Diaspora: The Irish in North America

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The Irish in North America

In 1980 over 40 million people in the United States and millions more in Canada claimed Irish ancestry. The Irish diaspora in North America was ten or more times as large as the population of Ireland itself and several times larger than the Irish diasporas in Europe, Africa, Australia, or any other continent.

Eighteenth Century

The huge Irish presence in North America began with only a small trickle of largely anonymous immigrants—perhaps no more than 5,000 in the seventeenth century (Fogelman 1998)—but the numbers increased considerably in the eighteenth century. Curiously, the people leaving did not come from among impoverished Irish Catholics but from the Presbyterian descendants of Scottish migrants who had settled in Ulster from the early seventeenth century. The first large group of Ulster Presbyterians left Ireland for North America in 1717 and 1718. Thereafter the emigrant tide ebbed and flowed, picking up momentum in the late 1720s and again in the 1740s and reaching a climax in the years before the American Revolution.

Historians agree more or less on the periodization of eighteenth-century Irish migration, but because of incomplete documentation, numerical estimates vary from about 100,000 (Dickson 1966, Fogelman 1998, Griffin 2001) to more than 200,000 (Miller 1985, Doyle 1989). Estimates of the proportion of Irish immigrants and their descendants in the American population by the end of the colonial era vary from about 9.5 percent to 14 percent or even more.

Why did so many people leave Ireland, or more specifically Northern Ireland, for America in the eighteenth century? Because most of these emigrants (though by no means all) were Presbyterians, older histories often stressed the religious and political discrimination that these men and women faced because they were not members of the established Church of Ireland. Although such discrimination rankled with Ulster's Presbyterians and probably loosened their commitment to Ireland, a bundle of related economic changes had a more powerful effect in pushing the migrants out of Ulster and making North America an attractive alternative. The dramatic rise in rents in Ulster over the course of the eighteenth century and severe depressions in the linen industry, especially in the 1760s and early 1770s, contributed to emigration. The linen trade had cultural and psychological as well as economic effects. It encouraged Ulster Presbyterians to break out of a traditional peasant agriculture, and because much of the linen trade was with North America, it made them aware of possibilities in the new colonies. Regular trading links between the colonies and Northern Ireland also provided the ships that were the means of escape to the New World. For these reasons and many more specific ones, such as occasional droughts or excessive cold, Ulster emptied out periodically through the eighteenth century. There was some migration from the other provinces of Ireland to North America; for example, from the Waterford area to Newfoundland. The great mass of impoverished Catholics in the South of Ireland, however, did not stir in the eighteenth century.

The first Irish migrants had gone to Boston expecting to be welcomed by their fellow Dissenters there, the descendants of the Puritans. Instead the New England Yankees spurned them, and throughout the rest of the eighteenth century most Irish immigrants entered the United States through Philadelphia and New Castle, Delaware. The reason was not simply Pennsylvania's famed tolerance but also the more practical reason that Pennsylvania was a critical source of flax for linen manufacture. Most Irish immigrants did not tarry long in their ports of entry. About 36 percent in the eighteenth century came as indentured servants, committing themselves to a contract of a few years of labor for the cost of their passage to America. Although urban artisans and shopkeepers picked up the contracts of some of these, more were sold for plantation or farm labor. Free Irish immigrants usually headed to the frontier, having been nudged or lured there by large landowners with vacant lands or by colonial officials eager to use the new immigrants as buffers between Native Americans and colonial settlements. Irish immigrants moved farther and farther west and north in Pennsylvania, then south along the Great Wagon Road through western Maryland and Virginia's Shenandoah Valley into the Carolina backcountry. Western Pennsylvania and the western Carolinas became the Ulster Irish heartland. As much as 17 percent of North Carolina's population, 25 percent of South Carolina's, and 23 percent of Pennsylvania's consisted of Irish or Scotch Irish by 1790 (Doyle 1981).

