The Irish have reportedly migrated from their homeland since the Early Middle Ages, but no records of numbers were found until the eighteenth century. It is estimated that between 9 and 10 million people born in Ireland have migrated out of the country, exceeding the highest recorded population of Ireland at 8.5 million in the 1840s. While the poor went to places near their home such as Great Britain and Liverpool, those who were richer went further, with nearly five million reaching the United States. Immigration became a widely practiced enterprise in Ireland, with 40 percent of those born in Ireland living abroad by 1890. Today, some 80 million people worldwide are of some Irish descent and 36 million Americans state that Irish is their primary ethnicity.
The remarkable Irish presence in the United States began with only about five thousand largely anonymous immigrants in the seventeenth century, with the numbers picking up in the next century. Those that migrated largely came from the Presbyterian descendants of Scottish migrants that had settled in Ulster. They reached North America in 1717 and 1718, sparking the first movement of Irish to the United States. While the exact number of Irish immigrants to North America has not been clearly documented, it is estimated that there were around 100,000 to 200,000 Irish immigrants to America, which formed 9.5 percent to 14 percent of the American population by the end of the colonial era.
One reason why the eighteenth century saw the movement of so many people is that the Irish were possibly facing religious and political discrimination in their home country. At the time, there was an established Church of Ireland, its discrimination possibly pushing the Ulster Presbyterians out of their homes. However, it is also suggested that economic changes had a hand in ultimately steering the immigrants out of Ireland. For one, Ulster saw a great increase in rent prices over the eighteenth century and depressions in the linen industry. This may have prompted the Ulster Presbyterians to look beyond their background and current situation and search for new opportunities in North America, which also had a linen trade. Additionally, the Ulster Presbyterians had an easy means of getting out of Ireland via the trading ships that regularly traveled between the colonies and Northern Ireland. With many northern Irish seeing North America as an attractive destination, Ulster was slowly emptied out over the eighteenth century. Later on in the late 1840s, the Great Hunger provided another incentive for the Irish to move to North America. About 1.5 million people migrated from Ireland to the United States just between 1845 and 1855, while 340,000 moved to Canada and 200,000 to 300,000 went to Britain. In just eleven years, more people had left Ireland than during the previous two and a half centuries.
The first Irish in North America were expecting a welcome from their fellow Dissenters in Boston, descendants of the Puritans. However, they were instead spurned by the New England Yankees, leading to most of the Irish entering through Philadelphia and Delaware. There was also another reason for this: Pennsylvania was a great source of flax for the linen industry, allowing the Irish to pick up their craft. Many of them came as servants willing to work a few years of labor as payment for the ride to North America. They were usually sent to plantations and farms, with fewer working for urban artisans and shopkeepers. The Irish were not one to settle for long in an area, and they readily moved west as soon as they were able to move on. Most ended up settling in Western Pennsylvania and the western Carolinas. By 1790, the Irish or Scotch Irish were comprising 17 percent of North Carolina’s population, 25 percent of South Carolina’s population and 23 percent of Pennsylvania’s population. Some of the Irish immigrants’ descendants went on to become United States presidents, the first of which was Andrew Jackson, whose parents were migrants from Ulster and arrived in the Carolinas in 1765, two years before he was born.
Within a generation or two, the Irish had blended in well with the Americans. They were readily involved in the American Revolution to varying degrees, some being patriot zealots, while others were more ambivalent toward either side. The American Revolution also eased the Irish integration into American society even further, with the many competing evangelical sects removing the edge of Presbyterianism, the Ulster people’s one defining characteristic. Despite the poor economic background of some Irish immigrants, a substantial amount that settled in Detroit or San Francisco prospered and moved into the political and economic elite.
Among the steady stream of Irish immigrants were the refuges of the 1798 United Irish Rebellion. Although they were few in number, they quickly rose in power in their new land, becoming leaders of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, performing editing and writing jobs and organizing campaigns to help their party win over the Federalists. Additionally, they developed a new identity that was Irish American but with Republican ideologies and nonsectarian. Such a revolutionary ideal held strong in the early nineteenth century, allowing Irish Catholics and Protestants to share their common interests in the Democratic-Republican Party.
Despite the greener pastures, the Irish immigration to the United States was not always smooth sailing. The famine in Ireland struck a blow on the Irish immigrants fleeing to the United States. Famine immigrants were found to have fared much worse than their German and British counterparts, and the Irish who landed in New York between 1840 and 1850 were less likely than the Germans to move to richer opportunities in the Midwest. The Irish quickly filled up the prisons, hospitals, lunatic asylums and poorhouses in big cities. Sadly, if the famine immigrants did not die on the ships to America, many of them perished only a few years after arriving in the United States.
As time went on and the United States developed, new Irish immigrants found themselves fighting with the Americans for jobs. Some of the Irish were uneducated and competed with Americans for manual labor. In 1860, others were recruited from the docks by the United States Army for the American Civil War and to build the Union Pacific Railroad. This inspired the traditional song titled “Paddy’s Lamentation”, cautioning one’s fellow Irish not to go to America as there was “nothing here but war”.
Today, the Irish Americans may all have assimilated into American society, but their influence on modern America still remains. Statistics suggest that more than one in five white Americans are of Irish ancestry, making Irish ancestry the second most common in the United States behind German ancestry. In addition, many cities across the United States have annual parades for the Irish festival, St. Patrick’s Day. One of the world’s largest parades occurs in New York City.
Jun 19, 2020