Irish Immigration to the United States during the Great Potato Famine

Posted: September 27, 2016

Introduction

History of the Irish immigration to the United States is rich and can be divided into several important periods. More than 1, 5 million Irish immigrants, among whom there were a lot children, left the country for America in 1845 – 1855.  There were numerous reasons for such influx, among which the desperate poverty of the most Irish and severe diseases, from which they suffered.  One of the most widely spread reasons was the so-called Potato Famine, that became the cause of death of  more than 1 million people. Those immigrants, who have left Ireland, settled predominantly in big cities, such as Boston and New York, but the conditions of their living were awful.  However, most immigrants managed to assimilate and survive, so their descendants have become a vibrant part of American culture. Thesis: the reasons for the Irish immigration were numerous: famine, poverty and diseases. Although being faced with  extreme poverty, hostility and hatred by the American nativists and opponents of the catholic religion, Irish immigrants overcame the obstacles and prevailed.

Negative Reaction of Native Americans

The presence of the Irish immigrants in America resulted in a strong and negative reaction from the side of the native-born Americans, nativists. They criticized the Irish for their antisocial behavior, poverty, poor manners, negative impact on the American economy, and Catholicism, which was their major religion. However, even being negatively accepted by most part of the American population, by the early 20th century, the Irish had finally assimilated in the USA and managed to create their cultural environment.

Each legal immigrant, who subscribes to the US Constitution has the right to become the U.S. citizen. Despite this right, white immigrants faced with some obstacles, trying to get the right of citizenship. Although the nativist hostility was quite strong, the Irish rarely faced with racism compared with the African Americans and Asians, who were restricted in their rights to get citizenship or even excluded from it. Catholic religion was the major advantage of the immigrants in the country, as it helped them in pursuing political opportunities. With the help of considerable support of the catholic church, the Irish managed to move progressively upward in American society.

Early Struggles of the Irish in America

The Irish immigrants, who were forced to leave for the US, gone by the severe and most cruel famine in Ireland, comprised the most disadvantaged part of the population of the United States. They inhabited different districts, predominantly those, where they could find jobs. The poorest immigrants inhabited the Five Points district of lower Manhattan. Many Irish, who managed to escape famine, lost a lot of their relatives, died from starvation. Therefore, in order to survive, they were ready to face with any challenges, but remain in America. They were ready to live in awful conditions so they inhabited the poorest and shabbiest districts.

Those immigrants, who tried to find work in the U.S. faced with certain difficulties as well. Most Irish immigrants were unskilled and were ready to work for low salary; therefore, they were used as supernumerary labor power. American workers were not pleased with the competition from the Irish side, as they worried that their own wages would be reduced, because of the cheap labor, represented by the Irish workers. Americans were afraid that the Irish would advance and assimilate into American culture and society and would become the major cheap labor power, breaking the main principle of XIX-th-century American life, stating that to upward social mobility with the help of hard work. However, irish immigrants were in demand in mines and on the wheat fields, because American farmers swaw the cheap labor power in them  that would have help solve the problem of labor shortage in high season.

Religion was the other stepping stone for the Irish immigrants in America. Was it possible for Americans to accept new religion? Why did Irish Catholic immigrants prefer attending private separate parochial schools rather than sending their children to free public schools? The major reason for this tendency was the domination of the evangelical Protestants in the public school boards. They did not see any opportunities for their children to cultivate Catholicism in America in the public schools. As a result, the tension between Americans and Irish immigrants, because of religion, reached at peak in the beginning of the 1830’s. American nativists started attacking Irish immigrants because of Catholicism. In 1834, the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts was burnt down by the cruel crowd of Americans-nativists. In 1836, the famous work Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk was published in New York. In this book, they described the events, witnessed by the emotionally unstable woman, Monk, who stated to have seen wickedness and infanticide when she was staying in the Catholic convent. It is one of the examples of the presence of the anti-Catholic discrimination of the Irish. The reason for this was the dispute over the dilemma, whether schools should teach Catholic or Protestant Bible.

Irish labor Force in the United States

Following the Civil War, the laborers from Ireland, comprised the power, able to provide the backbreaking work, which rapidly industrializing America required due to its rapid expansion and development. The Irish workers were used as a major labor power in the construction of factories and railroads in the West. Furthermore, their labor was actively used in the mines of Virginia and Montana. They occupied different positions, sometimes, were underpaid, however, this did not prevent them from putting down roots in America and becoming the minority, equal in rights with Americans. As for the professions acquired by the Irish, they served as carpenter's assistants, miners, builders, which were low-paid positions since the amount of low-skilled and uneducated immigrants who took these positions was high. During the period, when the government did not place any restrictions on American capitalism, the Irish managed to organize the first trade unions, which served to protect their rights and create better working conditions.