Revolutionary Period and Early Nineteenth Century

Irish immigrants gained a reputation for violence and hard drinking that made them quite visible and notorious to colonial officials, but they seemed to vanish into an undifferentiated American frontier mainstream within a generation. They played critical roles in the American Revolution, though these roles varied according to local political configurations. The Scotch-Irish in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were patriot zealots, but in the Carolinas they were more ambivalent about the conflict. The Revolution, however, broke down whatever barriers to success Irish Presbyterians had known before 1776 and eased their absorption into American society. The religious hothouse of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, with its many competing evangelical sects, also sapped the strength of Presbyterianism, the chief marker of Ulster Scots' sense of difference in the New World.

Irish immigration to America was interrupted by the Revolution but resumed in huge numbers almost immediately after: an estimated 5,000 emigrants left Ireland for America in 1783. The river of immigrants continued to run strong through the 1790s but ebbed in the early nineteenth century. After peace returned to Europe and America in 1815, Irish migration picked up again, steadily building to 50,000 or more migrants by the late 1830s.

Between the Revolution and the Great Famine there was a change in the destination of the immigrants. By the early nineteenth century Irish migrants to the United States were choosing New York City, not Philadelphia, as their principal port of entry and settling in northern cities, not the southern countryside. A substantial number began to go to British North America (Canada), encouraged by British regulations that made trips to American ports more expensive and by grants of cheap land in Canada. This migration to Canada peaked in the 1830s but remained strong through 1847. In all, more than 450,000 Irish entered North America through Canadian ports between 1825 and 1845—50,000 more than came in through U.S. ports. Perhaps as many as two-thirds of Irish emigrants to Canada quickly re-emigrated to the United States, but the population of Canada was substantially remade by Irish migration. Already by 1841 Canada counted 122,000 Irish-born among its people.

There were changes too in the immigrants' geographic and class origins and religious backgrounds. Gradually the main sources of immigration shifted south and west into south Ulster and northern Connacht and then to the southern province of Munster. As migration drew increasingly from these largely Catholic-dominated areas, Catholics became a majority of Irish immigrants, probably surpassing Protestants by the early 1830s. Immigrants were perhaps also coming from poorer strata in the population than before, though they were probably still wealthier and better educated than the mass of the Irish at home.

All of these changes reflected new conditions in Ireland. The end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 severely cut the demand for Irish grain and sent Ireland's economy into decline, while slowing but not halting the rise in population. Competition for land and the contraction of cottage industry undermined peasant household economies. At the same time, integration of everexpanding areas of Ireland into the British and even international economy forced more and more Catholics in the southern provinces to learn English, the language of the market, but also made them vulnerable to the market's booms and busts.

By the 1820s and 1830s many Irishmen in America were navvies, construction workers on projects like the Erie, Chesapeake and Ohio, and Blackstone canals. For many of these men life was brutal, harsh, and insecure in the work camps, but studies of the Irish in Worcester and Lowell, Massachusetts, suggest that some settled into relative prosperity after their canal-building days. Most urban Irish immigrants were blue-collar workers, and those outside the cities were mainly small farmers. Although not rich, they did not seem to suffer the dire poverty that would afflict masses of famine-era immigrants. In the lands of Ontario opened to settlement in the 1830s, for example, both Catholic and Protestant Irish seem to have found opportunities to build farms and carve out decent lives for themselves.

One group of Irish emigrants—refugees of the 1798 United Irish Rebellion—was small in number but had a powerful impact on the new nation. They quickly became leaders of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, editing newspapers, writing books and pamphlets, and organizing political clubs and campaigns that helped secure their political party's triumph over the Federalists. They also defined an identity that was stoutly Irish or Irish-American but republican in ideology and insistent in its nonsectarianism. In the early nineteenth century optimistic revolutionary republican ideals were still powerful, and because Irish Catholics and Protestants were both strong supporters of the Democratic-Republican Party, they shared common political interests. Such alliances between "orange" and "green" were struck in Canada in this era as well, however, even without the nourishment of republican influences.

