Irish immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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.Irish immigrantsIrish immigrants[cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Irish immigrants[02890][cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Irish immigrants[02890]

Early Irish Immigration

The majority of the Irish in America before the nineteenth century were those who later became known as Scotch-Irish immigrants[Scotch Irish immigrants]Scotch-Irish, descendants of people from Scotland who had moved to the northern part of Ireland in earlier centuries. These northern Irish were mainly Protestant, and distinctions between the them and other Irish immigrants came into popular usage in the nineteenth century when much larger numbers of Roman Catholics;IrishRoman Catholic Irish began to arrive. Northern Irish migration peaked between the 1750’s and the early 1770’s, with an estimated 14,200 people from Northern Ireland reaching America during the 1750’s, 21,200 during the 1760’s, and 13,200 during the first of the 1770’s, leading up to the American Revolution. Most of the pre-Revolutionary War immigration from Ireland took place between 1760 and 1775, when about 25,000 new arrivals came to the colonies.

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 Georgia;Irish immigrantsGeorgia, 14 percent in South Carolina;Irish immigrantsSouth Carolina, 12 percent in Kentucky;Irish immigrantsKentucky and Tennessee;Irish immigrantsTennessee, and 11 percent in Virginia;Irish immigrantsVirginia and North Carolina;Irish immigrantsNorth Carolina. As immigration from Ireland and other parts of Europe increased during the first halfof the nineteenth century, however, the new immigrants tended to settle in the North and in the most urbanized parts of the country, rather than in the rural South.

Early Nineteenth Century Immigration

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 Canals;and Irish workers[Irish workers]canals. The Erie Canal;and Irish immigrants[Irish immigrants]Erie Canal in New York State, perhaps the best known of these waterways, was under construction from 1818 to 1825. That project drew heavily on immigrant Irish labor, beginning the long history of building the American transportation infrastructure with Irish workers. The success of the Erie Canal stimulated the digging of canals in other parts of the country, creating a growing demand for workers who were willing to endure the hard labor required in canal building. Somewhat later, the Illinois & Michigan Canal, created between 1837 and 1848, employed hundreds of Irish laborers. To the south, Irish workers dug the canal system of swampy New Orleans;Irish immigrantsNew Orleans.

Reliable data on how many Irish reached American shores date only from 1820. In 1819, the United States passed the Steerage Act of 1819Steerage Act. It gave the U.S. government information on immigration by requiring that all vessels reaching American shores deliver passenger lists to customs officials, who then sent copies to the U.S. State Department. That department would, in turn, submit the lists to Congress. As a result, 1820 became the first year in which the U.S. systematically collected data on new arrivals. During that same year, the Irish made up the single largest immigrant group, accounting for 43 percent of all arrivals to the United States.

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 Railroads;;Irish immigrantsrailroads made up the second major part of the American transportation system, after the canals. In 1830, the United States had only 23 miles of railroad. Only one decade later, this figure had grown to 2,818 miles. It increased to 9,021 miles in 1850 and then to 30,626 miles in 1860. Immigrants from Ireland, in particular, laid these miles of tracks.

The Irish were also pushed out of their native land by poverty and hunger as the middle of the century approached. The Great Irish FaminePotato Blight created famine in Ireland in the years 1845 to 1850. Continuing hardship, in addition to the existence of established Irish communities around the United States, pushed immigration from Ireland to its record level in the 1850’s.

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.

Anti-Irish Nativism;anti-Irish movement[antiIrish movement]feeling among other groups in the United States resulted, in part, from the concentration of many Irish immigrants in lower-income districts of cities, which caused the Irish to be associated with urban slums. Prejudice against this group also resulted from Anti-Catholic movements[AntiCatholic movements];and Irish immigrants[Irish immigrants]Roman Catholics;Irishreligious differences. Most Irish immigrants who arrived after 1830 were Roman Catholics. The established population of the United States was mainly Protestant. Suspicion of Catholics in general and of Irish Catholics in particular led to the creation of a number of anti-Catholic organizations. The Native American Party, later re-named the American Party and popularly known as the Know-Nothing Party[Know Nothing Party];and Irish immigrants[Irish immigrants]“Know-Nothing” Party, was the most prominent of these. Fear that floods of Catholics from Ireland and other locations threatened to overwhelm the native-born, Protestant population produced widespread victories for this anti-immigrant and anti-Catholicparty in elections across the nation in 1855 and 1856.

Irish Immigrants during the U.S. Civil War

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. New York State;Irish immigrantsNew York State held the greatest number of Irish immigrants. Its 500,000 Irish residents made up about 13 percent of its entire population. More than 200,000 Irish immigrants lived in New York City;Irish immigrantsNew York City alone, and Brooklyn, then still separate from New York City proper, was home to another 60,000.

