Moving from Ireland to America

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There was a major wave of immigration into America that occurred in the period 1815 to 1865. The majority of these newcomers hailed from Northern and Western Europe. Approximately one-third came from Ireland, due to a devastating fungus that destroyed Ireland’s potato crop between 1845 and 1850, which led the Irish to immigrate to America. In the 1840s, almost half of America’s immigrants were from Ireland alone.

Typically impoverished, these Irish immigrants settled near their point of arrival in cities along the East Coast. Between 1820 and 1930, 4.5 million Irish migrated to the United States. The Irish came to America due to several push/pull factors, such as economic, political, environmental and social reasons. The emigration into America didn’t come without effects on America though. It affected America both economically and culturally, for the better and for the worse.

The book Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan, tackles an often overlooked aspect of the Irish migration to North America. Using letters, and occasionally other sources such as personal memoirs and diaries, the authors seek to illuminate the experience of the Irish immigrants. Most of the pre-famine immigrants were single men who found jobs as laborers in the North and Northeast. 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.

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 accomplished it. 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.

Many of the first emigrants from Ireland came to work upon the Erie Canal and then upon the host of other canal projects started in its wake. They then found work on the railroads. Many were skilled workers. Often they had migrated first to England where they had acquired experience. Suddenly, in the mid-1840s, the size and nature of Irish immigration changed drastically. The Great Famine, also called Irish Potato Famine, or the Great Irish Famine, began in 1845 when a fungus spread rapidly throughout Ireland.

The infestation ruined up to one-half of the potato crop that year, and about three-quarters of the crop over the next seven years. Because the tenant farmers of Ireland relied heavily on the potato as a source of food, the infestation had a catastrophic impact on Ireland and its population. The potato crops didn’t fully recover until 1852.

By then, the damage was done. Although estimates vary, it is believed as many as 1 million Irish men, women and children perished during the Famine, and another 1 million emigrated from the island to escape poverty and starvation, with many landing in various cities throughout North America and Great Britain. The Irish filled the most menial and dangerous jobs, often at low pay. They cut canals. They dug trenches for water and sewer pipes. They laid rail lines. They cleaned houses. They worked away in textile mills. They worked as stevedores, stable workers and blacksmiths.

For the Irish, a number of push factors lead to their decisions to migrate into America. These include economic, environmental, political, and social factors. The Irish Famine of 1740 through 1741 claimed 38% of the Irish population and was caused by the ‘Great Frost’. In 1790 the Anti-Catholic Penal Laws were repealed in England. 1816 was the ‘Year Without a Summer’ or the Poverty Year when heavy rains and freezing temperatures in Ireland caused the failure of wheat, oats, and potato crops and a terrible famine that led to disease.

Immigration to the USA exploded in the 1880’s due the Second Industrial Revolution that centered on Steel, Oil and Electricity and required unskilled labor to man the factories. Various laws had been passed in the United States to restrict the numbers of immigrants, and the Hart-Cellar Act passed in 1965 lifted origin by nation restrictions on immigration. All of these push factors lead to the decision of Irish people to move to America.

There were also many pull factors that went into their decision to move. Desperate Irish immigrants signed contracts to travel to America as indentured servants to escape the devastation in Ireland for a new life in a safer environment. Irish Catholics were allowed to emigrate to America where they sought religious freedom. Irish immigrants fled to America to escape from the threat of more natural disasters, death and poverty. Irish immigrants took the journey to America on what were called the ‘Coffin Ships’ looking for safety and a new life. Irish immigrants seized the opportunity to build a new life and gain new employment and a better standard of living in America, and some people took the opportunity joined friends and family who had established new lives in the United States.

The Irish arrived poor, hungry and sick, and then crowded into cramped tenements in Boston, New York and other Northeastern cities to start anew under difficult conditions. The struggles of Irish immigrants were compounded by the poor treatment they received from the white, primarily Anglo-Saxon and Protestant establishment. America’s existing unskilled workers worried they would be replaced by immigrants willing to work for less than the going rate. And business owners worried that Irish immigrants and African-Americans would band together to demand increased wages.

