, and non-violent means, a peaceful Ireland free of British rule.

Contact: Fr. Sean McManus, President.

Address: 413 East Capitol Street, S.E., Washington, D.C. 20003.

Telephone: (202) 544-0568.

Fax: (202) 543-2491.

Irish Institute (II).

Founded in 1950. Formerly known as Irish Feis Institute. Provides financial support for cultural projects in Ireland and the United States for U.S. citizens of Irish birth or extraction.

Contact: Kevin Morrissey, President.

Address: c/o Kevin Morrissey, P.O. Box 173, Woodside, New York 11377.

Telephone: (718) 721-3363.

Fax: (718) 721-3805.

Museums and Research Centers

American Conference for Irish Studies.

Founded in 1962.

Contact: Dr. Lucy McDiarmid, President.

Address: 1931 Panama Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19103.

Telephone: (215) 545-3015.

Fax: (215) 545-3015.

E-mail: [email protected].

American Irish Historical Society.

The library of the AIHS contains more than 30,000 volumes together with major manuscript and archival collections. It is probably the premier repository of library materials on the Irish in America. The library is open to the public by appointment.

Contact: Alec Ormsby.

Address: 991 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10028.

Telephone: (212) 288-2263.

Fax: (212) 628-7927.

E-mail: [email protected].


An Claidheamh SoluisThe Irish Arts Center.

Aims to develop an understanding of Irish culture and arts among the Irish, Americans, and others. It offers a variety of courses in such subjects as Irish language, history, literature, dance, and traditional music. It has an excellent resident theater company. It also sponsors Irish dances, poetry-readings, lectures, and concerts. In addition, the Center publishes the monthly newsletter Irish ArtsEalaíona Éireannacha.

Contact: Nye Heron, Executive Director.

Address: 553 West 51st Street, New York, New York 10019.

Telephone: (212) 757-3318.

Fax: (212) 247-0930.

Boston Public Library.

With more than 6,000,000 volumes, this library is one of the nation's major research libraries. It has particularly strong holdings, including numerous important manuscript and archival collections, relating to many aspects of the national and local history of the Irish in America. Irish American literature and music are also well represented.

Contact: Gunars Rutkovskis, Assistant Director, Resources and Research Library Services.

Address: Boylston Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02117-0286.

Telephone: (617) 536-5400.

Georgetown University, Joseph Mark Lauinger Library, Special Collections.

Contact: George M. Barringer, Head of Special Collections Division; or Nicholas B. Scheetz, Manuscript Librarian.

Address: 3700 O Street N.W., D.C. 20057-1006.

Telephone: (202) 687-7444.

Fax: (202) 687-7501.

Irish American Heritage Museum.

The exhibits, artifacts, and archives of this museum's collection cover many aspects of the Irish American experience from the earliest immigrants up to the present. There are plans to move the museum's research library of Irish American material from its present location at The College of St. Rose in Albany, New York, to the museum itself.

Contact: Monique Desormeau.

Address: Route 145, East Durham, New York 12423.

Telephone: (518) 634-7494.

John J. Burns Library, Boston College, Special Collections and Archives.

The Irish collection at Boston College's Burns Library is widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind outside of Ireland. Burns is also recognized for its extensive and important holdings in materials relating to Irish America. Included in the collection are papers of former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, the archives of the Charitable Irish Society (1889-present), the Eire Society of Boston (founded 1937), and the George D. Cahill (some 600 letters and ephemera, 1857-1900) and Patrick A. Collins (some 100 letters, 1880-1882) collections. Numerous other books and periodicals and several more manuscript collections relate to the history of the Irish, particularly in Boston.

Contact: Robert K. O'Neill, Burns Librarian.

Address: Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts 02167.

Telephone: (617) 552-3282.

Fax: (617) 552-2465.

St. John's University, Special Collections.

Contact: Szilvia E. Szmuk, Special Collections Librarian.

Address: Grand Central and Utopia Pkwys, Jamaica, New York 11439.

Telephone: (718) 990-6737.

Fax: (718) 380-0353.

