Irish Immigration

Irish Immigration

At the beginning of the 19th century the dominant industry of Ireland was agriculture. Large areas of this land was under the control of landowners living in England. Much of this land was rented to small farmers who, because of a lack of capital, farmed with antiquated implements and used backward methods.

The average wage for farm labourers in Ireland was eight pence a day. This was only a fifth of what could be obtained in the United States and those without land began to seriously consider emigrating to the New World.

In 1816 around 6,000 Irish people sailed for America. Within two years this figure had doubled. Early arrivals were recruited to build canals. In 1818 over 3,000 Irish labourers were employed on the Erie Canal. By 1826 around 5,000 were working on four separate canal projects. One journalist commented: "There are several kinds of power working at the fabric of the republic - water-power, steam-power and Irish-power. The last works hardest of all."

In October 1845 a serious blight began among the Irish potatoes, ruining about three-quarters of the country's crop. This was a disaster as over four million people in Ireland depended on the potato as their chief food. The blight returned in 1846 and over the next year an estimated 350,000 people died of starvation and an outbreak of typhus that ravaged a weaken population. Despite good potato crops over the next four years, people continued to die and in 1851 the Census Commissioners estimated that nearly a million people had died during the Irish Famine. The British administration and absentee landlords were blamed for this catastrophe by the Irish people.

The Irish Famine stimulated a desire to emigrate. The figures for this period show a dramatic increase in Irish people arriving in the United States: 92,484 in 1846, 196,224 in 1847, 173,744 in 1848, 204,771 in 1849, and 206,041 in 1850. By the end of 1854 nearly two million people - about a quarter of the population - had emigrated to the United States in ten years.

A census carried out in 1850 revealed that there were 961,719 people in the United States that had been born in Ireland. At this time they mainly lived in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio and New Jersey. The Irish Emigrant Society tried to persuade immigrants to move to the interior but the vast majority were poverty-stricken and had no money for transport or to buy land. They therefore tended to settle close to the port where they disembarked.

Thousands of Irish labourers worked on building the railroads in the United States. Some were able to save enough money to buy land and establish themselves as farmers along the routes they had helped to develop. This was especially true of Illinois and by 1860 there were 87,000 Irish people living in this state.

Other Irish immigrants became coalminers in Pennsylvania. Working conditions in the mines were appalling with no safety requirements, no official inspections and no proper ventilation. When workers were victimized for trade union activity, they formed a secret society called the Molly Maguires. Named after an anti-landlord organization in Ireland, the group attempted to intimidate mine-owners and their supporters. The group was not broken-up until 1875 when James McParland, a Pinkerton detective and Irish imigrant, infiltrated the organization and his evidence resulted in the execution of twenty of its members.

The Irish tended to support the Democratic Party rather than the Republican Party. They had little sympathy for slaves as they feared that if they were given their freedom they would move north and threaten the jobs being done by Irish immigrants. One leading Irish-American politician, John Mitchel, wrote in his newspaper, The Citizen in 1856: "He would be a bad Irishman who voted for principles which jeopardized the present freedom of a nation of white men, for the vague forlorn hope of elevating blacks to a level for which it is at least problematical whether God and nature ever intended them."

However, on the outbreak of the Civil War general an estimated 170,000 men born in Ireland joined the Union Army, whereas only 40,000 were in the Confederate Army. One Irish immigrant, Thomas Meagher, became a highly successful general in the war.

After the Civil War some cities in the United States such as New York, Chicago and Boston, over a quarter of the population had been born in Ireland. It was now possible Irish voters were able to get their candidates elected to power. Irish mayors such as Richard Croker of New York and James Curley in Boston were accused of corruption by investigative journalists such as Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens.

However, as the historian Carl Wittke has pointed out: "Reformers have often overlooked the fact that the same political boss who bought votes, stuffed ballot boxes, and brazenly perpetuated naturalization frauds was also the warmhearted leader who got the immigrant his pushcart license, "fixed" arrests for petty violations of the law with the police and the judge, and sent the poor their Christmas turkeys and coal in winter, paid their rent when the landlord threatened eviction, and sent flowers to their funerals."

Several Irish settlers became successful businessmen. Michael Cudahy started a highly profitable meat-packing business in Milwaukee, John Downey made a fortune in real estate as well as being governor of California (1861-62) and William Grace ran a steamship company before becoming mayor of New York City (1880-88). Second-generation businessmen included James Phelan (banking) and mayor of San Francisco (1896-1902), Thomas Ryan (financier), Franklin Gowen (railroads and coalmines), John Francis Fitzgerald (investment banker) and mayor of Boston (1906-08, 1910-14) and Patrick Joseph Kennedy (wine and spirit importater).

