Irish Migration to North America - From the 1810s until the 1850s

Before the Irish became White

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0




The Pre-Famine Period
Ireland before the Great Famine
Pre-Famine immigration to America

The Famine Years
The Great Famine in Ireland
Immigration to America during the Famine Years
Irish Immigrants in America between 1845 and the late 1850s




Irish immigration to the New World has dominated or at least widely coined migrational movements throughout the nineteenth century. More than two million people left Ireland for America in the period between the 1810s and the 1860s, outnumbering any other nationality as source of immigration to America. Clinging to their dearly loved Erin many Irish did not want to leave their homes but were compelled to depart in droves for several political, religious, and above all economic reasons. As Ronald Takaki has written “feeling like the ‘children of Israel,’ the Irish viewed themselves as a people driven from their beloved homeland by ‘English tyranny,’ the British ‘yoke’ ‘enslaving’ Ireland” (Takaki, 140). Mass movement to America was artificially generated, he goes on to argue, since economic deterioration and poverty, which eventually pushed millions of Irish out of their homes, had been the results of “foul British laws” and the colonial policies made by the “cursed intruders” of Ireland (Takaki, 140).

The aim of this paper is to illustrate Irish immigration, primarily that of Catholic Irish, to America between the late 1810s and the late 1850s; from the end of the British-American War until the eve of Civil War. The circumstances and reasons that stimulated emigration from Ireland are to be considered in this paper as well as the development of an Irish-American culture in the roughly fifty years comprising this period. Furthermore, the interaction between Irish immigrants and native-stock Americans is outlined in order to delineate the conditions Irish found in America. The period between the late 1810s and the late 1850s can be approximately divided into two stages: first, the era of pre-Famine migration which took place between the late 1810s and the first half of the 1840s. The second period comprises the decade of the Great Famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1855 which compelled unprecedented numbers of impoverished peasants to leave the island.1 The regional focus of this paper lies primarily on the cities in the industrial areas in the northeast of America where most of the immigrants arrived. In cities like New York or Boston the impact of Irish immigration to the New World can easily be seen; the steady influx of Irish newcomers made the effects of massive immigration on the society visible.

To give a broad overview over Irish life in Ireland and America at that time, it is necessary to elucidate the circumstances that forced huge parts of the Irish population to abandon the island. Illustrating settlement patterns and living conditions of Irish newcomers to America is equally essential to evaluate Irish life in the New World as looking at occupational structures, the economic situation of the Irish, or the response of native-stock Americans to the strangers. What problems occurred in the course of the years and how did both sides react to the steady influx of Irish immigrants are further questions important to give a detailed impression of the Irish in nineteenth century America.

Since the accessible literature on that specific topic is fairly limited, the discussion of the above mentioned questions mainly follows the views of Kirby A. Miller and Timothy Meagher. With Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, published in 1985, Miller issued the most fundamental work on that topic providing indispensable reference for innumerable scholars dealing with the history of Irish immigration to America from colonial times until the 1920s. Timothy Meagher’s The Columbia Guide to Irish American History and J.J. Lee’s and Marion R. Casey’s Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States published in 2005 and 2006, respectively, are two of the most previously released books focusing on Irish American history until today. Those volumes not only provide a comprehensive overview over Irish immigration to America until the present day, they also offer extensive information about the development of Irish culture in the New World. The more general works on migration and ethnicity written by Ronald Takaki (A Different Mirror, A History of Multicultural America) and Thomas Sowell (Ethnic America) were highly relevant to give a first insight into the subject.

The Pre-Famine Period

The period of the pre-Famine migration from Ireland to America encompasses the thirty years following the end of the British-American War in 1815, and the beginning of the Great Famine in Ireland in 1845. This first era of mass-migration of Irish to America not only brought a shift in the composition of the immigrants in terms of class, gender balance or place of origin, but also the religious makeup of the immigrants altered dramatically (Miller 193). From the very beginning of Irish immigration to North America in the colonial era until the beginning of the pre- Famine migration, Protestant (predominantly Presbyterian) Scots-Irish from the county of Ulster in Northern Ireland had dominated Irish immigration to the New World. In the decade after the end of the British-American War, changes in the social and the political context in both Ireland and America created a situation in which Catholic Irish immigrants from the South and the West began to outnumber Irish Protestants as main immigrant group in America (Meagher 53).

The intense migration to America commencing in the years following the British- American War reflected “the ease of movement” that the peace between America and Great Britain permitted. Whereas in the three decades following the American Revolution only about 100,000 Irish immigrated to America2, between 800,000 and one million men and women left Ireland for North America in the thirty years prior to the Great Famine (Meagher 53). Because British passenger legislation kept ticket

prices to the United States high, passage to Canada on trade ships was relatively cheap and therefore offered a good alternative to traveling directly to America. About half a million Irish went to Canadian ports between 1815 and 1845, but estimates suggest that only one third stayed in Canada during that time. Most of the Irish arriving in Canada boarded small vessels to go south to America; some of the Irish immigrants, however, had to walk the distance because they lacked the money for the transfer (Meagher 53)3. Repeals of British passenger legislation in the late 1820s and the emergence of the New York-Liverpool route as the main trading axis between America and Great Britain enabled more and more migrants to ship directly from Liverpool to American ports. In 1834, nearly 80 percent of all Irish emigrants left for the United States from Liverpool (Meagher 44, 52f).

