America Immigration: Irish Immigrants


Figure 1.--The Irish began coming in numbers after Ireland was devestated by the Potato Famine (1845-46). The desperately poor Irish and their Catholocism shocked many Americans. And the Irish continued to come after the Famine. Here we see Otish immogrants at Ellis Iland about 1906. About 340,000 Irish immigrants entered America during the 1900s decade.

The Irish are one of the most important ethnic groups that have made modern in America. More than 40 million Americans identify as being Irish Americans, more than one out of every 10 Americans. The Irish were the first important Catholic immigrant group to arrive in America. They began to arrive in large numbers in the 1840s as a result of the Potato Famine. Photography at the time was very new. Thus we do not have the kind of photographic record that we have for other immigrant groups. At the time this flow began, there were virtually no regulations concerning immigration. You just stepped off the boat and began being an American. There was considerable adverse reaction to the arrival of the Irish. The numbers of Irish who arrived were part of the problem and the fact that many were unskilled, illiteret tenant farmers. Even more of a shock was they were Catholic. America until the 1840s was largely a Protestant country. Catholcism was of some importance in Maryland, but the vast proprtion of Americans were Protestants and many shared the English prejudice and fear of Catholics. The Irish Catholics were a shock to many Americans, giving rise to the first nativist movement and in large measure the No Nothing Party. And the Irish continued to come after the Famine. Here we see Otish immogrants at Ellis Iland about 1906. About 340,000 Irish immigrants entered America during the 1900s decade (figure 1). The Irish immigration was not a one way flow. Many Irish immigrants, especially the men, found adjusting to American difficult. A not insignifican number returned to Ireland. Unlike the Italians who returned, most of the Irish returned having failed in America and without money. Perhaps more than any other ethnic group, the Irish nurture a great nostalgia for the 'Emerald Isle', their ancestral homeland. Irish Americans from the beginning looked back at their misty, green island. Ethnic frstivals, music and dance are emensly popular. Like Scotland, the kilt is seen as ethnic folk dress and is worn by Irish pipe bands and step dancers.

Catholocism

The Irish were the first important Catholic immigrant group to arrive in America. The Irish by the 19th century had largely supressed Irish national culture, even the Irish language. The Irish were a largely landless peasants. The land was largely owned by absentee English and Irish Protestant lnd owners. The one aspect of Ireland that the English had failed to supress was their Catholic religion. There was no established religion in America. No Church was mentioned in the Constitution. The American population when the Irish began to arrive were Protestants, albeit of many denominations. And like the English, Americans were deeply suspecious of Catholics.

The Potato Famine

The Irish began to arrive in large numbers in the 1840s as a result of the Potato Famine. Photography at the time was very new. Thus we do not have the kind of photographic record that we have for other immigrant groups. At the time this flow began, there were virtually no regulations concerning immigration. You just stepped off the boat and began being an American.

American Reaction

There was considerable adverse reaction to the arrival of the Irish. Colonia Ameicans had received various foreign groups as was the case of the early Republic. But the Irish were different. The sheer numbers of Irish who arrived were certainly part of the problem. But it was not the only problem. Most of the Irish who arrived were destitute, unskilled, illiteret tenant farmers. Even more of a shock was they were Catholic. America until the 1840s was largely a Protestant country. There was no established Church. Tht had been expresselly prohibited by the First Amendment. Yet most Americans were Protestants. While Amerucans during the Colonial era had become increasingly tolerant of other Protestant sects, the same tolerance did not generally extend to Catholics. Especially after the Irish began arriving in numbers, student condemnations of "Popery" became common in American newspapers. Catholcism was of some importance in Maryland, but the vast proprtion of Ameruicans were Protestants and many shared the English prejudice and fear of Catholics. The Irish Catholics were a shock to many Americans, giving rise to the first nativist movement and in large measure the No Nothing Party.

Continued Immigration

And the Irish continued to come after the Famine. Here we see Otish immogrants at Ellis Iland about 1906. About 340,000 Irish immigrants entered America during the 1900s decade (figure 1).

