People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Irish Americans Part 1

About the Irish Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Irish-Americans and more.


Where They Came From: The first Irish immigrants came from the six predominantly Protestant counties of Ulster, in the northeast corner of Ireland, in the half-century before the American Revolution. While many immigrants continued to arrive from Ulster, the vast influx of Irish that began in the 1830s and continued unabated through the rest of the 19th century came from the Catholic south and west of Ireland. Between 1850 and 1900, almost half of all Irish immigrants came from the poor agricultural counties of Mayo, Galway, Limerick, Kerry, Cork, and Tipperary.

Why They Left: The last vestige of Irish independence faded when a Protestant was restored to the English throne in 1689. The mass of devoutly Catholic peasantry became virtual serfs to English Protestant landlords, and deliberately repressive acts prohibited all but a few Catholics from attaining education, influence, or wealth. Catholics could not vote or hold elective office, and political agitation for Irish freedom was brutally suppressed.

By 1840, with a population of about 16 million (twice the island's 1978 population), Ireland was the most overcrowded country in Europe. From the start of the 19th century, competition for land was fierce, and the Protestant landlords commonly charged exorbitant rents that at best destroyed the initiative, and at worst destroyed the livelihood, of tenant farmers who had tilled the land for generations. Later the majority of landlords evicted their tenants wholesale, creating a flood of hungry squatters and vagrants across the land.

Beginning in 1845, and for three years thereafter, a potato blight devastated Ireland's primary food crop. The peasants' hunger turned to famine and, already ill fed, ill clothed, and ill housed, they fell prey to epidemic fevers that killed more than 1 million people; outright starvation killed hundreds of thousands more. During the 1840s, Irish fleeing starvation accounted for at least 45% of the total immigration to America.

Where They Settled: Before 1800, more than half the Irish in the U.S. lived south of the Mason-Dixon line. However, beginning in the 1830s, the Irish settled primarily in the North-east, where their cheap labor helped turn a predominantly agricultural economy into an industrial one. By 1870 fully half of the nearly 2 million Irish-born Americans lived in the three states of New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania; most of the rest lived in cities east of Chicago and north of Baltimore. By the end of the 19th century, more than one fourth of the populations of New York and Boston were Irish-born or of Irish extraction, and the Irish comprised more than 10% of the populations of 20 other northern cities. Relatively few Irish moved west, partly due to their poverty when they arrived in America, and partly because of their previous difficulties with farming and the social attractions of the cities.

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