Massachusetts Massachusetts;Irish immigrantshad the second-largest number of residents who had been born in Ireland in 1860. Its nearly 200,000 Irish immigrants accounted for just over 16 percent of the whole population of the state. The city of Boston;Irish immigrantsBoston in Massachusetts held nearly 50,000 Irish-born people One out of every five of the people in tiny Rhode Island;Irish immigrantsRhode Island in 1860 had come from Ireland.

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. Louisiana;Irish immigrantsLouisiana alone was home to more than 26,000 people from Ireland during the last year before the war. The Civil War, U.S.;Irish inIrish were living on both sides of the divide when the Southern states attempted to secede from the Union, but they were more heavily represented in the North. An estimated 150,000 Irish served in the Union Army, while about 30,000 are believed to have fought for the Confederacy.

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.

The Civil War, U.S.;Irish inheavy representation of the Irish in the Civil War was not always voluntary. Both sides Civil War, U.S.;conscriptiondrafted soldiers, drawing most heavily among poorer people, such as the Irish. In the North, the [a]Enrollment Act of 1863Enrollment Act of 1863 enabled any drafted person who paid a fee of three hundred U.S. dollars to hire a substitute draftee. Many low-income Irish immigrants believed that they were fighting on behalf of rich men.

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 [a]Emancipation ProclamationEmancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, many of these workers began to believe that the primary goal of the war was to free black slaves, rather than to preserve national unity. When local authorities used black workers to break a mainly Irish dock strike in Civil War, U.S.;Irish inNew York City;Civil War draft riotsNew York in the spring of 1863, the anti-war and anti-black feelings of many New York Irish intensified.

On July 10, 1863, government officials posted the first list of draftees under the [a]Enrollment Act of 1863Enrollment Act. In New York City;Irish immigrantsNew York, it seemed evident that the Irish wards were supplying more conscripts than other parts of the city. In response, protesters marched on the city recruiting station. The protests turned into riots, during which blacks became especially targeted. The rioters burned the Colored Orphan Asylum and beat up and lynched a number of New York’s black residents. During the week that followed, more than one hundred riot victims died, and another 1,500 suffered serious injuries. The New York draft riots ended only after Union troops returned from the Battle of Gettysburg to reestablish order, and the city voted $2.5 million to buy exemptions.

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 Civil War, U.S.;Irish inWar.

Immigration During and After the Great Wave

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 New York City;Irish immigrantsNew York City metropolitan area had grown to an estimated 366,000 people. Another 650,000 residents of the New York area were children of Irish immigrants. Nearly 200,000 of the people in metropolitan Boston;Irish immigrantsBoston were from Ireland, and another 320,000 were children of Irish immigrants. In many cities across the United States, the existence of Irish American communities provided a basis for ethnically based politics and economic activity. The Kennedy family, which later produced America’s first Roman Catholic president in the person of Kennedy, John F.[p]Kennedy, John F.;Irish ancestryJohn F. Kennedy, arose from the Irish community of Boston.

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.

Immigration After 1965

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 Kennedy, John F.[p]Kennedy, John F.;and Irish immigrants[Irish immigrants]John F. Kennedy to reduce the number of American visas available to potential Irish migrants. In addition, [a]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965;and Irish immigrants[Irish immigrants]the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 gave first preference to immigrants who had immediate family members living in the United States. Because Irish immigration had been relatively small for decades and was then limited by agreement between the two nations, the number of people in Ireland with parents, children, or siblings living in the United States was small.

Irish immigration surged in the 1990’s after Connecticut congressman Morrison, BruceBruce Morrison sponsored a special "Lottery, green card"[Lottery, green card]green card lottery system for visas that became known as Visas;"Morrison"[morrison]“Morrison visas.” New legal residents from Ireland jumped from 4,767 in 1990 to 12,226 in 1991 as Morrison visas became available. However, the Morrison lottery ended after only three years and Irish immigration began to decrease again. The temporary increase in arrivals did not change the historical trend of a decreasing Irish-born population in the United States. By 2007, fewer than 170,000 people born in Ireland were living in the United States, less than one-tenth the number of the Irish-born residents during the late nineteenth century, even though the total American population was much larger at the beginning of the twenty-first century than it had been a century earlier.

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 Scotch-Irish immigrants[Scotch Irish immigrants]Scotch-Irish as their first ancestry and another 1.5 million gave that as their second ancestry. Altogether, more than 41 million Americans, 14 percent of the total population, traced at least part of their heritage to the Emerald Isle during the early twenty-first century.Irish immigrants

Further Reading
  • 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.



British immigrants

Civil War, U.S.

European immigrants

Fenian movement

Flanagan, Edward J.

Great Irish Famine

History of immigration, 1783-1891

Know-Nothing Party

Molly Maguires

Philadelphia anti-Irish riots

Categories: History