Sources for Additional Study

Blessing, Patrick J. The Irish in America: A Guide to the Literature and the Manuscript Collections. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1992.

Bradley, Ann Kathleen. History of the Irish in America. Secaucus, New Jersey: Chartwell, 1986.

Eleuterio-Comer, Susan K. Irish American Material Culture: A Directory of Collections, Sites, and Festivals in the United States and Canada. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1988.

Feagin, Joe R., and Clairece Booher Feagin. "Irish Americans," in their Racial and Ethnic Relations, fourth edition. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993; pp. 85-114.

Greeley, Andrew M. That Most Distressful Nation: The Taming of the American Irish. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1972.

Griffin, William D. The Book of Irish Americans. New York: Times Books, 1990.

Horgan, Ellen Somers. "The American Catholic Irish Family," in Ethnic Families in America: Patterns and Variations, third edition, edited by Charles H. Mindel, Robert W. Habenstein, and Roosevelt Wright, Jr. New York: Elsevier, 1988; pp. 45-75.

The Irish in America: Emigration, Assimilation and Impact, Volume 4 of Irish Studies, edited by P. J. Drudy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

McCaffrey, Lawrence J. Textures of Irish America. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Shannon, William V. The American Irish. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

Irish Americans

views updated May 21 2018

Irish Americans

For more information on Irish history and culture, seeVol. 4: Irish.


Irish emigration to America began in colonial times but reached its peak in the Great Famine years of the 1800s. Early Irish immigrants were mostly Scotch-Irish from Ulster, or Northern Ireland (see Scottish and Scotch-Irish Americans ). Irish Catholics did not begin to immigrate in large numbers until about 1800, and then they came en masse. In 1790, the U.S. Census counted 44,000 Irish Americans, most of whom were Scotch-Irish. By 1800, the Irish population of America had swelled to 150,000. Most of the newcomers were Irish Catholics fleeing British oppression and the resulting famines.

The Irish constituted the first major Catholic presence in the predominantly Protestant United States and as such met with virulent discrimination. The majority of the immigrants were illiterate farmers with few, if any, other job skills. However, they had been so disillusioned with farming in Ireland that they preferred to starve in the cities of America rather than return to growing crops. Irish immigrants congregated in the large industrial centers of the Northeast, Middle Atlantic, and Midwest regions of America, living in overcrowded slum housing and working whatever jobs they could find.

The worst famines in Ireland, caused by a grossly unjust economic system imposed on Ireland by Britain, combined with a potato blight, occurred in 1800, 1807, 1816, 1839, 1845–1848, 1863, and 1879. Between 1800 and 1830, 300,000 Irish immigrated to the United States. In 1846–1851, more than one million Irish fled to America. Another 873,000 immigrated in the decades of 1860–1880. Many settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By 1880, the Irish Catholic population in Philadelphia had reached 6,000, the highest of any community in North America. Other cities, such as New York, Boston, and Chicago, also had large Irish American populations.

Irish immigration to the United States continued, with some one million more immigrants arriving between 1880 and 1900. Ireland lost more of its population to the United States than any other country. In 1860, there were only five Irish persons left in Ireland for every Irish person in America (compared to 33 Germans in Germany for every German American, and 42 British in Britain for every British American). In the early 1900s, however, Irish immigration to America slowed considerably, and once Irish independence was declared in 1921, immigration virtually ceased. Small numbers of Irish have continued to come to the United States since that time, but the mass migration was over.

The Irish were victims of discrimination and violence in the United States not only because of their religion but also because of their willingness to work for extremely low wages. Other Americans felt threatened by this huge influx of unskilled laborers whom they perceived to be glutting the job market. Stereotypes of "Paddy" and "Bridget" (common Irish names) as drunken, disorderly, ignorant brutes took shape in American culture. However, when the United States embarked in the mid- and late-1800s on extensive construction operations of canals, railroads, and bridges and expanded its mining industry, Irish Americans were ready to fill the vast need for workers. These jobs, though dangerous and underpaid, were a ticket out of the city slums. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Erie Canal were both essentially built by Irish Americans. They also laid much of the railroad track across the United States. Without the labor of Irish Americans, U.S. development would have occurred much more slowly. Their hard work and enormous contributions to American expansion began to earn Irish Americans some measure of respect among their fellow Americans.

