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Waves of Irish Immigration

Irish Immigration to the United States

When were the major waves of immigrants from the Ireland to the United States?

  • Throughout the first half of the 19th century, Irish immigrants were mostly Protestant and middle class tradesmen. There was also a significant minority of lower class Catholics that arrived to escape the dire socioeconomic conditions of Ireland.
  • The Potato Famine of 1845-1851 caused many of the lower class Catholics of Ireland to immigrate. Huge influxes of Irish migrants, totaling around 1.7 million, immigrated from 1845 untill 1860.
  • Irish immigration slowly declined during the late 19th century, and has been up and down throughout the 20th century.

From which regions of Ireland did they leave?

  •  Early Protestant immigrants migrated mainly from the northern provinces of Ireland.
  • Later Catholic immigrants came from the Southern provinces; examples include the counties of Connaught and Munster.

Push Factors

  • Early immigrants, of the middle class Protestant variety, immigrated for opportunity as tradesmen in the United States.
  • The lower class Catholic immigrants immigrated to escape the pervasive economic hardship of Ireland. This was exacerbated by the Irish potato famine, in which almost 1.5 million Irish men and women died of starvation or disease.

 Pull Factors

  • Early Protestant immigrants were drawn to the overwhelming Protestant majority of the United States.
  • Catholic unskilled laborers found thriving American urban centers as a destination for their work. The textile and construction industries were specifically targeted for their high demand for unskilled workers.

Where did they settle, and why?

  • Most Irish immigrants settled in urban areas, whether they were the earlier Protestant or later Catholic newcomers.
  • Destinations were primarily in the Northeast, such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Later, some settled as far as Chicago, New Orleans or San Francisco.


  •  The unskilled Catholic workers of the early 19th century took up many different occupations: mining, canal and railroad construction, port working, textile mills, etc.
  • After the Civil War, many of these workers moved up to more skilled positions as managers in their previous industries, along with police officers, post-office workers, and other civil servant jobs.
  • The Irish continued to move up the occupational ladder throughout the 20th century, and are now immersed in almost every industry in America.
  • The Irish played a prominent role in the labor movement and in early trade unions.

Stereotypes, Discrimination, and Other Struggles

  • Discrimination was prevalent for early Irish immigrants, almost exclusively centered on the later unskilled Catholic laborers.
  • Much discrimination was religious, as America was a predominantly Protestant country throughout the 19th century and Catholics were looked down upon.
  • The Irish were often portrayed as small pugnacious drunkards, and gave way to the terms “paddy-wagons”, “shenanigans” and “shanty Irish”.
  • While these stereotypes have been overcome, there still exists sentiment that the Irish are close-minded, uneducated and fond of “hitting the bottle”.
  • These presumptions are false, as many studies have shown that the Irish are among the most educated and most liberal demographics in the country.



  • The assimilation of Irish immigrants has been easier than most immigrants, due mostly to their ability to speak English and the similarities between Western European and American culture.
  • While many hurtful stereotypes of Irish immigrants did exist throughout the 19th century, the Irish have overcome these and are now a proud part of American heritage.
  • Some say that the Irish can owe part of their acceptance into the American mainstream to the Civil War, where they became renowned for their bravery and intense patriotism.



Contributions to the United States

  • Irish Americans have played a leading role in the labor and equality movement, and they include a founder of the American Federation of Labor, Peter James McGuire (known as the “Father of Labor Day”, and a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
  • They have also had a leading role in the arts. Examples include Mathew Brady, the trailblazing war photographer, the artist Georgia O’Keefe, novelists Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William F. Buckley.
  • Irish Americans also include William Russell and Henry Ford, the founders of the Pony Express and Ford Motor Company, respectively.
  • Irish Americans in the entertainment industry include John Wayne and Jack Nicholson.
  • Two of the most influential Supreme Court Justices in recent years have been Irish: Sandra Day O’ Connor and William G. Brennan.
  • By far, the most celebrated and beloved Irish American sports figure has been George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

Interesting Facts about Irish Immigration

  • The Irish fiddle has become an important influence on contemporary American country and folk music.

Comparisons to Today's Immigration Debate

  •  Irish immigrants were mainly unskilled workers who lived in large urban areas and were discriminated under false prejudices that they were small and lazy drunkards who stole jobs from Protestant Americans.

Resources Used for this Report
Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America, 2nd edition.  Edited by Jeffrey Lehman.  New York: Gale Group, 2000.