Irish Immigration: Beyond the Potato Famine
How do shifts in population change a place?
Ireland sent immigrants to the American colonies early in their settlement. Charles Carroll was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In the 1840s, the Irish potato sent waves of migrants who could afford passage fleeing starvation in the countryside. The Irish made up one half of all migrants to the country during the 1840s. From 1820 to the start of the Civil War, they constituted one third of all immigrants. Early in the century, the majority of Irish immigrants were single men. After the 1840s, the pattern shifted to families as a few family members came first and earned money to bring relatives later in a process known as chain migration. In later years, women provided the majority of new arrivals.
Irish Immigrants in America
So harsh were conditions in Ireland that the nation's population decreased substantially through the 19th century. From 8.2 million in 1841, the population dropped to 6.6 million in only ten years and to 4.7 million in 1891. From 1841 to World War II, some estimates conclude that 4.5 million Irish came to the United States.
While not all Irish migrants were poor, most were. Many did not have money to move beyond the eastern port where they landed, and their numbers soon swelled cities like New York and Boston. Many found the adjustments from their rural backgrounds to the impersonal urban environments very difficult. They crowded into low-cost housing creating problems for schools, disease and sanitation. Men took whatever jobs they could find, usually at very low pay, while women became domestic workers or other low paying jobs. Often they found themselves competing for jobs with African Americans for work that was the hardest, most dangerous and lowest paying. Employers used the Irish, as well as other newly-arrived immigrants and African Americans, to threaten replacement of workers if they advocated for better working conditions, which created ethnic tensions that sometimes broke out into violence.
In addition to economic pressures, the Irish also faced religious discrimination. Centuries of conflicts between Protestants and Catholics followed immigrants to the United States, and the Irish Catholic faced hostility from the longer-settled Protestants who feared that the growing numbers of Irish would translate into political power. And it did. As politicians learned to court Irish voters, urban political machines rewarded their supporters with public jobs like policemen, firemen, sanitation workers and road crews. Protestant groups gravitated toward the Republican Party that sometimes promoted discriminatory laws like voting restrictions or the prohibition of the sale and use of alcohol. In response, Catholic immigrants like the Irish became the heart of the Democratic Party in many Northern states.
The Irish in Iowa
In Iowa, the Irish were the second largest immigrant group, topped only by the Germans. They settled in large numbers in the Mississippi River towns like Dubuque and Davenport. The Catholic bishop in Dubuque encouraged Irish and German Catholic immigration to Iowa and directed new arrivals to communities in northeast Iowa where they could be served by Catholic priests. Within the church itself, there was often competition to bring an Irish or German priest to serve the congregation. The railroads needed manual laborers and recruited the Irish to lay the rails and maintain the trains in roundhouses, bringing workers to small towns. The Irish also settled together in towns like Emmetsburg and in rural neighborhoods. They often supported private schools so that they could teach their children in a Catholic environment.
During World War I, German-Americans were often the targets of abuse or discrimination. The Irish came under some pressures, too. They resented the centuries of domination by Great Britain, a U.S. ally. In the 1920s, Protestant-Catholic tensions produced a revival of the Ku Klux Klan to "protect American values" against the rise of "foreign threats" like the Irish and other immigrants, but the organization lost steam by the end of the decade. World War II did much to quiet ethnic tensions at home as America united to fight Germany and Japan.
What factors led to migration from Ireland to North America?
- "Cause of the Non-Commencement of the Rebellion in Ireland," November 15, 1848 (Document)
- "The Irish Mother," April 19, 1849 (Document)
- "Poor Ireland," June 21, 1849 (Document)
- "Curious Facts," May 9, 1851 (Document)
- Chapter XIX from "A History of the Irish Settlers in North America from the Earliest Period to the Census of 1850," 1852 (Document)
- "Emigrants leaving Queenstown [Ireland] for New York," 1874 (Image)
How did the migration of Irish people impact the United States and Ireland?
- "Ireland," November 27, 1851 (Document)
- Chapter XXV from "A History of the Irish Settlers in North America from the Earliest Period to the Census of 1850," 1852 (Document)
- "The Foreign Element," February 8, 1855 (Document)
How did Americans respond to immigrants?
- "Wanted - An American or English Girl" Newspaper Advertisement, August 24, 1842 (Document)
- "Coachman Wanted" Newspaper Advertisement, May 14, 1852 (Document)
- "The Irish Problem," November 5, 1854 (Document)
- "Which Color is to be Tabooed Next?" 1882 (Political Cartoon)
|Irish Immigration: Beyond the Potato Famine Teaching Guide|
|Printable Image and Document Guide|
"Cause of the Non-Commencement of the Rebellion in Ireland," November 15, 1848
"The Irish Mother," April 19, 1849
"Poor Ireland," June 21, 1849
"Curious Facts," May 9, 1851
Chapter XIX from "A History of the Irish Settlers in North America from the Earliest Period to the Census of 1850," 1852
"Emigrants leaving Queenstown [Ireland] for New York," 1874
"Ireland," November 27, 1851
Chapter XXV from "A History of the Irish Settlers in North America from the Earliest Period to the Census of 1850," 1852
"The Foreign Element," February 8, 1855
"Wanted - An American or English Girl" Newspaper Advertisement, August 24, 1842
"Coachman Wanted" Newspaper Advertisement, May 14, 1852
"The Irish Problem," November 5, 1854
"Which Color is to be Tabooed Next?" 1882
- "The Irish in Iowa," Palimpsest, Vol. 45, No. 2, February 1964
The Palimpsest was a historical magazine published the State Historical Society of Iowa beginning in 1920 until it was renamed Iowa Heritage Illustrated in 1996. This February 1964 edition focuses on the history of the Irish in Iowa, such as the "Exodus to America," "Encouragement to Move West" and "The Irish in Politics."
- Stories of Midwest Migration
Drawing on historical material from cultural organizations across the Midwest, this digital exhibit from Chicago's Newberry Library presents representative stories of the many migrations that have transformed the Midwest—and continue to do so to this day.
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (6th Grade)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are middle school-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for students in the sixth grade.
No. Standard Description SS.6.19. Explain how global changes in population distribution patterns affect changes in land use in particular countries or regions. SS.6.20. Analyze connections among historical events and developments in various geographic and cultural contexts. SS.6.22. Explain multiple causes and effects of events and developments in various geographic and cultural contexts.