Participation in the armed services also helped improve the image of Irish Americans in the United States. Irish American naval captain Oliver Hazard Perry became a hero in the War of 1812, uttering the famous words, "We have met the enemy and they are ours," after defeating a British fleet on Lake Erie. Irish Americans fought on both sides of the American Civil War (1861–65), but most—some 200,000—fought for the Union.

During the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848, a number of Irish Americans defected to the Mexican side. The rate of desertion was very high for the U.S. Army during this war because at least half of the soldiers were recent immigrants (particularly Irish and German), and many of the American-born officers treated them quite badly. When the Mexican army learned that the Irish were Catholic, as were the Mexicans, they tried to lure them to Mexico with offers of land and religious fellowship. Some 250 Irish American soldiers deserted the U.S. Army and joined up with the Mexicans. Led by Captain John Riley, they formed the San Patricio (St. Patrick) Battalion along with about 200 other deserters, many of them German Americans. The San Patricio Battalion fought bravely for the Mexican side, but Mexico was finally defeated, and the deserters were brought to justice. Of those who had survived the fighting, 50 were executed for treason, 5 were pardoned, and another 15 (including Captain Riley) were branded and flogged, then released. Riley and others formed two infantry units that continued to serve the Mexican army for a number of years before disbanding. Some of the Irish American soldiers then returned to the United States, but others remained in Mexico, Riley among them. Intermarriage with Mexicans led to the creation of a small Mexican-Irish community. One of its best-known members is actor Anthony Quinn.

Irish Americans themselves unfortunately contributed to their bad image in 1863 when Congress passed the first national draft for military service. Outraged by this invasion of their freedom, Irish Americans in New York City took out their frustrations on the African American community there, which at that time was quite small. With 200,000 Irish Americans against 10,000 African Americans, the African Americans never had a chance. After four days of rioting and violence, 1,200 people (mostly African American) were dead or seriously injured, and the Irish Americans had burned Manhattan's Colored Orphan Asylum to the ground.

Conditions in Irish American slums had become intolerable in the mid-1800s, with epidemics of typhoid (1837), typhus (1842), and cholera (1849) sweeping the population, and chronic outbreaks of tuberculosis and pneumonia claiming even more lives. In 1857, some 85% of the people admitted to New York City's hospital were Irish immigrants. Infant and child mortality were so high among Irish Americans that immigrant children were expected to live no more than 14 years on the average after arrival in the United States. Many IrishAmericans turned to alcohol to numb the pain of their squalid lives. Often times, Irish American women and children became prostitutes, and women, children, and men took up other criminal activities to survive.

When gold was discovered in California in 1849, thousands of Irish Americans joined the rush west. A few struck it rich. The rest continued to languish in poverty, either returning to the East and Midwest or settling in the cities of the West. Things were beginning to change, however, for the Irish Americans. New waves of immigrants, this time from Eastern Europe, began to arrive. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, and speaking completely foreign languages (Western European languages are at least related to English), these new immigrants made Irish Americans seem much more "American" in contrast. Irish Americans began to be welcomed somewhat more into mainstream society. The Irish American community was also beginning to make itself known in politics.

The Irish American political machine was based on the units of family, block, and neighborhood. Each neighborhood had a block captain, a ward captain, and a precinct captain. Irish Catholic parishes also provided a political base, with most parishioners following the lead of the priest or local bishop. Irish Americans, therefore, could deliver significant blocs of votes. Years of fighting the British for their rights in Ireland had taught the Irish how to work the political system for their benefit. By the mid-1800s, Irish Americans had taken over the Democratic Party and city hall in several major cities and were becoming a voice to be reckoned with in American politics.