Ireland before the Great Famine

The reasons for Catholic Irish peasants to emigrate in the decades after the War of 1812 were plentiful: religious intolerance, demeaning social gradations, political oppression and the like. As Thomas Sowell illustrates, Irish peasants were legally free, but “they lived as a conquered people in their own land. British rulers controlled their political life, and British settlers dominated the agrarian economy, having confiscated most of the land and rented some of it back to Irish tenant farmers” (Sowell 19). But English oppressors did not only have economic interests in Ireland – they had a rather immense influence on the social and private life of their tenants as well. At times, Sowell goes on to argue, the power of the British landlords “had been so great that they could physically punish Irish peasants,” or “could even send for a peasant’s wife or daughter to spend the night with them” (Sowell 19). To underline the harsh conditions Irish peasants lived in, he points out that there were even debates about the question “whether there was more than a technical difference between slavery and the subjugation of the Irish peasant.” He answers the question by stating that “the severity of the oppression is indicated by the mere fact that such a question could be debated” (Sowell 19). “The Irish,” he describes the social status of the oppressed “were not simply a ‘lower class’ in the sense of being people with less wealth or education. Their position was more castelike [sic!], in the sense that no efforts […] would lift them to a plane of equality with others in the society” (Sowell 20). Living under such conditions could only have disastrous effects on the Irish psyche. Being deprived of fundamental rights and social equality, and suffering from reduced initiative “the ‘laziness’ or ‘improvidence’ of the Irish became a familiar refrain among contemporaries in Ireland – and later in America.” This trait was attributed to the Irish character and “was to have a continuing influence on the history of the Irish immigrants in America” (Sowell 21).

Suffering heavily from oppression and social gradation, the struggling economy at the end of the so called “Golden Age” of Irish agriculture still was the most compelling factor for Irish peasants to emigrate. After the wars, the demand for Irish agricultural goods had dropped dramatically and therefore prices began to fall. Landlords turned from the labor-intense growing of grain to the less labor-intense cattle trade. As a result, about 150,000 families were evicted from their tenant farms between 1839 and 1843 (Takaki 141). Since Ireland’s population had grown drastically to about eight million in the first half of the nineteenth century, making the island one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, the rural population of Ireland suffered more and more from poverty. The intensified industrial production of textiles in factories in Northern Ireland and England furthermore worsened the situation on the Irish labor market. It deprived men and women of the opportunity to earn money by producing raw materials for textiles at home (Meagher 54). To keep tenant farms as productive as possible, retiring peasants passed their patch of land on to only a single heir rather than dividing it up among all the children as it has been the custom. Being landless and having no chance for a permanent employment anywhere else, young Irish men had to find other means to support themselves whether it be at home or abroad. As a result, young unmarried Irish males left the country in droves and henceforth dominated migration to the New World. It was not only the “return of hard times” to Ireland that explains the volume of migration, as Meagher argues, but rather the fact that a growing number of Ireland’s rural population was increasingly reluctant "to simply hunker down and bear the hardships as their parents and grandparents had done” (Meagher 54)4. Not only did the dramatic change in material conditions force rural Irish to emigrate in masses – there were “also changes in attitudes and in the perceptions of the world and the opportunities it might offer” (Meagher 54f.)5.

Until the beginning of the pre-Famine migration, Catholics in the South and West of Ireland had been “locked into the tight communal and familial networks that had helped them endure their defeat and degradation” (Meagher, Irish , 280f.). Reluctant and even fearful to travel to distant and unknown countries like the U.S., Catholic peasants rather remained rooted in Ireland leaving the crossing of the Atlantic to the more confident and adventurous Irish Protestants. “Only as the spread of the market economy and accompanying English culture began to loosen some of those older communal bonds and the constraints of population pressure forced their flight did they begin to leave in great numbers. Catholics have dominated emigration from Ireland to America ever since” (Meagher, Irish , 281).


1 The migrational movement of the post-Famine era (from the aftermath of the Great Famine until the end of massive migration from Ireland to the U.S in the 1890s) is not considered in this paper since it mainly occurred after the Civil War.

2 Numbers concerning the total immigration to the United States vary greatly since there are no official records for that period. Official counts of immigrants to America only began in 1820.

3 Cf. also Miller, Kirby, Emigrants and Exiles. Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) 193f.

4 Cf. also Takaki, Ronald, A Different Mirror. A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993) 143.

5 Cf. also Barone, Michael, The New Americans. How the Melting Pot Can Work Again (Washington D.C.: Regnary Publishing, 2001) 24-26.

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Irish Migration to North America - From the 1810s until the 1850s
Before the Irish became White
Dresden Technical University  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Multicultural America
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ISBN (Book)
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Irish, Migration, North, America, From, Multicultural, America
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Thomas Eschner (Author), 2006, Irish Migration to North America - From the 1810s until the 1850s, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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