In 1890 there were large numbers of Irish born immigrants in the states of New York (483,000), Massachusetts (260,000), Illinois (124,000) and Minnesota (28,000). There were also significant communities in New York City (190,000), Chicago (70,000), Baltimore (13,000) and the textile town of Lawrence (8,000).

During the period 1820 and 1920 over 4,400,000 people emigrated from Ireland to the United States. Only Germany (5,500,000) and Italy (4,190,000) came anywhere near these figures. In 1840 Ireland had been the most densely populated country in Europe. By the 20th century this situation had been completely reversed.

An investigation carried out in 1978 revealled that since 1820 over 4,723,000 people emigrated to the United States from Ireland. This amounted to 9.7 per cent of the total foreign immigration during this period.

Irish immigrants arriving in the United States in 1902.
Irish immigrants arriving in the United States in 1902.
© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) A farmer from Ulster who settled in Missouri wrote to a Belfast newspaper in 1821 comparing life in Ireland and the United States.

In Ulster I could go to a fair, or a wake, or a dance, or I could spend the winter nights in a neighbour's house cracking jokes by the turf fire. If I had there but a sore head I would have a neighbour within every hundred yards of me that would run to see me. But here everyone can get so much land, and generally has so much, that they calls them neighbours that lives two or three miles off. I would sit down and cry and curse him that made me leave home.

(2) In 1849 a Health Committee investigated a cholera epidemic in Boston. The committee reported that the disease had badly affected the Irish population in the city.

The average age of Irish life in Boston does not exceed fourteen years. In Broad Street and all the surrounding neighbourhood, including Fort Hill and the adjacent streets, the situation of the Irish is particularly wretched. During their visits last summer, your committee were witnesses of scenes too painful to be forgotten, and yet too disgusting to be related here. It is sufficient to say, that the whole district is a perfect hive of human beings, without comforts and mostly without common necessaries; in many cases, huddled together like brutes, without regard to sex, or age, or sense of decency: grown men and women sleeping together in the same apartment, and sometimes wife and husband, brothers and sisters all in the same bed.

(3) In 1850 an Irish settler who had been living in Wisconsin for twelve months wrote a letter to The Times in London (14th May, 1850)

I am exceedingly well pleased at coming to this land of plenty. On arrival I purchased 120 acres of land at $5 an acre. You must bear in mind that I have purchased the land out, and it is to me and mine an "estate for ever", without a landlord, an agent or tax-gatherer to trouble me. I would advise all my friends to quit Ireland - the country most dear to me; as long as they remain in it they will be in bondage and misery.

What you labour for is sweetened by contentment and happiness; there is no failure in the potato crop, and you can grow every crop you wish, without manuring the land during life. You need not mind feeding pigs, but let them intothe woods and they will feed themselves, until you want to make bacon of them.

I shudder when I think that starvation prevails to such an extent in poor Ireland. After supplying the entire population of America, there would still be as much corn and provisions left us would supply the world, for there is no limit to cultivation or end to land. Here the meanest labourer has beef and mutton, with bread, bacon, tea, coffee, sugar and even pies, the whole year round - every day here is as good as Christmas day in Ireland.

(4) Gustav Unonius , A Pioneer in Northwest America: 1841-1858, (1861)

Often we had found notices nailed to some tree close to the public road announcing such meetings, and had had private invitations to attend them, especially from zealous partisans of the Democratic Party apparently eager to convert us to their political faith. Notwithstanding these solicitations, we had not as yet even applied for United States citizenship. This would not have prevented us, though, from taking pan in various communal affairs and from voting in the local elections. But we did not consider ourselves well-enough informed in these matters to be willing to take active part in them. Who were to become justices of the peace, road inspectors, constables, tax collectors, and so forth, did not much concern us. We were protected as to person and property and felt fully satisfied with our government, or, rather, we hardly noticed that we had any.

Foreigners are generally inclined to engage in political disputes long before they know what things are all about, and the rashness with which they make use of a citizenship they have gained all too soon is without question harmful to the country.

The American republic will no doubt sooner or later find it necessary to change its naturalization laws. The Germans and especially the Irish have hardly had time to get a roof over their heads before they begin to busy themselves with political affairs of all kinds, become eager partisans, get their hands into everything, and cause no end of trouble and disorder - all of which could be avoided if Americans were left to govern the country alone.