New York City's Tammany Hall was one of the most significant political arenas for Irish Americans in the 1800s. William Marcy "Boss" Tweed, an Irish American, became its leader and ruled New York City, and exercised a great deal of influence in state and federal politics as well, from his political throne. Tweed and other Irish American politicians used their positions to promote the welfare of other Irish Americans, providing employment (particularly in blue-collar jobs such as police officers, fire fighters, etc.), food, and services to Irish American citizens and their neighborhoods. Corruption was rampant in American politics at that time, and the Irish American political machine was not immune. Boss Tweed himself was imprisoned in 1873 for illegal activities. But Irish American politicians were no more dishonest than any other. Irish Americans made politics work for them, and they improved their situation in America dramatically with their successful political maneuvering. The high point in Irish American Catholic politics occurred in 1960 when Irish American John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected president of the United States, the first Catholic president in U.S. history. In fact, one has only to look at the number of Irish American presidents over the years to see how Irish Americans gained increasing acceptance in mainstream American society: from 1789 through 1921, only 8 out of 28 presidents had confirmed Irish ancestry, but since the election of John F. Kennedy, all but one president (Gerald Ford) can claim some degree of Irish heritage.

Another important arena for Irish Americans was the labor movement of the 1870s–1930s. Many Irish Americans led the way as workers organized for better working conditions and higher wages. By 1900, over 50 of the 110 unions in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had Irish American presidents. Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, a powerful leader of the labor movement, was Irish American. The AFL's first official organizer of women was Mary Kenney, an Irish American who organized the garment workers in Boston, most of whom were also Irish American women. The garment workers mounted a successful strike for better wages and pay in 1894, establishing women as an important force in labor politics. Irish Americans continue to be a significant presence in American labor unions today. In 1955, Irish American George Meany became head of the largest union organization in the United States, when the AFL merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to form the AFL-CIO. Meany was re-elected president of the AFL-CIO for the third time in 2005 for another four-year term.

Some 30,528,470 people listed themselves as of "Irish" ethnicity on the 2000 U.S. Census. Another 4,319,232 chose "Scotch Irish," and 65,638 claimed "Celtic" ancestry. Irish Americans currently make up the second-largest ethnic group in the United States (12.3% of the total U.S. population), behind German Americans. There are over seven times as many people in the United States who claim some Irish ancestry than there are people in Ireland today. Although early Irish immigrants settled mostly in the Northeast, Middle Atlantic, and Midwest areas of the United States, today's Irish Americans are spread fairly evenly throughout the entire country. The top

"most Irish" states in terms of percentage of Irish Americans are Massachusetts (24.1%), New Hampshire (21.7%), Rhode Island (19.5%), and Connecticut, Delaware, Vermont, and Pennsylvania (all about 18%).

The most obvious contribution Irish Americans have made to American culture is the observance of St. Patrick's Day on 17 March. Nearly every community in the United States holds a St. Patrick's Day parade, and many Americans, whether Irish or not, wear green on that day. Shamrocks and leprechauns are familiar to all Americans, and several Irish tunes have become American standards ("When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," "Danny Boy," etc.). Irish Americans dominated the American Catholic Church into the 20th century, and Irish Catholicism still tends to define the Catholic Church in America. Many Irish Americans are also Protestant, particularly among those who call themselves "Scotch Irish." The parochial school system started in the 1830s–1840s by Irish American Catholics continues to thrive in parishes across the United States. Irish and non-Irish Americans, Catholics and non-Catholics alike send their children to parochial schools for the solid and affordable education they offer.

Individual Irish Americans who have made significant contributions to American culture are far too numerous to recount. A few of the best-known are composers George M.Cohan and Victor Herbert; musicians Bing Crosby, Jim Morrison, John Fogerty, Mariah Carey, and Alicia Keys; and dancers Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor. The composer of the song "Dixie," which became the "national anthem" of the South, was Irish American Daniel D. Emmett. Irish American actors include Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, Grace Kelly, Errol Flynn, Buster Keaton, Helen Hayes, Gregory Peck, Walter Brennan, Jackie Gleason, Jack Lemmon, Peter O'Toole, Pierce Brosnan, Brian Dennehy, Patrick Duffy, Mia Farrow, Jack Nicholson, Carroll O'Connor, Ryan O'Neal, Ben and Casey Affleck, Lindsay Lohan, Rosie O'Donnell, and actor/director Robert Redford. Directors John Ford and John Sayles are also Irish American. Walt Disney was originally Irish Canadian, before moving to the United States.