Nevertheless, as Irish immigrant numbers and the proportion of Catholics among them increased, American Protestant suspicions rose. Nativist anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic movements fed off of the Protestant religious revival called the Second Great Awakening. The party system that pitted Democratic-Republicans against Federalists was supplanted by a new pairing of Democrats and Whigs, polarized in many places along religious lines. The possibility of a nonsectarian Irish-American community was passing; its death knell perhaps sounded in 1844 when Irish Protestant and Catholic workers clashed in deadly riots on the streets of Philadelphia.

The Great Famine and Its Aftermath

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of the Great Famine of the late 1840s on Irish America. About 1.5 million people left for the United States between 1845 and 1855; 340,000 traveled to Canada and about 200,000 to 300,000 settled in Britain. More people left Ireland in just eleven years than during the previous two and half centuries (Miller 1985). Trends and patterns that had emerged before the Great Famine now hardened with the flood of migrants who had left to escape catastrophe.

Ever since Archbishop John Hughes called the famine Irish immigrants "the debris of the Irish nation," the dominant assessment of their experience has been that it was a tragedy—for many immigrants a horror that seemed little more than an extension of the horrors of the famine in Ireland itself. Several historians have found that depiction too gloomy and generalized, noting significant variation in Irish experience among the regions of the United States. The Irish in Philadelphia were not nearly as forlorn as those in Boston, for example; fewer were laborers or residents of squalid, disease-ridden tenements. Substantial numbers of the Irish who settled in Detroit or San Francisco even became prosperous, and in San Francisco some moved quickly into the political or economic elite.

Nevertheless most famine Irish immigrants experienced difficult, often brutally hard conditions that improved only marginally over time. One study found that Irish famine immigrants fared much worse in the American economy than German or British immigrants, even when class was held constant. The Irish who landed in New York between 1840 and 1850 were much less likely than German immigrants to move inland to presumably richer opportunities in the Midwest. In most big cities the Irish quickly became the majority of inmates in prisons, hospitals, lunatic asylums, and poorhouses. Today's Irish Americans have focused on the deaths of immigrants' on the so-called coffin ships to America, but many more, hundreds of thousands more, enfeebled by famine, bewildered by uprooting and transit across the Atlantic, died within three or four years of their arrival in America. Irish death rates in Boston and New York were particularly catastrophic. Conditions may have been better farther west, but most Irish did not live in the West (Ferrie 1999).

Historians disagree as to whether Irish culture, or more specifically Irish Catholic culture, hindered Irish immigrant adaptation to America. Kerby Miller has argued that Irish Catholic immigrants were burdened by a culture rooted in an ancient Celtic world that privileged communalism over individualism and tradition over innovation. The most strongly essentialist notions in Miller's argument—that ancient Gaelic roots were more important than years of oppression or a stunted economy in shaping the culture that hindered Irish mobility in America—are open to question, but clearly life in rural Ireland had not prepared the vast majority of Irish newcomers for the rapidly industrializing and urbanizing United States. A further threat to Irish immigrants came from nativism, which peaked in 1854 with victories by the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in city, town, and state elections across the United States.

Popular interpretations of Irish-American history often dwell on the patriotism of Irish Americans during the Civil War, as exemplified in their heroic sacrifices in such bloody battles as Antietam and Gettysburg. Sacrifices there were, but the battle casualties that seemed so glorious to later generations of Irish Americans did not seem so much heroic as horrific to Irish immigrants themselves at the time. They were also dismayed by what they perceived as a shift in the war's purpose from preserving the union to the destruction of slavery in the Emancipation Proclamation. In July 1863 Irish immigrant discontent erupted in protests against military conscription. Draft riots broke out in Boston, the Pennsylvania coal fields, and most notably in New York City, where at least 119 people died and whole sections of the city were taken over by rioters.

Communal and familial values that may have inhibited upward mobility nonetheless nurtured and protected famine-era immigrants caught in the harsh realities of poverty and squalor. Neighborhoods were often laced with ties of friendship, reinforced by gatherings at saloons or by credit received at local groceries and reflected in the clustering of people who hailed from the same counties or even the same estates in Ireland on specific blocks or streets in American cities.

