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Irish Immigration 1800-1880 Essay, Research Paper
INTRODUCTION The history of Ireland “that most distressful nation” is full of drama and tragedy,
but one of the most interesting stories is about what happened to the Irish during the mid-nineteenth
century and how millions of Irish came to live in America (Purcell 31). Although the high point of the
story was the years of the devastating potato famine from 1845 to 1848, historians have pointed out
that immigrating from Ireland was becoming more popular before the famine and continued until the
turn of the twentieth century. In the one hundred years between the first recording of immigrants in
1820 and the passing of immigration restrictions in 1924, over four and one half million Irish
immigrated to the United States.
HOW THEY PAID TO COME TO AMERICA Most of the pre-famine immigrants were single
men who found jobs as laborers in the North and Northeast (Purcell 32). Although these were low
paying jobs, they were still better than what they had in Ireland. Another thing typical of the Irish
immigrants in the pre-famine years was something called the chain migration (Purcell 36). The first
immigrants found jobs, saved most or all of their money, and sent money or tickets for sailing on the
ships to relatives in the old country. By very hard work, immigrants made it possible to pay for their
entire family to follow them to America. To save up all of the passage money was very difficult but
they worked hard and did it. Many immigrants from other countries also used the chain migration
idea, and it is still common for immigrants to use this system. However, the Irish were the first to use
chain migration in such a big way.
THE LAWS OF IMMIGRATION During the 200 years that this country has been in existence, the
United States immigration policy has developed and been modified to meet the changing needs of
the nation. In 1776, right after the Declaration of independence was signed, Congress made
qualitative restrictions for the immigration of people from other countries to the United States in
order to make sure the good health of foreigners entering this country (Danilov 3).
ACCEPTANCE AND NONACCEPTANCE IN AMERICA The Catholic Church and politics
were very important to the Irish Americans. The church in Ireland had been a bulwark of strength
against English oppression. When the Irish suffered the same hostility as the British to their religious
beliefs, the church in America became a source of spiritual comfort. French and native-born priests
controlled the American Catholic church when the Irish arrived in large numbers, but the Irish
quickly moved up, becoming priests, nuns, and archbishops and leaders in the church. Archbishop
John Hughes of New York in the 1840s was the first of many Irish leaders in the Catholic Church.
Politics and religion helped the Irish overcome the bitter poverty they faced in the mid 1800s. As of
1980, the nearly 20 million Irish Americans were more likely than other immigrants to be
professionals and managers. Irish Americans had also earned the admiration of other Americans
through many special contributions to culture in the United States. The novelists John O’Hara, F.
Scott Fitzgerald, Mary McCarthy, and William Kennedy; the playwright Eugene O’Neill; and the
film actor Spencer Tracy are just a few of the Irish Americans who have been well known because
of their talents (Reimers 53-54). After the Irish arrived in America, they became known as a group
that was distinctly different. First of all, almost all the Irish immigrants of this period were Roman
Catholic. Lord Baltimore tried to establish a haven for Catholics in Maryland, but America was
solidly Protestant and was prejudiced against the Catholics (Reimers 52). Since many of the Irish
refugees, arrived with almost no money and were often sick, the Americans had a poor opinion of
Irish Catholics, and their very large numbers caused fear and panic in the Protestant Americans. The
Irish “hordes” were the targets of discrimination for decades. Many Americans thought they were
poor, dirty, uneducated, and participated in an “alien religion.” It was not until the 1960 election of
President John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic descendent of pre-famine Irish immigrants, who faced
anti-Catholic propaganda throughout his career, that the Irish finally got rid of some of the
discrimination (Purcell 33).
POLITICS IN AMERICA Irishmen did well in America, many becoming well known in their
community because of their involvement in local politics. The Irish arrived in the United States at a
time when the political procedures were becoming more democratic. By 1840 nearly every white
male in the United States, rich or poor, could cast his ballot in elections. One man described it this
way: “the gentry yielded to professional politicians who viewed party management as a vocation.”
The Irish soon became part of these “party managers,” who had enormous influence within the
Democratic Party (Reimers 52). By the end of the 1840’s, the Irish “bosses” were controlling ward
politics in cities with lots of Irish, such as Boston and New York, and later, Jersey City and
Chicago. In an era lacking in social services for the poor, ward bosses acted as one-man charitable
institutions. They raised funds for christenings, weddings, and funerals, gave money to poor widows,
and did many favors for people who were living on the edge of being homeless or starving. In
return, the grateful people turned out for every election and cast their ballot as they were told
(Reimers 50-54). Under this system which lasted well into the 20th century, Irishmen won mayoral
elections across the nation. Boss Frank Hague of Jersey City held the office of mayor for three
decades, from 1917 to 1947, and Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, the last of the big-city bosses,
reigned over Chicago from 1955 to 1970. Many of these men are in the history of American
politics, but especially Boston mayor James Michael Curley, who once won office while in jail.
Irish-American politicians had huge power in cities, but they did badly when running for national
office. In 1928, Al Smith, who rose through New York City politics to the governorship of the
state, ran for President of the United States. The voters rejected Smith, in part because of his
Catholicism, and a Catholic was not voted into the nation’s top office until the election of John F.