The best-known Irish American artist by far is Georgia O'Keeffe. Irish American architect Louis H. Sullivan developed the skyscraper design, and Matthew Brady was a well-known photographer. The only American playwright ever awarded the Nobel Prize is Eugene O'Neill, an Irish American. Other Irish American writers include John O'Hara, Flannery O'Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Clancy, Kate Chopin (born Katherine O'Flaherty), Margaret Mitchell, William Kennedy, Mary Gordon, Mary McCarthy, Andrew Greeley, J. P. Donleavy, Cormac McCarthy, Frank McCourt, and poets Galway Kinnell, Frank O'Hara, Robert Creeley, and James Whitcomb Riley. Among the many noteworthy journalists and other media personalities of Irish descent are Chris Matthews, Conan O'Brian, Norah and Kelly O'Donnell, and Bill O'Reilly.

Irish American leaders in science, industry, and politics include the Kennedy family (John Fitzgerald, Robert; Edward, or Ted; and Joseph Kennedy III, elected to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in 1986); former Chicago mayor Richard Daley (who served from 1955 to 1976) and his son, Richard M. Daley, also elected mayor of Chicago (in 1989); one-time New York State governor Alfred E. Smith, who became the first Irish American Catholic to run for U.S. president in 1928; Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to be appointed justice of the Supreme Court (in 1981); astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, the first woman to walk in space (in 1984); and Christa Corrigan McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space in the ill-fated Challenger shuttle that exploded shortly after take-off in 1986. Henry Ford, builder of the first inexpensive automobile, the Model T, was Irish American, as was James Tobin, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1981.

Sports, especially boxing, provided a way out of the slums for young Irish American men in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Irish American boxer Paddy Ryan held the title of world heavyweight champion in the 1880s. Ryan was defeated by Irish American John L. Sullivan in 1892, and Sullivan was subsequently defeated by Irish American "Gentleman Jim" Corbett in 1897. Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney were successful Irish American boxers in the early 1900s. Baseball has been another favored sport among Irish Americans. The best-known Irish American baseball players today are pitcher Nolan Ryan and shortstop Derek Jeter, who is half African American and half Irish American.

Two notorious Irish Americans were outlaw Billy the Kid (born Henry McCarty), and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, instigator of the American anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, which came to be known as "McCarthyism."

For the most part, Irish Americans today have become part of established mainstream U.S. culture and suffer little discrimination. Most are second- or third-generation Americans, at least; only a fraction of 1% of the Irish American population today is foreign born. A small group of Irish Americans today face a unique problem, however. Born to unwed Irish mothers in the 1950s and 1960s, some 400 infants (or more) were sent from Ireland to the United States for adoption. Viewed as shameful, these births were hidden and records were falsified to protect the women involved, and their families. Those adoptees are now reaching the age where they want to know about their birth parents. Agencies in Ireland remain largely uncooperative, however, and the falsification of many records makes the search that much more difficult. Adopted Irish American women and men struggle to find out where, and to whom, they were born in Ireland. Others who have not been told they were adopted may not even know they are Irish.

Irish culture has historically been very family oriented with traditional male and female roles. The Catholic Church further emphasizes those roles, and the immigrants to America during the famine years brought those traditional Catholic values with them. To some degree, the fact that many Irish settled in cities in the United States broke down those roles, at least for women. Irish American women were much more likely to work outside the home than were women of other immigrant groups. Their experience in the working world provided the opportunity for Irish American women to gain confidence and public influence. Gay Irish Americans have not fared so well, however. The stereotype of the Irishman as a pugnacious pub brawler expresses a truth of the Irish American culture that puts great pride in (heterosexual) masculinity and views homosexuality as an affront. Patriotic military duty has also become highly celebrated among Irish Americans, and discrimination against homosexuals in the military is persistent. The Roman Catholic Church, which views homosexuality as sinful behavior, contributes as well to the marginalization of gays and lesbians in the Irish American community.

