During the early nineteenth century, Ireland was one of the main sources of immigration to the United States. Irish immigrants provided much of the labor for American cities and transportation systems and helped to establish Roman Catholicism in the United States.
The first identifiable wave of Irish migration to the United States began in 1729, when a poor harvest and a depression in the linen trade created economic hardship in Ireland. By 1784, just after the American Revolutionary War, an estimated 400,000 Irish lived in the new United States. During the six decades leading up the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), the Irish became one of the nation’s largest and most recognizable minority groups. Despite a decline in migration from Ireland in the twentieth century, Irish immigrants and their descendants have continued to play an important part in American history.
The majority of the Irish in America before the nineteenth century were those who later became known as
The first U.S. Census in 1790 may have underestimated the proportion of the population that was of Irish background. However, in 1931 scholars who studied the linguistic and national background origin of the American people at the time of that first U.S. Census estimated that about one out of every ten Americans in 1790 was of Irish ancestry, including both Protestants and a smaller numbers of Catholics. The 1931 estimates indicated that people of Irish ancestry could be found in all parts of the new nation, but that they made up the largest proportions of populations in the South. According to these figures, in 1790, people of Irish background made up 15 percent of residents in
Movement from Ireland to the United States continued into the nineteenth century and began to increase in response to new opportunities. Notably, the U.S. began to build up its first transportation infrastructure, in the form of
Reliable data on how many Irish reached American shores date only from 1820. In 1819, the United States passed the
Irish immigration continued at high levels throughout the decades leading up to the Civil War. The numbers of Irish immigrants rose from 51,617 during the 1820’s to 170,672 during the 1830’s, increasing still further to 656,145 during the 1840’s. During the decade of the 1850’s, the number of people arriving in the United States from Ireland reached its historical peak at 1,029,486.
One reason that the flow from Ireland increased during these years was that the demand for their labor continued to rise. The
The Irish were also pushed out of their native land by poverty and hunger as the middle of the century approached. The
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Irish Americans were an urban and working class group. Only 16 percent of people born in Ireland lived on farms in the United States in 1850, compared to well over one-half of all Americans. A majority of the Irish in the United States (53 percent) lived in urban areas, at a time when urban areas were home to only 15 percent of the people in the nation. While only about 15 percent of all workers in the country were listed as laborers by occupation, about half the Irish natives in the census of that 1850 were so identified.
By 1860, a year before the Civil War broke out, well over 1.5 million people born in Ireland were living in the United States; they constituted about 6 percent of the country’s total population and about 40 percent of its foreign-born population.
Although most of the Irish immigrants settled in the northeast, they could be found in almost all U.S. states. The southern states that were about to secede from the Union were home to about 100,000 Irish-born people.
The best-known Irish fighting force during the Civil War was the New York Irish Brigade, which saw service from the time of the Battle of Bull Run in July, 1861. Nearly forty other Union regiments had “Irish” in their names. On the Confederate side, Irish fighting forces included the First Virginia Battalion and the Tenth Tennessee Regiment. Irish immigrants and descendants of Irish immigrants also served as individual soldiers in most of the other forces of both sides.
Congress passed the Enrollment Act at a time when many Irish in northern cities were already becoming disenchanted with the war. Irish soldiers had suffered heavy casualties by 1863. As urban laborers, Irish workers were also competing with black workers. When President Abraham Lincoln announced the
On July 10, 1863, government officials posted the first list of draftees under the
Despite the draft riots and the resentment they revealed, Irish immigrants fought in every battle of the Civil War. With the end of the war, the United States entered a new period of rapid industrialization and soon began welcoming a great tide of new immigrants. The Irish continued to be a significant part of immigration after the Civil War; however, the vast numbers of immigrants coming from other countries meant that Ireland no longer dominated international movement to the United States as it had done before the Civil
The Civil War was enormously destructive, but it also helped to stimulate the American economy and to push the United States toward more industrialization. As the nation entered the 1880’s, it entered into a remarkable period of economic expansion that transformed the United States into one of the world’s greatest industrial powers by the time of World War I (1914-1918). It also began a dramatic rise in immigration as part of this economic expansion. Sources of immigration also began to shift, from northern and western European countries to southern and eastern European countries.
