One of the single-most influential events in U.S. immigration history, Ireland’s great potato famine induced a massive wave of Irish emigration to Great Britain, Canada, and the United States, where Irish immigrants quickly became the nation’s second-largest ethnic group. Most of the immigrants settled in the large urban centers of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.
The hsitory of Irish immigration to the United States goes back well before the nineteenth century, but the Great Irish Famine that began during the late 1840’s brought the greatest number of Irish immigrants to America. Before the famine began, Ireland was already a desperately poor country. The only European country controlled by another country, it had been ruled by Great Britain for many centuries. Ireland had virtually no significant manufacturing sector. Most Irish were farmers who worked tiny plots of land, paying stiff rents to British landlords and living in primitive mud and stone huts.
By 1844, Ireland’s population had swelled to 8.4 million, most of whom had lives built around potatoes. In 1845, the Phytophthora fungus, believed to have arrived from America, infected Ireland’s potato crops and quickly spread throughout the country. Great Britain’s response was minimal, but as the fungus ravaged the crops every year, successive British governments determined that providing aid to the Irish would only create greater dependency. By 1851, British neglect had contributed to the deaths of 1.1 million people who perished from starvation or from famine-related diseases. Meanwhile, another 1.5 million Irish people were immigrating to North America and England.
Most refugees from Ireland’s famine arrived in the United States nearly destitute. They settled in cities, where they had few skills needed in the industralizing urban economies. About 650,000 Irish immigrants arrived in New York alone. Because of their outdated clothing and distinctive accents, they were easily identified and made victims of various unscrupulous schemes. Landlords promising comfortable rooms left them in overcrowded, vermin-infested tenements. Others, promising railroad and boat passage to other parts of the nation, sold them phony tickets.
The immigrants took whatever unskilled jobs they could find, working on the docks, pushing carts, or digging
In an overwhelmingly Protestant country, the
The Irish also imported some of their
Fearing discrimination and abuse, the Irish banded together in their parishes and led major efforts to build churches, parochial schools, and major private universities where they and their children felt comfortable.
As this 1880 cover of Harper’s Weekly shows, the problem of insufficient food continued to afflict Ireland well after the great potato blight.
Systematically marginalized by a hostile culture, the Irish quickly realized that citizenship and their vote were among their most powerful weapons. The Irish understood the efficacy of ward politics, starting small and local and eventually taking over city halls and state governments. The Irish were also eager to take civil service jobs that offered relative security. There were certainly abuses, the most egregious being the
Gribben, Arthur, ed. The Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. A collection of twelve essays commemorating the 150th anniversary of the famine that considers life in Ireland, historical perceptions of the events, and the creation of the Irish American identity. Laxton, Edward. The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America. New York: Henry Holt, 1996. A careful, detailed history of the often unseaworthy “coffin ships” that transported destitute Irish to Canada and America. Miller, Kerby. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. The most authoritative study of Irish immigration to Canada and America and the ways in which the displaced transplanted their culture to the New World. Miller, Kerby, and Paul Wagner. Out of Ireland: The Story of Irish Emigration to America. Washington, D.C.: Elliott & Clark, 1994. A photoessay companion to the 1995 PBS documentary of the same name that considers not only the famine but also the entire experience of Irish immigration to America. Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1845-1849. London: Penguin Books, 1991. One of the most authoritative histories of the causes and results of the famine, considering its political, economic, and social consequences.
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