Extent

The Irish are one of the most important ethnic groups that have made modern in America. More than 40 million Americans identify as being Irish Americans, more than one out of every 10 Americans.

Experience

The immigrants, like each successive immigrant group, did not have an easy time of it. America was not the heaven on earth that many of the new immigrants expected. Life in America was rarely easy and many of the new immigrants fell by the wayside.But the Irish have succeded, reaching the Presidency and the Supreme Court. Irish Americans from the beginning looked back at their misty, green island. The Irish fanned out across America, building lives. Some turned to terrorism like the Molly Maguires in the Pennsylvania coal fields. [Coogan] Most turned to hard work and the the political process to change America. The once starving immigrants eventually achieved a standard of living unimaginable in the world they had left behind. Over the generations they rose to the highest positions in politics, the labour movement, the professions, industry, commerce and the arts, and their very numbers made them a powerful political force in America. One Irish-American historian, however, writes "I think the story of the Irish in America is still, despite this documentary and some writing that has been done recently, virgin territory. When you look at the stories of other ethnic groups -- the Jews and the Italians and so on -- they've covered their story very well. But the Irish have only begun to reflect...on their past...And I think Irish-Americans are just beginning to find themselves. I think they're a bit confused over the hyphen. They're straddling that hyphen, which confuses us all. Are you Irish, or are you American? How can you be both? They're still looking across the ocean at Ireland...But until they know who they are, they'll never have any kind of identity. It should be enough to be an American, but it isn't apparently. As long as that hyphen is there, they have to learn about the achievements of their forefathers." [Frank McCourt]

Settlement

Many remained in areas where they disembarked from the boats, such as New York and Boston. Later, a sizable Irish-American population developed in Chicago.

St. Patrick's Day

St. Patrick's Day became the first of the many American ehnic celebrations. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, renowned for brining Christianity to the pagan Irish. The Irish were distinctive in several resprcts. They were the first large non-Protestant group to reach merica. the first ethnic group besides the English to come to the United States in large numbers in a few specific years. They also were the first group to arrive in abject poverty. As thus the Irish were a destinctive minority in several large cities for several years. This perhaps explains why St. Patrick's Day thus became the first 'national' day widely celebated in America. At first it was only celebrated by the Irish. Gradually it entered the American mainstream. At first this occurred in areas with large Irish populations. It was the first of what became annual ethnic celebrations. such as Greek and Polish Day, Octoberfest, along with Columbus Day which unlike St. Patrick's Day became a national holiday. It is the most widely recognized of all the ethnic celebrations. This is fitting as about 30 million Americans identify themselves as being Irish. That is 10 times the population of Ireland itself.

Impact

The Irish played a major role in the building of modern America itself. The Irish made their indelible mark in theater, sports, music, labor, on Wall Street, and even politics.

Returnees

The Irish immigration was not a one way flow. Many Irish immigrants, especially the men, found adjusting to American difficult. A not insignifican number returned to Ireland. Unlike the Italians who returned, most of the Irish returned having failed in America and without money.

Individual Accounts

A HBC reader has provided us details on his Irish family background.

Ethnic Culture

Perhaps more than any other ethnic group, the Irish nurture a great nostalgia for the 'Emerald Isle', their ancestral homeland. The Irish Americans offers an introduction to the world of their ancestors and, perhaps, their own roots. Many ethnic groups have been thoroughly assisilated in the Anmerican mixing bowl. The attraction for the homeland among the Irish may be strongest of all the major immigrant groups.Irish Americans from the beginning looked back at their misty, green island. Ethnic frstivals, music and dance are emensly popular. Like Scotland, the kilt is seen as ethnic folk dress and is worn by Irish pipe bands and step dancers.

Sources

Coogan, Tim Pat. Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora (St. Martin's/Palgrave, 2001), 784p.

Mc Court, Frank.







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Created: 11:53 PM 9/17/2006
Last updated: 3:49 PM 3/20/2014