Issues Faced by the Irish in the USA

Many Irish immigrants, who settled in the United States were the victims of the Irish stereotypes, that have been brought from Britain. This was the real obstacle for those immigrants, who tried to find jobs, as many were denied because of the Irish origin and religious preference. Discriminatory stereotypes of the Irish were imported from Britain and were presented in many forms. Cartoons depicted the Irish as cruel, simian, belligerent, and always drunk tramps, who could do nothing, except drinking and debauching. Because of the limited employment opportunities, many Irish stood on the path of crime and alcoholism, thus, only exacerbating the public opinion about them as troublemakers and public menaces. Unfortunately, discrimination has played a negative role in the lives of many Irish. It was limiting economic and social opportunities of immigrants, depriving them of the normal way of living. In the environment of the Protestant country, the Roman Catholic Irish were hated. Americans treated them with prejudice and aimed at curbing immigration and limiting the spread of Roman Catholicism.

Many Irish immigrants were serving in the army after the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. Nevertheless, because of their weak and unstable social position, many of the Irish soldiers became the targets of military conscription. Fearing discrimination and abuse, the Irish tried to unite their efforts in the construction of churches, private schools, and universities for their children, where, as they thought, they could feel comfortable. Catholicism, which was a minor religion in America before the arrival of the Irish, however, with the development of the Irish culture, it has become the largest single denomination.  

The Power of Assimilation of the Irish Working Class

Irish immigrants, as cheap labor power, were the major competitors of the Americans, who feared that Irish might have substituted them and occupy all possible positions, where cheap labor is required. Being marginalized by a hostile culture and environment, the Irish realized that their only weapon was citizenship and their vote, so they were trying to make a valuable contribution to their community. The Irish realized the reason of the ward politics effectiveness. They started from the minor and finished by occupying high positions in local governments. As for the jobs, the Irish were ready to take any job, which would help them survive in the hostile country; however, the preference was given civil service positions, as they offered security. Despite prejudice and constant cases of abuse of the Irish, they did not give up and soon they dominated Massachusetts politics. Nowadays,  the Irish are the valued members of American society and represent different professions. Moreover, they are the most numerous ethnic group in America.

Irish-American Identity

Disproving any claims related to divided loyalty, Irish immigrants did their best to prove they deserve the right and have an ability to become good Americans. Because the Irish spoke English and were the first Catholics, who have arrived in the United States, they managed to take control of the American Catholic Church successfully and very quickly. The Irish-American identity has started enlarging in the country, where Catholicism became the only important ingredient. Despite the success of the Irish immigrants in America, the development of Anti-Catholicism remained the issue of American culture; however, the things changed in 1960, after the election of John F. Kennedy. In addition, the Irish candidates dominated in big American cities, such as New York, Boston, and Chicago, where they headed the local Democratic Party. The beginning of the 1920s marked their presence in the national politics, when Al Smith became the first Catholic candidate for presidency.

Impact of the Irish Immigration on Life of the Irish at Present

The era of industrialization has passed and many things have changed, having left their traces in the history of America and Ireland. Irish potato famine made thousands of Irish leave their home and come to America in search for a better destiny. Their life in a hostile country was not simple and they were always met with hostility and aggression, however, it did not prevent Irish immigrants from becoming good Americans without losing their religious and cultural heritage. They proved that their power of unity and hard work are able to change the hostile attitude of the industrial America. Irish immigrants, whose major strengths were labor and religion, demonstrated that assimilation was a complex process, in which immigrants had to follow Anglo-Protestant culture while neglecting their own traditions and religion. having become real Americans, the Irish managed to increase respect to their culture, religion and identity all over the country. They also assisted in laying the basis for the present day cultural diversity in the USA.

Today, the Irish is flourishing ethnic group in America, which goes beyond national norms on education levels, professional status, level of income, and property ownership. Together with their stable moving up the social mobility, started from the period of their arrival in the USA, the American Irish managed to make huge progress in their development and leave their urban settlements of the Northeast and Midwest for the modern and fashionable suburbs and cities of the country.  Because of such progress and stable development, the sense of communal identity and a feeling of unity have been increased. Modern Americans of Irish origin have a strong sense of ethnic superiority, particularly political and cultural spheres. Nowadays, living in America, after having conquered this country, that used to be hostile, they are sure that being Irish-American means being part of a national story of success.

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