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Irish Immigration to America

Immigration to America is an acute issue of the past and the present that has not lost its relevance. Powerful waves of migration began in the early 20th century, and some of the settlers were the Irish. Economic and humanitarian disasters spurred immigrants who could afford to move to America. Immigrants moved from Ireland because of hunger, economic depression, and unemployment. Irish immigrants grew in numbers and are now approximately 9.2% of the population is of Irish descent, according to Statistica (Statistica, 2021). Immigration influenced the development of the labor and civic movement in the U.S. and allowed the Irish to address religious discrimination.

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The Irish were experiencing financial and social difficulties at home, which forced them to look for new radical ways of solving problems. Ireland lacked adequate housing, health care, and infrastructure, making the immigrants seek better living conditions in the U.S. Majority of the population lived in rural areas in mud houses with no possessions and money (Collins et al., 2019). Underage marriage was also common in Ireland, contributing to poverty. With no means of earning a living, Irish immigrants moved to the U.S searching for greener pastures. The economy of Ireland largely depended on potato farming, and most people were living in adept poverty.

The primary cause for the immigration was the Irish potato famine. From the onset of 1920, potato production started deteriorating and was a significant food source, causing widespread starvation and death of more than a million people (Allen, 2018). Most of the people and industries in Ireland were dependent on potato production for employment and raw materials. During the summer of 1945, blight referred to as ‘potato disease’ affected the potato crops compromising the output. Between 1846 and 1851, the potato famine took its toll, escalating the shortage of food supply in the country. The deficit in food supply caused deaths and malnutrition-related diseases, with the overall Ireland economy tanking into recession (Collins et al., 2019). People began to eat grass and tree bark because they were suffering from hunger. With escalated starvation, most people depended on soup kitchens run by relief committees. The large population of Irish depended on potato farming for food and as a source of income.

The high rate of unemployment and underemployment in Ireland also contributed to immigration. The farming system in Ireland was subsistence farms depending on rain-fed agriculture will less scientific incentive on disease management. The citizens of Ireland had no land ownership, and a majority of the lands belonged to English Protestants who rented out to the peasant farmers through intermediaries management. The Middlemen split tiny farms to profit from the lease charges. The small portions required no labor, rendering many unemployed people (Fouka et al., 2021). Most of the immigrants were from the Northern province of Ulster, affected mainly by the famine. Irish people expected the British government to act since Ireland was part of Great Britain (Guscuite, 2020). The British government at the time was led by the Whig party that believed in laissez-faire economics and hence could not interfere. The Irish people blamed the British government for the adversities, fled their country, and found refuge in better areas.

Panic, depression, and starvation led to many Irish people immigrating to America. Not all Irish could afford to move, so they immigrated on Canadian cargo ships. The vessels were congested, and dire conditions caused diseases and numerous deaths (Collins et al., 2019). Due to deaths and illnesses in the ships, the immigrants were placed under quarantine upon arrival for treatment. At least 30% of the people who traveled died in the vessel or during quarantine (Allen, 2018). The first pack to arrive in America settled mainly in Boston and New York. Most immigrants arrived in impoverished conditions and lived in unhealthy, overcrowded areas.

The lack of cheap housing in America forced them to live in slums with poor sanitation. The majority of the Irish immigrants were illiterate, weak, unskilled, and could not speak English. They were willing to take any jobs that came their way, inconsiderate of wages and working conditions (Guscuite, 2020). Men worked in farms, ship harbors, stables, and cleaning streets, whereas women worked as servants and in the textile industry. The streets were also bursting with children begging and drunk Irish men. Local U.S residents, especially African Americans, did not like the Irish since they competed for the same jobs (Fouka et al., 2021). Immigrants were often mistreated because they were assumed to be taking away resources: by comparison, the largest population growth was in Boston.

Religious prejudice against the Irish people was also rampant. Most of them, if not all, were catholic, and the protestant Americans were threatened by their religious dominance. Immigrants were adept followers of the Catholic Church with high regard for their priests, making the press refer to them as ‘aliens’ (Allen, 2018). They were discriminated against from job opportunities and housing with many announcement posters summing up with phrases such as “No Irish need apply.” Due to discrimination, the Irish immigrants were confined in “ghettos” to carry out their religious activities. With the ballooning population of Irish immigrants in the U.S streets, the residents were concerned about their dominance and discriminated against them.

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The Irish immigrant’s extended stay in America influenced American society’s social, political, and economic aspects. Catholicism spread rapidly to become one of the most extensive dominions in the U.S. Americans started attending the Irish catholic churches, and more catholic parishes spread throughout America (Collins et al., 2019). The churches began to build schools for the Irish children and participate in charity activities. The catholic schools were accommodative to all children and spread throughout America. The Irish secured jobs and organized trade unions to champion workers’ rights with rapid American industrialization. With the support of Catholic schools, literacy levels among the Irish immigrants developed, helping them secure high-skill jobs. Catholic schools significantly contribute to the U.S education system (Fouka et al., 2021). The Irish gradually influenced the American political facet, and the majority joined the Democrats. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, an heir of Irish immigrants, was elected as president to the U.S in 1960.

The Irish faced discrimination for many reasons but still greatly influenced the development of America’s civil and cultural order. Due to the support of the Democratic Party, the Irish gained jobs and later served in the Army of the North in the Civil War. Although support did not come from all immigrants, they gained support and contributed to the development of labor unions and education after the war. For example, the Knights of Labor, led by Powderly, became one of the largest unions to fight for workers’ rights. The Irish influenced today’s America by changing their moral ideas about family support and collectivism. They also contributed to literature and the arts and reflected this in family, peace, and labor.

Irish immigration has dramatically influenced the historical and cultural evaluation of events in America. Through the example of the Irish, I see how people were able to fight for their freedom and rights. The detailed historical analysis allowed me to look at immigration as a natural part of globalization rather than from the side of an oppressed America. A critical look at these events will enable me to explore how the Irish immigrant cultures have influenced American customs and values such as openness and meritocracy.


Allen, K. (2018). Neither Boston nor Berlin: class polarisation and neo-liberalism in the Irish Republic. In The end of Irish history? (pp. 56-73). Manchester University Press. Web.

Collins, W. J., & Zimran, A. (2019). The economic assimilation of Irish Famine migrants to the United States. Explorations in Economic History, 74, 101302. Web.

Fouka, V., Mazumder, S., & Tabellini, M. (2021). From immigrants to Americans: Race and assimilation during the Great Migration. Harvard Business School BGIE Unit Working Paper, (19-018). Web.

Gusciute, E. (2020). All Welcome Here? Studies on Anti-Immigration Attitudes and Discriminatory Behaviour towards Ethnic Minorities in Irish and European Contexts (Doctoral dissertation, Trinity College). Web.

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Statistica. (2021). St. Patrick’s Day 2021: 30 Million Americans claim Irish ancestry. Statistica, Web.

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