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American Immigration Law Center

The Story of Irish Immigration

March 7 - May 24, 2002

Irish Immigrant

For over three centuries, immigration has been a common solution to the problems of hunger, lack of economic and social opportunities, and political and religious repression in Ireland. Exhibits such as this one have been a silent witness to the painful decision to leave home. It is here that the story of Irish in America begins. The following images tell the story of how and why so many of Ireland's own have chosen to come to America.

Although this exhibition tells the story of the Irish in America, with few changes, it could tell the story of almost any immigrant. It is the story of leaving home and family to build a new life in a new place. It is a testament of courage to those who faced the unknown and conquered fear and discrimination to become Americans.

Conditions in Ireland

Although no one can say that conditions in Ireland have remained constant in 300 years of Irish immigration to America, there are certain trends that recur through most of that history. One such trend is poverty. Lack of raw materials, investment capital, and a skilled labor force caused Ireland to depend almost exclusively on agriculture. The production of export crops and livestock for the English colonial market created a large number of "cottiers" or landless poor. Crop failures, the most famous being the potato famines of the 1840s, were a result of land use policies and were surprisingly common due to Ireland's rainy climate. The combination of political suppression, lack of industry and repeated famines made life in Ireland very difficult for many people.

The confiscation of land by the English, and the enactment of penal codes which banned Catholics from land purchase and regulated inheritance, meant that by 1750 only five percent of Irish land was owned by the Catholic majority. These landlords used eviction to improve their lands, increase pasture size and to punish their tenants for political activity. It was often the case that Catholic farmers would be evicted from lands that had once been owned by their ancestors. Evictions, which continued late into the 19th century, worsened the general conditions in Ireland, leaving increasing numbers of people homeless. This contributed greatly to the numbers of people who immigrated to America. Potato Harvest

In the decade between 1845 and 1855, 1.8 million Irish people, mostly poor illiterate Gaelic-speaking Catholic farmers and laborers left Ireland for Eastern Canada and the United States. Most of these immigrants were forced to leave by "The Famine", a period of unbelievable hardship between 1845 and 1849 caused by a five year long potato blight that destroyed the main subsistence crop of the poor farmers. At least one million people in Ireland died of starvation, malnutrition, typhus, dysentery and cholera.

Landlord and local government-assisted immigration plans often consisted of transporting starving and diseased immigrants on overcrowded ships without settlement plans, in effect simply dumping groups of refugees in Canada and the United States. Many families scraped together enough money to send one member abroad; should this person survive, he or she would then dispatch money or passage tickets to those left behind.

The Promise

While poverty, religious persecution, political and social upheaval, and a depressed economy forced immigration on many, the vision of available opportunities in America certainly was an added factor. The need for labor in America, with the expansion of the American farming frontier, the construction of canals, roads, cities, and the growing industries of the nation prompted industries to actively recruit laborers in Ireland.

Not to be ignored was the influence of letters sent home by immigrants encouraging family and friends to follow them. These letters were not always glowing accounts of life in America. They were often honest accounts of the problems encountered in America, but for the most part provided encouragement to the hardworking and ambitious potential immigrant. A.A. Ireland Bank

In the post famine years, approximately 3.5 million people immigrated from Ireland to the United States. The great majority were single men and women aged 15-24, sons and daughters of small farmers and laborers, traveling alone and seeking employment and marital opportunities overseas. Although increasingly literate, most were unskilled and hoped to find work as laborers or domestic servants.

The Irish economy could not support most of Ireland's young people, who had come to expect more than grinding poverty. Immigration became a "normal," pervasive feature of Irish life. In the countryside Irish landlords shifted from the production of tillage crops to cattle grazing, which sharply reduced employment for rural laborers. By now "famine" immigrants had established themselves in America forming religious, political, and social institutions and networks, which were to attract and embrace later immigrants.

Putting Down Roots

Although many people who left Ireland looked forward to their new lives and opportunities, it was not without regret and sadness that people left their homes. Immigrants often felt that their landlords and the English were driving them from their homes. This attitude can be seen in many forms, from popular broadside ballads to images in the popular press. It also contributed to the natural bond between Irish immigrants once they landed in their new country.

Payment for the passage to America was made in several ways. The most popular was through remittances, or money orders, sent by family members who had immigrated earlier. Early immigrants to America commonly signed indenture contracts and traded their future labor for passage. During the famine years there were many sponsored immigrants, people who were sent, often on overcrowded ships, to Canada and the United States by their landlords or local governments. Otherwise immigrants and their families assembled enough money to pay for one passage and hoped to send for loved ones once they were settled.

Whether their voyages were difficult or not, most immigrants were eager to set foot on the shores of their new country. For those who arrived prior to the late 1840s, however, there were few government or philanthropic organizations set up to ease their arrivals or protect them from the many frauds designed by the tricksters and thieves who targeted new immigrants.

During the Great Famine and its immediate aftermath, many states passed laws and constructed immigrant depots to cope with the influx of sick and destitute immigrants. None, however, provided adequate care, and the quarantine hospitals were soon overwhelmed by the sick and dying. It was not until the very end of the 19th century that the United States government took full responsibility for immigrants at Ellis Island.

Irish Settlement

After arriving in America, immigrants began the search for homes and a livelihood, settling all over the United States and lending a distinctly Irish flavor to the communities they joined and founded. The earliest Irish immigrants became pioneers of the colonial frontier. The majority of Irish Catholics that immigrated traditionally settled in the coastal cities and the river towns. Called to these areas by the prospect of employment, the influx of immigrants eventually led to the development of Irish-American neighborhoods that provided the social and religious organizations that have continued to pass down Irish traditions to this day.

American Farming

Settlement and finding a place in America was not easy for immigrants in the 1800s. They brought with them a strong heritage of culture and experience to a nation struggling with dynamic labor and class problems. Because the majority of Irish immigrants during the 19th century were poor and unskilled they faced the same problems of poverty and discrimination when they arrived in the United States as they had faced in Ireland.

The struggle for equality and a better way of life in America, combined with the many shared hardships in Ireland, have contributed to the Irish community's sense of self and promoted the formation of social groups and religious organizations. Like many other groups of people who have found themselves outside of the mainstream of American culture, the Irish have made great strides in contributing to many aspects of our society such as entertainment, sports, the military, and politics as their steps to obtaining equality and taking their place in American society. The Irish immigrants and their descendants like most or the ethnic groups that have settled in the United States have profoundly held on to their history while helping to build their new country.

Exhibit courtesy of the Irish-American Heritage Museum

All webpage photos courtesy of the Library of Congress