This tension came to a head in 1992 when the Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group (GLIB) of Boston applied to march in Boston's St. Patrick's Day parade. The parade has become much more than a celebration of the life of St. Patrick; it now serves as an affirmation of "Irishness" in all its patriotic American glory. The Veterans Council, responsible for running the parade, rejected the GLIB's application for a spot in the parade, but a judge ruled that +the GLIB had the right to participate. The ruling set off a huge and fractious debate over whose rights were being infringed: homosexuals by being excluded from the parade or the Veterans Council by being forced to include those whose views they do not support. Prior to the GLIB rejection, the only group to be denied a place in the parade was the Ku Klux Klan.

For the next three years, the GLIB and the Veterans Council fought it out in court, taking it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled in 1995 in favor of the Veterans Council. Although the ruling went against the GLIB, members of the gay and lesbian community still viewed it in some ways as a victory because the wording of the decision spoke of homosexuals as equal human beings deserving respect—the Court based their decision on the First Amendment right of the Veterans Council to include and exclude whomever they chose because they no longer receive public funding for the parade.

The only other group to be excluded from the parade since the GLIB was the Boston Veterans for Peace in 2003, rejected because of their opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq.


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—by D. K. Daeg de Mott

Irish Americans

views updated May 21 2018


IRISH AMERICANS. More than 7 million Irish immigrants have come to America since the 1600s. This mass movement transformed Irish society and played a significant role in shaping American politics, religion, culture, and economics during the country's most formative years. More than 40 million people in the United States claim some degree of Irish ancestry.

Colonial and Pre-Famine Immigration

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. A small number of prosperous merchants formed communities in Philadelphia and other cities, but most immigrants were indentured servants who eventually blended into the mainstream society. A few were prominent citizens, like wealthy Charles Carroll who migrated to Maryland in 1681, establishing a family that produced the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the first American archbishop.

Between 250,000 and 500,000 Protestant Irish arrived in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While some were southern Irish Anglicans and Quakers, over three-fourths were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from Ulster. In search of land and religious freedom, these "Wild Irish" settled in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania, later migrating to the wilderness backcountries of Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Known for their hatred of the British and their rugged individualism, many fought bravely in the American Revolution. More came in the early 1800s to settle Kentucky and Tennessee, becoming the nation's first "Indian fighters" and producing such American heroes as President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) and frontiersman Davy Crockett (1786–1836).

The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 caused widespread changes in Irish society and opened the flood-gates of poor Catholic immigration. Landlords began to turn from grain production to cattle, raising rents and evicting tenants by the thousands. During this time, the population in Ireland rose from 6.8 million in 1821 to 8 million in 1841, with the largest increase among poor cottiers—landless laborers who received access to land for working the landlord's crops. Partible inheritance (dividing land among all sons), early marriage, and high fertility doubled their numbers from 665,000 to 1.3 million between 1831 and 1841. Fathers could no longer provide for every child, creating scores of young men and women with no alternatives but delayed marriage, permanent celibacy, or emigration. As a result, 1.3 million people left Ireland for America between 1815 and 1845.

Famine Immigration and Settlement

Conditions for those who remained behind in Ireland continued to worsen. As plots of land shrunk and the population grew, cottiers came to rely increasingly on the potato, a nutritious root that grew quickly and easily in Irish soil, as their main source of food. In August 1845, a fungus destroyed the potato crop, returning for the next four years and causing widespread destruction. Despite assistance from public and private sources, approximately 1.5 million people starved or died of famine-related diseases between 1846 and 1855, the most during "Black '47." Another 2.1 million emigrated, mainly to the United States, accounting for almost half of all immigration to the States during the 1840s and over a third during the 1850s.