Accustomed perhaps to being of little or no importance before, in a more liberal social order they feel all-important, and the spirit of opposition that led them to political radicalism at home now induces them to oppose almost everything proposed by sane and wise Americans for the good of the country. Many a time I have heard Germans who hardly understood the simplest English sentences say, "We are not going to let the Americans rule over us." Their false conception of liberty and citizenship and that of the Irish gave me an absolute distaste for all politics, and neither then nor later did I meddle with it except in questions where my duty bade me appear quietly and calmly at the ballot box.

I love the democratic social order where the majesty of the people really is a majesty before which a man can stand with the same veneration, yes, with even more, than before a royal throne; and I believe that the American people, left to themselves, will one day reveal that majesty to the world.

(5) Alice Hamilton, Exploring the Dangerous Trades (1943)

Another happening which is stamped on my memory concerns a young Irish girl of sixteen, gentle and shy, with the natural good breeding which one finds often among the poorest Irish and which makes one believe that they are right in saying that theirs was an old civilization when we Anglo-Saxons were still savages. Celia was a waitress in an all-night restaurant, for at that time a girl might work twelve hours a night seven nights a week in Illinois. for her protection I had her join the waitresses' union, and when her place went on strike she took her turn picketing. Chicago police have never felt it part of their duty to observe the law toward strikers; violence, often needless and unprovoked, had been the rule. I felt personally responsible for Celia and made my way through the crowd outside the restaurant just in time to see her dragged along, unresisting, by a huge policeman and hustled with abusive words into a police van.

(6) John Dewey, The School as Social Centre (1902)

It is said that one ward in the city of Chicago has forty different languages represented in it. It is a well-known fact that some of the largest Irish, German, and Bohemian cities in the world are located in America, not in their own countries. The power of the public schools to assimilate different races to our own institutions, through the education given to the younger generation, is doubtless one of the most remarkable exhibitions of vitality that the world has ever seen.

But, after all, it leaves the older generation still untouched; and the assimilation of the younger can hardly be complete or certain as long as the homes of the parents remain comparatively unaffected. Indeed, wise observers in both New York and Chicago have recently sounded a note of alarm. They have called attention to the fact that in some respects the children are too rapidly, I will not say Americanized, but too rapidly de-nationalized. They lose the positive and conservative value of their own native traditions, their own native music, art, and literature. They do not get complete initiation into the customs of their new country, and so are frequently left floating and unstable between the two. They even learn to despise the dress, bearing, habits, language, and beliefs of their parents - many of which have more substance and worth than the superficial putting-on of the newly adopted habits.

One of the chief motives in the development of the new labour museum at Hull House has been to show the younger generation something of the skill and art and historic meaning in the industrial habits of the older generations - modes of spinning, weaving, metal working, etc., discarded in this country because there was no place for them in our industrial system. Many a child has awakened to an appreciation of admirable qualities hitherto unknown in his father or mother for whom he had begun to entertain a contempt. Many an association of local history and past national glory has been awakened to quicken and enrich the life of the family.

What we want is to see the school, every public school, doing something of the same sort of work that is now done by Hull House Settlement. It is a place where ideas and beliefs may be exchanged, not merely in the arena of formal discussion - for argument alone breeds misunderstanding and fixes prejudice - but in ways where ideas are incarnated in human form and clothed with the winning grace of personal life. Classes for study may be numerous, but all are regarded as modes of bringing people together, of doing away with barriers of caste, or class, or race, or type of experience that keep people from real communion with each other.

(7) Studs Terkel interviewed Bill Bailey for his book, The Good War (1985)

My family came from Ireland and I was born in the slums of Jersey. Went to school up to fourth grade. When I was making my communion, the nuns sent my mother a letter: "This boy is not going to make it unless he has a pair of shoes and a little suit of clothes" My mother said, "If you want him to wear shoes and a little suit of clothes, buy it for him. We haven't enough food to feed him, let alone shoes. He's going to make his communion if I have to bring him up to the altar naked. The Good Lord ran around with a potato sack wrapped around his ass, and if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for anyone else." Two days before communion, they bought the shoes and suit.

I'd go for days and days eating bread with salt on it or lard. The greatest thing I remember about wintertime, you'd reach out on the fire escape and pull in some snow, put condensed milk on it, and you had great ice cream. When you come from that type of setup, you start questioning every goddamn thing.