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INTRODUCTIONThe 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 AMERICAMost 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. WHY GO TO AMERICA?Farewell to old Ireland, the land of my childhood,Which now and forever I am going to leave…I’m bound to cross over that wide swelling oceanIn search of me, fortune and sweet liberty.-From song, —The Emigrant’s Farewell (Sandler 16).”This song represents the anguish the Irish were going through when they decided to leave their home country.In 1830-90 over thirty-five million Irish landed on the shores of America, bringing with them a poor economic history. Beginning in the twelfth century, England, a neighboring country lying just to the East of Ireland, invaded it and conquered its people. Although the Irish resisted and fought against the British military, the Irish lived for centuries under the thumb of tyrannical colonial rule. In the 1500’s England’s King Henry VIII was excommunicated from the Catholic Church, and England became a Protestant nation. Thus, beginning in the 1800s, the hatred between the English and Irish was made worse by differences in religion as well as nationality. Protestant English put forth a series of laws designed to bankrupt the Irish people, because many were Catholic. One of these laws, for example, was that when a Catholic farmer died his land had to be divided up among his family. After a few generations of these divisions, family tracts of land became so small that they were almost worthless (Reimers 47). THE POTATO FAMINE — IRISH CROPSThe statistics of the famine years are unusual. The numbers of people in Ireland had nearly doubled during the first twenty or thirty years of the 1800s. Because the tracts of land were becoming smaller and smaller, it made producing food supplies more and more difficult. On their plots, the Irish grew potato plants, the staple of their diet. Only the high nutritional value and low cost of growing potatoes made it so that the Irish could live. The destruction of the potato crop was caused by a fungus and because there was no food or money or help from Britain, Irish men and women died by the tens of thousands during the famine; maybe even as high as one and one half million deaths (Reimers 46). In the beginning of the 1840s, when the economy and farms were still good, there were approximately eight million two hundred thousand people living in Ireland. Ten years later the population had gone down to six million six hundred thousands, more than a million and a half people had disappeared. It was a good thing that one million Irish immigrated to America during the famine because the only way they would survive would be to leave Ireland. When added to the fact that transportation across the Atlantic was relatively cheap, these conditions motivated about three hundred thousand Irish to immigrate between 1820 and 1840 (Purcell 36). Those with any money at all generally went to either Liverpool, England one of Great Britain’s largest industrial and manufacturing centers or North America. The journey to Liverpool, just across the Irish Sea from Dublin, took only one day by ferry. But the English were unenthusiastic about the growing number of Irish entering port cities such as Liverpool and therefore encouraged the refugees to head for North America (Purcell 32).Historian Hasia R. Dinere described Ireland during the Potato Famine as “a country of starving and homeless paupers (Reimers 48).” It was noticed that the skin of starving human beings became rough to the touch, very dry like parchment. The shoulder blades were thrown up high. The hair became thin on the head. Sores grew between the fingers. “Children are born with their faces to the West,” went one Irish saying. During the 1840s and 1850s, millions chose the option to go to America and set out across the Atlantic. These unhappy and miserable people were so weak that many died because of disease either at sea or soon after their arrival in North America. In 1847 the British government reported that 89,738 Irish sailed for Canada and that 5,293 had died at sea and another 10,037 had died in hospitals or under quarantine as soon as they arrived. Mortality rates for emigrants bound for the United States were scarcely better (Reimers 47-50). GETTING THERE — LIFE ON THE SHIPThe trip from their towns and villages to the port cities was only the first step on the immigrants’ journey. After that was the long and often dangerous sea voyage to America. The trip could take from weeks to six months. Passengers were packed tightly aboard the ship with hardly any room to move around (Sandler 18-21).Many immigrants had brought onboard a ball of yarn, leaving one end of the line with someone on land. As the ship slowly cleared the dock, the ball unwound amid the farewell shouts of the women, the fluttering of the handkerchiefs, and the infants held high. After the yarn ran out, the long strips remained airborne, sustained by the wind, long after those on land and those at sea had lost sight of each other Luciano Ercscenzo “Ball of Yarn” (Sandler 18)The trip over the Atlantic was a miserable experience. The wooden ship pitched and rolled in the high seas, and many passengers were seasick throughout the entire voyage. The threat of a fire from a lighted candle or an open cooking fire was dangerous. Disease spread through many of the ships, and there was the constant danger of the ships’ being destroyed in a storm (Reimers 91-93).Because they were poor, many of the immigrants were forced to make the journey in the poorer section of the ship, below the deck originally designed to transport animals and freight. This steerage section was a terribly crowded, filthy place with very little air and almost no room to move about. Most steerage passengers spent almost the entire voyage without ever breathing fresh air or seeing the sky (Sandlers 20).Passengers on the vessels were not all poor, though. Thousands of Irish wealthier men, women and children also immigrated to America. They could afford the money that allowed them to travel above deck, far away from the steerage section (Reimers 90).The voyage to America claimed the lives of thousands of immigrants through disease or shipwreck, but the most people completed the difficult trip. More than seventy percent arrived in the port at New York. The millions who entered New York Harbor after 1886 saw something they will never forget: the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of the hopes and dreams of everyone who made the journey (Sandler 24).By the 1870’s, many sailing ships were replaced by steam-driven vessels. The journey was still dangerous, and life in the steerage section was still terribly difficult, but the speedier steamships reduced the ocean voyage to about fourteen days (Sandler 20-21). THE LAWS OF IMMIGRATIONDuring 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 AMERICAThe 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 AMERICAIrishmen 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). EDUCATION IN AMERICAThe most unfortunate Irish immigrants usually became so poor that they had no place to go except the public poorhouses or lunatic asylums. In New York City, in the 1850s, 85 percent of the foreign-born admitted to Bellevue Hospital had Irish names, and most admissions to Blackwell’s island, the city’s asylum for the insane, were also Irish. After many years, though, Irish Americans moved away from being poor, into better jobs and better housing. This was a slow process, and often the second generation lived only a bit better than the first. First-generation Irishwomen left behind the labor performed by their mothers either in domestic service or in New England textile firms, many located in the town of Lowell, Massachusetts where they worked on mechanical looms and spinning machines. Irishwomen born in America often took advantage of public education and became teachers, nurses, and public employees. These were the most respected jobs that women could hold. In the 1880s Irish-American women were a quarter of Boston’s and New York’s teachers, and by the early 20th Century these women made up a large number of the teachers in public schools across America (Purcell 42). LIVING CONDITIONS IN AMERICA — WHERE AND WHYMany 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 (Griffen 19). MAKING A LIVING IN AMERICAIn 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). CONCLUSIONThe 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.

Anderson, Kelly. Immigration. San Diego: Lucent, 1993.Danilov, Dan. Immigrating to the USA. 1st ed. British Columbia: Self-Counsel, 1978.Danilov, Dan. Immigrating to the USA. 5th ed. British 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 http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb>.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.


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