In America, initial sympathy for the starving peasants gave way to anti-Catholic hostility as they began to arrive in droves, forming enclaves in Northern cities. In Boston, for example, immigration rates rose from 4,000 in 1820 to 117,000 in 1850. By the 1850s–1860s, 28 percent of all people living in New York, 26 percent in Boston, and 16 percent in Philadelphia had been born in Ireland. Irish Catholics also dominated immigration to Southern cities before the Civil War (1861–1865); New Orleans was the second-largest port of arrival after New York by 1850.

Throughout the nation, work advertisements stated, "No Irish Need Apply," while nativist political parties like the Know-Nothings gained power. Hostility often turned violent, as in 1834 when mobs burned an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Such episodes were etched in Irish American memory, contributing to a separatist mentality long after they achieved success.

Unskilled Irish men became manual laborers, competing with free African Americans for jobs, which sometimes caused bitter race riots. Over 3,000 Irish helped build New York's Erie Canal, while thousands of others worked on the railroad, in Pennsylvania's coal mines, or as farm laborers. The more enterprising traveled out west to San Francisco, finding greater opportunity and less discrimination. In the South, Irish workers were deemed less valuable than slaves and less dangerous than free blacks, perfect for urban areas. Irish women nationwide overwhelmingly worked as domestic servants, becoming known as "Bridgets," or in the growing needle trades.

Various charitable and social organizations helped the Irish settle into American life, while such financial societies as New York's Irish Emigrant Savings Bank (established 1851) assisted immigrants with sending remittances back home. The most important institution was the Catholic Church, which created a national network of churches, hospitals, schools, and orphanages. Irish priests, such as New York's Archbishop John Hughes (1797–1864) and Charleston's Bishop John England (1786–1842) dominated the hierarchy and shaped the course of American Catholicism. On the local level, the parish church served as the center of Irish American life, becoming the means of both preserving ethnic culture and Americanizing immigrants.

Their service during the Civil War also helped the Irish gain respect and acceptance. While criticized for their role in the 1863 New York draft riots, as many as 170,000 Irish-born men served in the Northern army. In the South, the Irish contributed the largest number of troops of any foreign-born group.

Post-Famine Immigration and Life

The Great Famine accelerated changes already at work in Irish society. With no land to inherit, younger children had few options in Ireland. As a result, approximately 3 million Irish men and women came to America between the end of the Famine and Irish independence (1856–1921). Departures were often marked by an "American wake," illustrating the finality of the journey. While most would never see Ireland again, many emigrants sent money back home, providing for their families and paying for siblings or parents to follow.

While the vast majority of Irish immigrants remained in the Northeast and Midwest, a significant minority of mainly skilled, single men migrated west. In 1890, the cities with the largest Irish-born populations were New York-Brooklyn (275,156, or 12 percent of the combined population), Philadelphia (110,935, 11 percent), Boston (71,441, 16 percent), Chicago (70,028, 6 percent), and San Francisco (30,718, 10 percent). The Irish-born population peaked that year at 1,871,509; the second generation totaled 2,924,172, growing to its highest level of 3,375,546 in 1900.

The late nineteenth century showed few improvements in Irish occupational mobility. While Irish-born men made up 11 percent of America's policemen and 6 percent owned their own businesses, they were concentrated in unskilled, dangerous, and low-paying jobs. While the violent methods of the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Pennsylvania coal miners, sometimes made their activities suspect, labor unions more often helped improve working conditions, and also served as a means of mobility. By 1900, Irish Americans of birth or descent held the leadership of almost half of the 110 unions in the American Federation of Labor. Some prominent labor leaders included Terence Powderly (1849–1924), head of the Knights of Labor, and Leonora O'Reilly (1870–1927), a founder of the Women's Trade Union League.

Westward migration greatly affected occupational mobility for men; 20 percent of the Irish in San Francisco in 1880 held white-collar positions as opposed to 13 percent of those in New York. For women, there was less of a disparity, as domestic service remained one of the few options for Irish-born women across the country until the 1920s. The second generation showed slightly more mobility, with many becoming clerks, teachers, priests, nuns, and nurses. By 1900, almost 5 percent of Irish American men held white-collar jobs, as opposed to 2 percent of the Irish-born. Second-generation women had greater opportunities as well, composing 10 percent of all female teachers of foreign parentage in 1900.