Parish churches emerged as the centers of such neighborhoods, but Irish Catholic immigrants' commitment to the norms and requirements of an institutional Catholicism was not a given. In Ireland the church limped out of the penal era with a shortage of chapels, schools, and priests, and America too suffered from such shortages. Jay Dolan estimates that only about 40 percent of Irish Catholic immigrants attended mass regularly in New York City at mid-century. Yet over time the church became central to Irish-American identity. A devotional revolution much like the one that was sweeping Ireland was transforming Irish America.

Nationalism also helped to define Irish-American life in the famine era. Irish-American support for Ireland's freedom had begun with the United Irish exiles. Through the early and mid-1840s a mass base began to develop as clubs sprang up all across the country backing Daniel O'Connell's campaign to repeal the Act of Union. Yet it was the Fenians, founded in 1858 in New York and Dublin and rising to prominence just after the American Civil War, who established nationalism firmly as a central organizational nexus in the Irish-American community. The Fenians would claim up to 50,000 members in the United States, but it seems clear that their sympathizers far exceeded that number.

Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Trends that had been occurring in eastern Ireland before the famine spread across the island after it—conversion from tillage to pasturage and impartible inheritance being the most important. These changes meant that all children but male heirs and daughters with dowries confronted bleak futures in Ireland. Many left the country, contributing in turn to those who would come after or sending remittances to help sustain parents at home. Migration thus flowed more or less steadily from Ireland to North America—especially to the United States—in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Emigration fell with the hard times in America during the 1870s but rose again during Ireland's agricultural crisis later in that decade. After the 1880s it very slowly diminished, but it did not stop until the late 1920s, when increased American regulation of immigration and the onset of the Great Depression in the United States helped to reorient the flow of Irish migration to nearby Britain. An increasing proportion of postfamine migrants came from western Ireland, the province of Connacht and western parts of Munster. Rocked by disastrous harvests in the late 1870s, these areas had become increasingly vulnerable to economic and cultural change thereafter. (The much smaller migration to Canada in this era drew largely from Ulster.) More and more of the migrants were single women as it became clear that their opportunities for economic advancement or marriage were shrinking in Ireland in the late nineteenth century.

If there were changes in the character of Irish immigration, there was a disappointing consistency in the economic performance of these immigrants in America. In 1900 over half of Irish immigrant women worked as domestic servants, and about one-quarter of Irish-born men were unskilled workers, mostly day laborers. The proportion of immigrants who broke into white-collar work remained small; as before, however, the percentages varied significantly from city to city. It appeared that there were fewer Irish slums than at mid-century, but death rates among the Irish-born remained exceptionally high into early twentieth century. As late as 1915 the death rate among the Irish-born in New York was among the highest of any group in the city.

In the late nineteenth century children of the Catholic famine migrants began to find their place in American life. These second-generation Irish were very different from their Irish-born parents. They were far more likely to be white-collar or skilled blue-collar workers. They were also less likely to live in inner-city slums or neighborhoods that were exclusively Irish. Intermarriage rates among the second-generation Irish varied: one-quarter in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1900; about one-third in New York City in the 1910s; and half or more farther west in the 1910s. Yet everywhere in the nation the second-generation Irish rates of intermarriage were greater than the rates among Irish immigrants. The new generation also avidly embraced the new urban American popular culture emerging at this time. Many stars of the era, including baseball players "King" Kelly, John McGraw, and Connie Mack, boxing champions John L. Sullivan and Jim Corbett, and vaudeville or theater performers Ned Harrigan, Tony Hart, Maggie Cline, and George M. Cohan, were second-generation Irish.

Yet all this did not mean the easy assimilation of Irish Americans into the mainstream, for American culture, society, and politics were still rigidly divided along religious lines. In the 1880s Catholic liberals, led by the Irish-born archbishop John Ireland and the second-generation Irish cardinal James Gibbons, sought to work out an accommodation with Protestant culture and society that might soften religious tensions and earn American Catholics some acceptance. In the same decade, Irish-American labor leaders like the second-generation Terence Powderly took another tack, trying to unite workers and their sympathizers of all ethnic backgrounds in defense of old republican ideals and workers' rights in the face of industrial change. Neither of these efforts endured. In the 1890s and 1900s Irish-American labor recoiled from the nascent radical potential of the Knights of Labor in order to embrace the antiradical business unionism of the American Federation of Labor. Catholic liberalism collapsed at the same time, caught between revivals of both American nativism and Vatican orthodoxy.

