This essay is an analysis of the experience of the middle to late century Irish immigrants to the United States. Through the extensive research, the following will document what motivated this group to leave their homeland and the challenges they experienced upon arriving to America.
While I have no way of knowing exactly when my Irish ancestors immigrated to America, I am told they made their journey in the middle to late 19th century during the famine. Irish Catholics began migrating to the United States before the American Revolutionary War for work. Some worked as servants while others worked on the canals, civil construction, and even lumbering (“Irish American,” 2009). However, the second wave of Irish immigrants took place during and after the Great Irish Famine which occurred between 1845 and 1849. This time is also referred to as the Potato Blight due to the infection that spread throughout the region and destroyed nearly three-quarters of the potato crops by 1846 (“Great Famine,” 2009). The Potato Famine resulted in a 25% reduction of the Irish population. By the end of this great tragedy, it is believed that close to one million people perished while another one million escaped death by migrating to North America. In the end, the Irish immigration was fueled by starvation, poverty, poor living conditions, and destitute economy. However, their journey and arrival to America and Canada had no shortage of suffering as many died in route due to illness and poor conditions on the ships that brought them.
However, the Irish immigrants are known as one of the largest groups of America’s history with approximately 4.5 million arriving in the United States between 1820 and 1930 (Library of Congress, 2002). A large majority of the Irish migrated to America’s larger cities with a high concentration in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. However, many close knit Irish communities can also be found in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In fact, historical records indicate that by the early 20th century, there were more people of the Irish heritage in New York City than there were in Dublin, Ireland’s entire population (“Irish American,” 2009).
Unfortunately, due to their rural homeland and background in agriculture, many of the Irish people were ill-prepared for the industrial life of their new communities. Many arrived with very little money and were forced to co-occupy subdivided housing designed for single families. Often these dwellings did not provide adequate sewage or water, which made proper hygiene very difficult. As a result, diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, and typhus flourished in these communities. This alone created horrible stereotypes for the Irish-Americans and they became subject to discrimination by many Americans. Furthermore, they were considered at the bottom ranks in the workforce and were forced to take menial jobs that were dangerous and typically avoided by others. While many Irish women filled domestic or servant position, the men took on hard labor in the coal mines, railroads, and canals for very little pay. Although the Irish often faced blatant discrimination in the workplace, some business owners took advantage of their desperate need for work by hiring them at extremely low rates. Eventually, this stirred further hatred from the community as many companies were known to fire union laborers and replace them with immigrants who were willing to work for less.
In addition to their poverty related hygiene, poor living conditions, and compliance for taking positions for low wages, the Irish also faced a significant amount of discrimination due to their Catholic heritage. Extreme tension between Protestants and Catholics often led to verbal attacks and violence. Several Catholic churches were burned by anti-Catholic groups while racial and religious tension ran high. This sentiment brought about the birth of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic groups. The most popular was known as the American Party which led the “Know Nothing” movement. This group fought to keep Catholics from public office positions and rejected anything and anyone which was not deeply rooted in what they considered traditional American ideals (Library of Congress, 2002).
Despite the prejudice and their poverty-stricken way of live in America, the Irish were survivors. They clung tight to their beloved homeland and cultural traditions which eventually saw them through the roughest times. As other immigrant groups began moving into the cities, the Irish slowly moved up the social and political ladder. In the 1850’s the Irish Catholics with the help of the church built several schools, colleges, and hospitals. There children were welcomed into Catholic schools to obtain an education without prejudice and they began to gain social status by filling appointed positions in the police and fire departments. As a result, the second and third generations of Irish-Americans were well educated and able to pull themselves out of poverty. Many Irish immigrants began supporting unions and entered into the political arena. After President Coolidge’s New Deal appointments, Irish politicians were able to lay a political foundation for the next generation through federal positions and judgeships (Library of Congress, 2002). Overall, these Irish immigrants became a significant part of American culture and have since brought several successful political and religious leaders to our nation’s benefit.
Great Famine (Ireland). (2009). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on August 22,
2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Great_Famine _(Ireland)&oldid=308744447 Irish American. (2009). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on August 21, 2009,
Library of Congress. (2002). Irish-American Immigration to America. Retrieved on August 22,
2009, from the Web site: http://memory.loc.gov/learn//features/immig/irish2.html