For most second-generation men, the church and politics were the best means for upward mobility. The cornerstone of the Irish community was the parish, with the parochial school at its center. Priests served not only as spiritual guides, but also as cultural brokers, social workers, and peacemakers in their parishes—good training for rising in the hierarchy. By 1900, 50 percent of American bishops and 13 out of 17 cardinals were of Irish birth or descent.

Unable to penetrate rigid social hierarchies, politics was one of the few ways the Irish could advance in Eastern cities. Irish ward bosses dominated Democratic city machines beginning with "Honest John" Kelly (1822–1886), who took over New York's Tammany Hall in 1873. Bosses created patronage networks, exchanging services for immigrant votes. Such notable politicians as New York's Charles F. Murphy (1858–1924) and Boston's James Michael Curley (1874–1958) used these methods with great success.

By the end of the century, more Irish Americans began to enter the middle class and work for acceptance. Saint Patrick's Day parades became a way to exhibit not only a love of Ireland, but also pride in America. Likewise, support for Irish nationalist causes was often motivated by a desire not only for Irish freedom, but also to prove to nativists that they did not come from a conquered race. This desire for respect was aided by such entertainers as vaudevillians Harrigan and Hart, the composer Victor Herbert, Broadway mogul George M. Cohan, and singer John McCormick, who all helped to change the stage Irishman image and popularize Irish music and song in mainstream entertainment. John Boyle O'Reilly, Louise Imogen Guiney, and Eugene O'Neill revealed demonstrated Irish literary talents. In addition, the Catholic Church established such universities as Notre Dame, Boston College, and Fordham to provide higher education for Irish Americans.

Post-1920s Irish America

Irish America became more American than Irish in the twentieth century. Changes in immigration laws in 1924 and 1965, along with the Great Depression and the world wars, slowed immigration to a trickle. In addition, the arrival of other immigrant groups, war service, and inter-marriage

ensured Irish Americans' gradual assimilation into mainstream American society. By 1924, Irish American politicians began to attract national recognition with the nomination of Al Smith (1873–1944) as the first Catholic presidential candidate. In 1960, complete Irish acceptance was finally achieved with the election of President John F. Kennedy.

During this time, the Irish also started to achieve success in theater, film, sports, business, and the professions. In the 1950s, the Irish began leaving their urban enclaves for the suburbs, although certain neighborhoods in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia retained many Irish residents, resulting in clashes with blacks and other new arrivals. While a significant number remained in the working class throughout the century, by the 1970s the Irish were the best educated and highest-paid white Catholic ethnic group in America.

The 1970s and 1980s brought a revival of Irish identity and a new connection to modern-day Ireland. This interest was stimulated by a new national preoccupation with ethnic roots, the escalation of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the arrival of the "New Irish"—mostly illegal, highly educated Irish immigrants whose numbers ranged from 40,000 to 150,000. Settling mainly in Irish American cities like New York and Boston, these immigrants helped to revive interest in Irish culture. Through lobbying organizations like the Irish Immigration Reform Movement, they sought the support of Irish American politicians, businessmen, and clergy in changing immigration laws.

With the help of Irish American businessmen and its membership in the European Union, Ireland emerged in the 1990s as an economic powerhouse, dubbed the "Celtic Tiger." President Bill Clinton, George Mitchell (D-ME), Representative Peter King (R-NY), Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), and Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) played important roles as negotiators between nationalist and loyalist forces in Northern Ireland, leading to the 1998 "Good Friday" Agreement and a lasting cease-fire. The cultural renaissance inspired by Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes (1996), Bill Whelan's music and dance phenomenon Riverdance, Irish rock bands like U2 and Black 47, and various Irish studies programs at American universities continues to renew interest in all things Irish for both Irish and non-Irish Americans.


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Meaghan M.Dwyer