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Why are There so Many Irish in America?

The Short Answer

Hundreds of thousands of Ireland’s puritan Ulster Scots were among the first groups to settle in America during the 17th and 18th centuries. Large waves of Irish Catholics then arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Great Potato Famine (1841 – 1851), which saw Ireland’s population decline by 2 million, also contributed greatly to immigration. 

Scots-Irish Among the First Settlers

The Irish were one of the largest group of settlers to first populate America between the mid-1600s to the early 1800s. This first wave of Irish arrivals were known as Scots-Irish, or Ulster Scots – their recent ancestors (e.g. parents, grandparents or great-grandparents) had lived in Scotland, having taken up Queen Elizabeth’s request to become settlers in the northern part of Ireland, today known as Northern Ireland. See also: What is the difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland? From the mid 1600s to the early 1800s, the Puritan Ulster Scots – mainly Presbyterians, Methodists and Quakers – were to become settlers again, this time in the new frontier of America, disenchanted with the rising rents they were charged by their Anglo-Irish landlords. In the first census of the United States in 1790, approximately half a million people were Irish or of Irish origin.

Irish Catholics Arrive

Subsequent waves of immigration from Ireland continued throughout the 19th century.  In 1820, when the Department of State first gathered statistics about immigrants coming into the United States, almost half of the immigrants were found to be Irish. Another new trend was emerging: the majority of these mid 19th century Irish arrivals were Catholics. 

Emigration Caused by The Great Irish Famine (1846 - 1851)

A particularly large wave of immigration was caused by the Irish Famine, when there was a repeated failure of the potato crop. Ireland's poor tenant farmers had become dependent on the potato for their survival. The crop, introduced to Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 16th century, who planted it at his estate in Cork. The potato was extremely popular with Ireland's poor since so many of them could be grown on an Irish Catholic farmer's holdings, which were typically meagre, since under the oppressive British "penal laws", Catholics had been restricted from owning too much land. Many of the penal laws had been overturned at the beginning of the 19th century, but their effects had lasted -- Catholics were disenfranchised. Wealthy landowners, many of them who didn't actually live in Ireland -- charged high rents to peasant tenants, who tended to have large families, and thus sub-divided their already small holdings among their sons and daughters. Contrary to popular belief, the Irish didn't only grown potatoes at the time of the famine -- on higher quality land, they grew many other grain crops, and raised livestock, but these were reserved for exporting to British consumers. But on the small holdings, where peasant families had access to nothing but a tiny tract of poor quality land, potatoes were used to provide two or more daily meals. In 1846, Ireland's potato crop failed due to an infection never seen in the country before -- a blight, appearing as black spots on the plant -- which may have arrived on ships coming to Ireland from New York, whose potatoes were being used to feed passengers. It took several years before Ireland's potato crop became healthy again. The socio-economic shock of the crop failure was devastating. Years of hunger, compounded with some bitter winters ensued. Witnesses and folk memories describe skeletal people with hollow eyes; families surviving on nettle soup; people stealing a pint of blood from their neighbours' cows; corpses lying on the side of the road, their mouths stained green from eating grass; mothers turning away from their children, unable to care for them; fathers walking away from their families in shame, never to return. At least a million Irish people starved during the famine. Another million emigrated, with around one million estimated to have sailed to North America -- many of them dying of diseases such as dysentery, contracted on notorious "coffin ships" as they were lumped together in terrible conditions with other passengers during the long voyage. 

Reasons for 19th Century / 20th Century Irish Catholic Immigration

Even after the Great Irish Famine, there Subsequent waves of immigration from Ireland continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Emigration continued even after Ireland gained Independence from Britain in 1921, and after it became a Republic in 1946. There were a variety of causes for Irish Catholic immigration to America. Some of them would likely have included:

  • Poverty – Irish citizens had been disenfranchised by the British ascendancy, the majority of them becoming tenant farmers. Rents were exorbitant, and tenants could barely afford to live off the land the toiled on.
  • Anti-Catholic discrimination  -- during the 18th and early 19th century for Catholics, under British rule, Catholics were not allowed to enter civic or public life, due to what were known as “the Penal laws”
  • A lack of opportunities in Ireland – see above, but the lack of opportunities extended into the 20th century, when Ireland became independent, and suffered economic various recessions, including for example, in the 1980s
  • Family ties – the Irish who lived in America kept in close contact with the Irish at home, writing letters and often sending money home. Those who emigrated always had “someone to go to”
  • A shared language (English) – emigration was traditionally easier for the Irish than for some other nationalities, because Irish people spoke English by default, gaining instant access to the culture
  • Close ties with Britain – while Britain may often be painted as, historically, Ireland’s main foe, in fact it is easy to forget that Ireland was operating as part of the former United Kingdom during much of this period, and Britain has always been Ireland’s largest trading partner. Ships for America left regularly from Irish ports, north and south, just as they left from English ports. The concept of travelling to America, for an Irish person, in this context, was quite easy.

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St. Patrick's Parade in San Francisco. Image by David Yu.

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