As a result, locals didn’t take kindly to an influx of Irish immigrants competing for resources perceived as limited. In Boston, 37,000 Irish immigrants arrived in 1847 growing the city’s population by more than 30 percent, straining employment, rations, housing and relations between populations. Irish immigrants were Catholics in a primarily Protestant land. It was a religious difference that widened the divide, as did the fact that many Irish immigrants didn’t speak plain English. As strange as may it may sound today, Irish immigrants were not considered ‘white’ and were sometimes referred to ‘negroes turned inside out.’. Although Irish immigrants faced oppression in the United States, they also participated in it.

African-Americans and Irish were considered by many Northern whites to be on equal footing, but many Irish immigrants quickly embraced ‘white’ identities and became part of the social construct that oppressed African-Americans as an avenue to better employment, interweaving issues of classism and racism. The Irish believed that is they wanted to be respected they would have to “promote their whiteness” which caused them to become “anti black” (151 Takaki). In today’s world, it may be difficult to imagine a time when fair-skinned people of Irish descent weren’t considered white. However, definitions of race have changed over time — and may be just as rooted in class, labor, economics and fear as they are in skin pigmentation.

There was a time in America when the Irish were characterized as apes. Anti Irish cartoons for magazines such as Harper’s Weekly featured cartoons by Thomas Nast and depicted Irish immigrants as prone to lawlessness, laziness and drunkenness. ‘St. Patrick’s Day, 1867…Rum, Blood, The Day We Celebrate’ shows a riot with policemen and ape-like Irishmen. The is a cartoon from the 1850s by the ‘Know-Nothings’, with two men in alcohol barrels accusing the Irish and German immigrants of negatively affecting an election.

Although stereotyped as ignorant bogtrotters loyal only to the pope and ill-suited for democracy, and only recently given political rights by the British in their former home after centuries of denial, the Irish were deeply engaged in the political process in their new home. They voted in higher proportions than other ethnic groups. The Irish controlled powerful political machines in cities across the United States and were moving up the social ladder into the middle class as an influx of immigrants from China and Southern and Eastern Europe took hold in the 1880s and 1890s.

The Irish immigrants changed the culture of America with the spread of Catholicism. New catholic churches were established where the Irish settled such as Illinois Valley and New York City. Catholics were only a small denomination in America at the time with only 195,000 members. But as more and more Irish immigrants came, the more Catholicism spread in America. By 1860, they were the largest, rising to 3.1 million. The Irish also brought some new customs to America, one of which is St. Patrick’s Day. Before the Irish immigration, St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t celebrated at all in America but nowadays, even the white house is colored green on March 17th.

Many of the new Irish arrivals to America joined other immigrants groups at work on the giant transportation and infrastructure projects then underway in the United States. Their hard work paid off. Another large project was the New Canal in New Orleans which was a dangerous job and even had some deaths. Unlike the Germans, most Irish people knew how to speak English which made them blend in easier than any ethnic groups. They are also the best educated and most liberal in the United States.

Music is a major factor in American folk’s songs that developed from the Irish. Folk music is played during parades and Catholic masses. Riddle music is played by Pipes, tilts and flutes which is not only in American but all over the world. The ballad “Poor Pat Must Emigrate”, written by a mid-nineteenth century Irish immigrant to the United States, expresses the sentiments of those who were forced by poverty and famine to leave Ireland at this time. The words highlight the political factors that were thought to have exacerbated Ireland’s problems.

Unlike other nationalities that came to America seeking wide open spaces, the Irish chose to huddle in the cities partly because they were the poorest of all the immigrants arriving and partly out of a desire to recreate the close-knit communities they had cherished back in Ireland. Above all, the Irish loved each other’s company, enjoying a daily dose of gossip, conversation, poetry and storytelling, music and singing, and the ever-present jokes and puns.

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.” The Irish, the first big group of poor refugees ever to come to the United States, withstood the brunt of American resentment and prevailed. Hard work and sheer determination had allowed the Irish in America to overcome countless obstacles and find success and happiness. 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 better appreciation of the life we lead today, thanks to those who paved the way.


Cite this paper

Moving from Ireland to America. (2021, Mar 22). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/moving-from-ireland-to-america/

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