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7 Historical Facts About The Irish In America

By Underwood & Underwood - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division - Public Domain,

Because the Irish-Americans have become so much a part of American society, we barely think of them as immigrants anymore. The Irish are the success story of immigration and assimilation in America. But what exactly contributed to their rise and assimilation into American culture? Keep reading for 7 facts about the Irish in America you might not know!

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The Irish Arrived Earlier than 1845

Most people think that the Irish only came over after the famine, but that’s not the case. There were waves of Irish immigration that started before American Independence. Irishmen even signed the US Declaration of Independence!

The very earliest Irish settlers who came to America were seeking a better life for themselves. Some were indentured servants, but many were merchants striking out in the colonies. However, aside from the odd adventurer, Irish settlers were not common until the first major wave of Ulster or Scots-Irish who came in the 17th century.

Not All Irish Immigrant Waves Were Catholics

Though we associate the Irish with catholicism, the first Irish who came to America weren’t all Catholics. In fact, the first major wave of Irish coming to America were the Protestants. They had Scottish Presbyterian roots and were called Scots-Irish by the Americans.

The Great Famine Caused A Massive Influx Of Refugees

In 1845, the potato crop rotted in the fields of Ireland. The Great Famine was one of the greatest tragedies of the 19th century.

Because of the Great Famine, millions fled Ireland looking for a new life in the US and Canada. This is where the influx of Irish people came from in the middle of the 1800s.

This wave of immigrants did not find a sympathetic community waiting for them. Many Irish who came before the so-called famine Irish wanted to distinguish themselves from this second wave.

The Irish Were Discriminated Against

In the late 1800s, the Irish were pronounced to be a different, inferior race compared to “good protestant stock”. Because they were supposedly inferior, they were passed over for jobs. The dreaded words “No Irish Need Apply” kept Irish people down, and only the hardest, lowest-paying jobs were available to them.

Nowadays, it seems ridiculous, but this is how the Irish Catholics were seen when they first started to live and work in the US. How did the Irish come to gain acceptance among Americans? Mostly fighting alongside them in the civil war or police force and working for infrastructure projects.

The Irish Built The Erie Canal

Most of those who came over from the Great Famine had very little when they came to America, but they were ready to work. Many of them took the first jobs they could find off the boat, and more often than not, the work they could find was as laborers.

Much like every wave of immigration to the United States, the Irish have contributed their part to the skyline of progress. The Erie Canal, a major waterway in American commerce, was built by the Irish who were new to America.

Many Irish Went Out West

We think of them as mostly city-dwellers, but many Irish immigrants went out west. Instead of trying to make it in big cities, they went out with the railroad and built the great cities of the west. Kansas City and many other settlements in Western states were much more open to the Irish settlers.

The Kennedys Were Built On An Irish Foundation

The Irish that stayed voted in Irish leaders like the Kennedys. This prominent family broke into politics quite easily – Joe Kennedy was even the ambassador to England during World War II. But it was his son who would shine the brightest.

There is no undercutting the importance of JFK to the Irish community. He proved that, despite being only a generation away from discrimination, there could be an Irish president.

Closing Thoughts

The Irish are a success story when it comes to immigration in America. These days, Irish-Americans hold positions of power, and the Irish have melted into the middle-class of America.

A lot of immigration stories follow the trajectory of the Irish. At first, there was resistance, but little by little, they were assimilated into the larger melting pot of America. We have so much to learn from the stories of those who came before us! By looking back, we can imagine a brighter, more inclusive future.