During this great immigration wave, immigrants continued to arrive from Ireland in significant numbers, but these numbers never again reached their peak of the 1850’s. Irish migration actually began to decrease gradually around the turn of the twentieth century, even as overall numbers of immigrants to the United States were rapidly growing. As Irish immigration slowed, the Irish-born population of the United States gradually decreased from its maximum of about 1,870,000 people in 1880.
The heavy immigration of earlier years still meant that many locations in the United States had large Irish communities at the opening of the twentieth century. By 1900, the Irish-born population of the
Between 1900 and 1909, only 4.2 percent of new immigrants came from Ireland, compared to 43 percent one-half century earlier. The proportion of foreign-born people living in the United States who were from Ireland dropped from 44 percent in 1850 to 15.8 percent in 1900 and about 7.2 percent in 1920. In 1880, 10 percent of all Americans had at least one parent who had been born in Ireland. By 1910, this figure had dropped to 5.7 percent. Nevertheless, the latter figure meant that even as late as 1910, after decades of heavy southern and eastern European immigration, more than one of every twenty people in the United States was the child of an Irish immigrant. People from Ireland or with family links to Ireland still made up a substantial part of the American population in the early twentieth century.
The great wave of immigration came to an end when the United States adopted restrictive immigration policies during the 1920’s. Afterward, the overall number of immigrants decreased steadily until the late 1960’s. Irish immigration also dropped sharply, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of all new arrivals.
During the last three decades of the twentieth century, the United States began welcoming a new great wave of immigrants. This was in large part a consequence of the liberalization of American immigration law in 1965. However, Ireland’s contribution to this new wave was relatively small. During the 1970’s, people from Ireland made up only 0.2 percent of immigrants to the United States. During the 1980’s, they made up only 0.4 percent.
The government of Ireland helped to keep this migration at a relatively low level. The nation’s leadership had become concerned about the loss of young people from Ireland’s relatively small population during the middle of the twentieth century. During the early 1960’s, the government in Dublin persuaded the administration of U.S. president
Irish immigration surged in the 1990’s after Connecticut congressman
Despite the comparatively small numbers of immigrants from Ireland at the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first century, the long history of Irish settlement had created a distinctive Irish American identity. According to census estimates made between 2005 and 2007, by the first decade of the twenty-first century more than 22 million Americans, or 7.5 percent of the total population, gave their first ancestry as “Irish”; close to 14 million, or 4.6 percent, gave “Irish” as their second ancestry. Close to 4 million people gave
Dolan, Jay P. The Irish Americans: A History. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008. History of Irish Americans from the early eighteenth through the early twenty-first centuries. The author examines Irish American history by focusing on the four themes of politics, religion, labor, and nationalism. Griffin, William D. The Irish Americans: The Immigrant Experience. New York: Beaux Arts Editions, 2001. Lavishly illustrated history of Irish Americans, with more than two hundred black-and-white and color paintings and photographs. Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1996. Influential work that argues that the Irish were an oppressed social class and were even seen as members of a distinct race before the Civil War. Ignatiev maintains that the Irish became recognized as “white” in large part by embracing the antiblack racism of other Americans. Laxton, Edward. The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. Based on research in Ireland and compilations of stories passed down to Irish immigrant descendants in America, the author tells the histories of Irish immigrants from 1846 to 1851. Lee, J. J., and Marion R. Casey, eds. Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Massive compilation of articles on the Americanization of the Irish, containing both original research and classic articles on this topic. An excellent resource on Irish settlement in America. McCarthy, Cal. Green, Blue and Grey: The Irish in the American Civil War. Cork, Ireland: Collins Press, 2009. Detailed history of Irish soldiers fighting on both sides in the Civil War. Miller, Kerby, and Patricia Mulholland Miller. Journey of Hope: The Story of Irish Immigration to America. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001. Uses letters, journals, and diaries of immigrants to recount the history of Irish immigration and the experiences of Irish immigrants in America.
Civil War, U.S.
Flanagan, Edward J.
Great Irish Famine
History of immigration, 1783-1891
Philadelphia anti-Irish riots