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Irish Immigration

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Category: American History

Autor: anton 12 December 2010

Words: 1930 | Pages: 8

Sean Halpin

RST 223

April 12, 2006

Dr. Dennis Castillo

The Irish Movement across the Atlantic

The Irish Potato Famine

During the 1800’s, the Irish population relied heavily on the farming and eating of potatoes grown on land that was not owned by them. The land they cultivated and grew their crops on was owned by strangers. In 1845, a catastrophic blight struck potato crops all over Ireland. The sudden wilting of all potato crops lasted five years and brought about starvation, disease, and death. This also brought massive immigration to North America. These immigrants from Ireland came not only to Ellis Island in New York, but also to Gross Isle near Quebec, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. They settled on the east coast of the United States and in the British North America, which became modern day Canada. With them, the Irish brought their heritage, customs, and religious backgrounds.

The potato, a crop that is very nutritious and easy to grow in the wet, Irish soil crowed out the oats and wheat in the Irish diet. More than three million Irish men, women, and children ate nothing but potatoes in the years before the potato famine. As Ireland’s population tripled in size in the years before the famine, many people were driven to the mountains and bogs in search of land. Many also left their homeland in search of new land in other countries, especially across the Atlantic Ocean. The Irish were among the first European settlers to North America in the early 1600’s, and from the 1700’s through the 1900’s many more arrived. During the mid 1800’s there was a major increase in immigration from Ireland to North America due to the potato famine that plagued the country. According to the journal article, After the Famine: Emigration from Ireland, 1850-1913, between 1850 and 1913 more than 4.5 million men and women left Ireland for a new life overseas . This was after the potato famine; however, many were seeking greater opportunity that North America had to offer.

Their Journey across the Atlantic

Many Irish people did not have the means to make the trip across the Atlantic Ocean as a family. Many would travel by themselves in order to establish themselves and send funds back to Ireland to help the rest of the family to pay for the trip. However, many were able to come to North America as indentured servants. They were contracted to work for another for a specified time, in exchange for learning a trade or for travel expenses. Many Irish also traveled to Australia to escape ruined Ireland. These immigrants consisted mostly of Irish convicts. It would take them some time, but they would eventually make it to North America.

The Irish immigrants left Ireland, first on coffin ships and then on steamers. The first ships were called coffin ships because they were overcrowded, full of diseased, and seasick, passengers, as well as bodies of the deceased. The immigrants feared a watery grave if they did not make it to North America alive, however many arrived weakened beyond recovery. These voyages lasted from four to six weeks, depending on how rough the seas were. This also caused many problems because of the lack of food aboard the ships. Many would pass the time by forming friendships with other immigrants. There was even a musical group that formed aboard a ship, consisting of four members of the crew and four passengers . Through all of this, the Irish’s indomitable human spirit had shone through all of the adversity.

According to many researchers, depopulation of Ireland would have happened as a result of changing external economic conditions . There was a growing demand for workers in Britain and in North America. However, the famine’s direct impact on the Irish population was considerable. Although the changing economic conditions started the depopulation of Ireland, the famine was a significant reason why millions of Irish people left their homeland. Many Irish people left Ireland after the end of the famine because they feared that recurrence

of it.

North American Living

Unfortunately, due to the multitudes of Irish immigrants that came to North America, the facilities to house these people were few and far between. The housing that was available was expensive and overcrowded. The overflow of Irish settled in backyards and alleys that surrounded houses in the cities. They built wooden shacks in order to stay out of the sometimes harsh environment. People also lived in cellars with low ceiling that flooded often, old warehouses and other buildings that were abandoned. These abandoned building were converted to homes by putting up wood partitions that offered little to no privacy.

Life was very difficult in North America for the early immigrants. According to Timothy W. Guinnane, the huge upturn in emigration during the famine deposited a large number of Irish people in the fastest-growing industrial economy of the 19th Century, North America. Although they traveled to the land of opportunity, they were unable to find work because they were farmers. They had no apparent skills that would benefit employers. The opportunities that were available to immigrants in North America were primarily skilled trades. However, some Irish immigrants were able to find work as domestic servants. Women and children would work for other families in order to survive. Single Irish women found work as cooks and maids in houses belonging to wealthy families. Many lived inside the homes in the servants' quarters and enjoyed a standard of living luxurious compared to the life they had known in Ireland. The women were cheerful, kind-hearted, hard working and thrifty, always managing to save a little money out of their salary for those back in Ireland.