By the 1910s and 1920s the possibilities of Irish-American identity had narrowed considerably, and that definition hardened into a form that would last more or less until the 1950s. Irish-American Catholics were militant Catholics, suspicious of and hostile to the dominant Protestant and secular mainstream, but they were also fervently patriotic Americans, convinced that they were indeed the best of all Americans. Most Irish Americans were liberals in politics, at least on economic issues like labor legislation and extension of the welfare state, but they were also fiercely antisocialist and anticommunist. The people who defined this new Catholic militancy were largely second-generation Irish Americans. Cardinal William O'Connell of Boston was their most authoritative voice, and the Knights of Columbus, which grew from about 40,000 members to over 600,000 in the early twentieth century, was the organizational backbone of the new militant American Catholicism.

This new identity was not simply a compromise between the new American-born generation's ambitions and the realities of a Protestant-dominated America. It also was a strategic effort to secure Irish leadership of the rapidly growing immigrant and Catholic populations of Boston, Chicago, New York, and other cities across the Northeast and Midwest and to rally them against the dominant white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs). As patriotic Americans but Catholic outsiders, Irish Americans stood across the boundary between inside and out and brokered between people on either side.

Local differences in social structures and political cultures produced significant variations in this pattern. Irish Americans seemed already integrated into the broader societies and even the elites of western cities like San Francisco, for example, thus softening if not stilling Catholic militancy. Irish Catholic Canadians, by contrast, faced a formidable rival within their own church in a huge, entrenched French Canadian population as well as confronting a powerful and militant Protestantism suffused with "Orangeism." In the late nineteenth century an estimated one in three Canadian Protestant males belonged to the Orange Order. Irish Catholics in Canada were thus in no position to mobilize Catholic outsiders against Protestant insiders. Confronting this difficult situation, they followed quieter, more timid assimilationist strategies than the Irish south of their border.

The militant American Catholic identity dominated in the Irish-American community even as the Irish became politically powerful as members of the Democratic Party's ruling coalition in the 1930s, asserted cultural power through the church over American movies in the same decade, and began to surpass native-stock Yankees as well as other ethnics in the occupational hierarchy by the 1920s and 1930s.

Irish North America since the 1960s

A series of events and movements in the 1960s finally undercut the religious division that sustained the old militant American Catholicism: John F. Kennedy's election and death, the ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council, and the powerful impact of the civil-rights movement and subsequent ethnic and racial assertions on American conceptions of pluralism and difference. In this new environment Irish-American identifications became "optional"—no longer socially or politically constrained—in a way that they had never been before in the Irish American heartland of the Northeast.

People did not stop thinking of themselves as Irish Americans; they just found new meanings for that identity. Some Irish found their "Irishness" in a revival of republican nationalism as conflict erupted in Northern Ireland. In the 1980s, Ireland's economic troubles forced a whole new wave of immigrants to leave the island and find jobs in America. These newcomers had definitions of Irish identity very different from those of previous immigrant generations as well as those of American-born Irish. Most Irish Americans, however, perhaps began to understand their Irishness through one or another versions of Irish culture. Traditional Irish music and dance nearly died in America in the 1950s, but, riding the American folk-music boom (or in some cases leading it) and the broader American post-1960s obsession with authenticity, Irish folk music and dance achieved an unheard-of prominence in America by the end of the twentieth century. Irish high culture also enjoyed a new popularity, as university Irish studies programs multiplied and imports of Irish drama and fiction flourished in the 1980s and 1990s.

Irish America, then, had not yet disappeared. It had merely changed, as it had so many times before in the history of Irish North America.

SEE ALSO Diaspora: The Irish in Australia; Kennedy, John F., Visit of; Migration: Emigration and Immigration since 1950


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Timothy J. Meagher