Kennedy in 1960. Once the Irish were in power, the Irish politicians used their powers to hire all
Irish as they could, such as policemen, firemen, and civil servants. City halls, operating under the
rule of Irishmen, were often giving construction contracts to Irish men. The political system thus
became an important way for the American Irish better themselves in their cities (Reimers 53).
LIVING CONDITIONS IN AMERICA — WHERE AND WHY Many of the Irish were so poor
that when they got to a port city, which is where they stayed. That is why Boston, New York, and
Montreal became the homes of many of the Irish. For the first time, there were more Irish than there
were English at American ports. By 1860, the Irish made up seventy percent of America’s
immigrants (Sandler 14-16). Since the Irish found many jobs along the transportation routes, Irish
towns started to appear, near railroads, throughout the United States. In the late 1800’s, many Irish
communities were well-established in areas such as San Francisco and New Orleans. The largest
numbers of Irish, however, were in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. These
states contained more than half the total Irish-American population (Anderson 57). In many families,
the women and the children worked, but the amount of money they made was only enough for
housing and food. In Boston, one historian tells us; the Irish lived in “crammed hovels without
furniture and with patches of dirty straw for bedding.” In New York City, Irish families lived in the
city’s worst, overcrowded slums. Under such conditions it is no wonder that Irish neighborhoods
were troubled with diseases like typhoid, typhus, and cholera. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that
public health programs gained wide acceptance and improved the living conditions of the immigrants
MAKING A LIVING IN AMERICA In port cities such as New York and Chicago, the Irish
easily found jobs. Not much skill or education was needed to work unloading and loading ships on
the docks or digging up bad streets and building new ones. Nor did the Irishmen have trouble
finding unskilled jobs in the nation’s rapidly growing transportation system. Three thousand miles of
canals were built before the Civil War, along with 30,000 miles of railroad track. All that was
needed to do these jobs was a strong body and a willingness to work for only one dollar a day. The
Irish were able to do both of these. The Irish were the ones that built the Illinois Central Railroad
connecting Chicago and New Orleans, and later they helped lay the tracks for the Union Pacific
Railroad (Purcell 40). Irishmen held railway and construction jobs, but it was the Irish women who
served as the main power within their community. Unlike the other culture groups in America among
the Irish there were more women than men. In Ireland women had often postponed marriage in
order to work, because of the need for money for families. Because of this, many young Irish
women had the freedom and money to make the journey to America. Once in America, Irish
women did the same things as if they had never left Ireland. They were the group that stayed single
the longest. These young women could always find jobs as domestics, an occupation rejected by
many other ethnic groups. In fact, the figure of the obstinate Irish maid “Bridget” became an ethnic
stereotype that lingered well into the twentieth Century (Anderson 59). Historian Hasia Diner has
described marriages among poor Irish Americans as “stormy and short lived. Irish families
sometimes suffered from violence and desertion on the part of husbands and fathers (Purcell 50).” In
her book, Erin’s Daughters in America, published in 1983, Diner writes: “An Irish immigrant woman
who chose in the 1860s or 1870s to marry a construction worker in Boston or Providence or a
factory hand living in New York or Worcester Massachusetts, ran a very high risk of having
someday to be the sole support for a house full of children, existing on starvation’s edge.” For these
reasons, Irish women often stayed single for years, and once they married, they often headed
single-parent households. In 1870, in Philadelphia, 16.9 percent of Irish women were the heads of
their families compared to only 5.9 percent of German females. Only blacks had a higher rate of
female-headed families (Purcell 48-52). The Irish during the famine years (and the decades
following) lived the same as their pre-famine predecessors: they stayed in the cities of the North and
Northeast, looking for employment as construction workers or, as in the case of many Irish
immigrant women, as domestic servants. Over all, the Irish had no interest whatsoever in moving
back to Ireland. Even though land in America was rich and plentiful compared to the land in Ireland,
very few Irish immigrants had the money to buy farms. During the years after the end of the famine
immigration, most Irish immigrants changed gradually from mainly men to mainly women, although
the average age of Irish immigrants was very young. The Irish immigrant women tended to do
domestic service jobs or millwork, but the men gradually made more and held more important jobs
during the late nineteenth century. As the second generation Irish discovered the power of voting in
America, and as American cities grew and needed people to operate the governments and public
services, the Irish pretty much took over the jobs as city firemen and police (Gmelch 68).
CONCLUSION The US is the most diverse nation on earth because of immigrants, but the
immigrants were almost never welcomed to the US “with open arms.” Because of the huge numbers
of Irish immigrants, the telling of their “story” brings a more full understanding of what it means to live
in a free land, and a more full appreciation of the life we lead today, as well as a thankfulness to
those who, long ago, paved the way.
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Columbia: Self-Counsel, 1989. Gmelch, Sharon. Irish Life and Traditions. Dublin: O’Brien, 1986.
Griffin, William. The Irish Americans. Hong Kong: Hugh Lauter Levin, 1998. “Immigrants.”
November 1993. 10 November 1998 . Long, Robert Emmet.
Immigration. Dublin: H. W. Wilson, 1996. Purcell, L. Edward. Immigration. Phoenix: Oryx, 1995.
Reimers, David. The Immigrant Experience. New York: Chealsea House Publishers, 1989.
Sandler, Martin. Immigrants. New York: Eagle, 1995.