Irish males went to work providing the backbreaking labor needed to build canals and roads in the rapidly expanding country. They also ran factories, built railroads in the West, and worked in mines. The massive Erie Canal project, for example, was built by Irishmen working from dawn till dusk for a dollar-a-day. They hand dug their way westward through the rugged wilderness of upstate New York. The 363 mile-long canal became the main east-west commerce route and encouraged America's early economic growth by considerably lowering the costs of getting goods to the markets.

Religious Persecution

During the 1700’s, many of the immigrants were mostly Presbyterians from the north of Ireland, the so-called "Scotch-Irish." The term "Scotch-Irish" is an Americanism, generally unknown in Scotland and Ireland and it refers to people of Scottish descent who, having lived for a time in the north of Ireland migrated in considerable numbers to the American colonies in the eighteenth century. During the nineteenth century, most of the immigrants coming to North America were the unemployed Catholics.

Catholics in Ireland had endured centuries of discrimination by English and Anglo-Irish Protestants. They arrived in America, faced with more religious discrimination by the American Protestants. The Irish women donated the little money they earned to their local Catholic parishes for new schools and the construction of stained-glass churches with marble statues and altars. The beautiful cathedral-like buildings became great sources of pride among the Irish. Catholic parishes became the center of family life. They provided free education, hospitals, sports and numerous social activities, recreating to some degree the close-knit villages the Irish had loved back home. Although the immigrants were able to take advantage of all of this, it had taken many years for such services to be established.

Americans were not very receptive to the Irish immigrants in the beginning. Many of the arriving immigrants remained in the Cities, while few left to travel in land to settle. Americans were not very receptive because the Irish were slow to assimilate. The Irish population wanted to recreate the close-knit communities that had back in Ireland, therefore, they were reluctant to change. Catholicism became the largest Christian denomination in American because of the number of Irish that poured into America. Many American Protestants saw this as a threat to their American way and began to show their discontent through violent demonstrations. Catholic churches were burned down, along with hundreds of Irish homes. Some immigrants were even killed because of the Catholic background. Some American cities that experienced such demonstrations were Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Louisville, Kentucky. The religious persecution that the Catholic Irish immigrants faced was due to the fact that they were determined to establish small communities modeled after those in Ireland. Many Americans were displeased with this practice because they felt that they had an obligation to assimilate to the American way.


The Irish Immigrants experienced difficulties in Ireland and in North America. Although many thought they were escaping the hardships that occurred because of the potato famine, they learned that North America did not turn out to be all that it was cracked up to be. Also, many were poor, so they could not afford to live life comfortably in North America, however, many were able to adapt to the environment and succeeded. The Irish immigrants were very determined to make it in America, so they would do everything they can to survive. The Irish were tight-knit people that wanted to live as they were in Ireland. This caused many of the problems that had with the Americans. The religious persecutions the Irish faced with also very difficult for the Irish to deal with. They were able to turn to their Catholic churches when they were in need of anything. In turn, they donated the little money they had to help the churches.

Personal Opinion

Personally, the Irish needed to leave Ireland because of many reasons. The area was extremely overpopulated with many people heading to the mountains in search of land. The landlords were not fair; is any landlord fair? Many blame the potato famine as the reason why people left Ireland. I believe the potato famine was the extra droving force that sent people out of the country, but the population was leaving the country many years before the famine occurred. Irish people are very proud of their heritage, and that can be considered the reason why they faced the adversity from Americans in the major cities. This could have been avoided if the Irish were not as stubborn in their own ways, which is often a stereotype of many people with any kind of Irish heritage. The Irish immigrants had every right to take advantage of the vast opportunities that were in available in North America.


Carpenter, Richard P. "The sadness of saying goodbye Ireland exhibit recalls the era of emigration." Boston Globe 12 Oct 1997, City Edition ed.: M.9.

Carpenter, Richard P. "The Irish and Saint John." Boston Globe 10 May 1998, City Edition ed.: M.12.

Guinnane, Timothy W. "The Great Irish Famine and Population: The Long View." The American Economic Review May 1994: 303-308.

Hatten, Timothy J; Williamson, Jeffrey G. "After the Famine: Emigration from Ireland, 1850-1913." The Journal of Economic History Sep. 1993: 575-600.

Phillips, Barbara D. "TV: 'The Irish in America'." Wall Street Journal 26 Jan 1998, Eastern Edition ed.: pg 1.

Moran, Gerard. Sending Out Ireland's Poor: Assisted Emigration to North America in the Nineteenth Century. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2004.

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