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The Making of a Melting Pot: Irish Immigration to America From 1700 to the early 1800s
by The American Immigration Law Foundation

Irish Immigration to America represented the first mass immigration to the United States and set the stage for all future immigrating ethnic minorities. Reflecting on their experiences brings insight to the challenges facing today's twentieth century immigrants.

In the first report of a two part series, we examine the importance of Irish immigration to America from the earliest settlers up until the infamous "Potato Famine" of the mid 1800s. Arguably the most significant aspect of Irish immigration to America is that it represents the first mass migration to the United States and established the framework for future immigrating ethnic minorities.

Early Irish Contributions

Although Irish immigration to America didn't reach its peak until the mid 1800s, during the revolutionary war, there were enough Irish soldiers to account for nearly half of General Washington's Continental army, including 1492 officers and 22 generals.

In 1770, the U.S. government took its first census and the results showed that of the 3 million people in America, 44,000 were Irish immigrants and another 150,000 were of Irish ancestry. Not until the success of the American Revolution and the failure of the Irish revolt in 1798, did the voyage across the Atlantic become a reality for many Irish and the number of Irish immigrants to America increase dramatically.

Who Was Immigrating?

The majority of Irish immigrants from 1780 to 1820 were tradespeople, artisans, teachers or professionals, and for them assimilating was fairly easy and many prospered at a pace that was virtually unheard of back in Ireland.

Nearly half of General Washington's
Continental army, including 1492 officers
and 22 generals, were of Irish descent.

When word spread of the success the Irish were finding in America, families with very little means began saving for the passage and soon, the farmers who had few skills outside of working the land began flooding the banks of America. For the most part illiterate, and with limited skills, from the 1820s on most Irish immigrants found their first job as laborers.

Major projects such as the Erie Canal, the Statue of Liberty, and the eastern section of the transcontinental railroad were all constructed in large part by these former farmers. From 1815 to 1845, wave after wave of Irish immigrants braved the Atlantic and in all roughly one million Irish embraced America as their new home.

The Great Famine

Tragedy struck in 1845 when an obscure fungus migrated to Ireland and subsequently caused an almost complete failure of the potato crop, which led to the largest famine in Irish history. The potato, know in Ireland as "the only property of the poor," was decimated, and the crop yielded 20% of its pre-famine years.

Potatoes were consumed at almost every meal, as other foods were too expensive and what little money there was went to pay the rent. As many as 3 million of Ireland's 8.1 million inhabitants depended on the potato for their daily survival. When the potato failed, so did the poor family's finances. Irish families were evicted in droves and left to battle some of the coldest Irish winters ever recorded, without so much as a warm meal in their stomachs to withstand the rampant disease and sickness.

Not until 1851 did the potato crop start to make a comeback, but the toll had been taken; over one million Irish had perished and nearly one and a half million had taken to the seas in search of reprieve from almost certain death on the Island. In 1851, a census of Ireland found that only 6.5 million Irish remained, in stark contrast to the 8.1 million in 1841.

Beginning of the Great Experiment

At this point in American history, the United States was a homogeneous community of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of English descent. However, Irish immigrants would indelibly stamp their story on American history and represent the beginning of the "melting pot." The so-called "Famine" Irish immigrants were the original huddled masses and their shear numbers flooded the ports of America were great cause for concern among many Americans.

Major projects such as the Erie Canal, the Statue of Liberty,
and the eastern section of the trans-continental railroad
were all constructed in large part by Irish immigrants.

The living conditions, in which these newcomers landed, were dismal at best. Though the Irish were well accustomed to living in harsh circumstances, the slums of New York were so revolting that according to one account, a young policeman compared a neighborhood in lower Manhattan to hell. His partner replied, "Hell's a mild climate. This is Hell's Kitchen," and the name stuck.

With what appeared to be the whole world against them, these individuals with their backs against the wall drew upon the strength afforded them by their families, their religion and of course their fellow Irish. The will to endure long hours of repetitive labor and backbreaking work would become their trademark and eventually prove to be an asset in their climb from poverty.

Successful Irish Immigrant Entrepreneurs

Unafraid to work, Irish laborers contributed to the great cities in which they lived by helping to construct roads, bridges, elevated railways, and subway systems. In fact, John Daniel Crimmins, the son of one such immigrant, worked his way up from being a hod tender to owning his own construction company in New York City. His firm would go on to build more than 400 buildings, miles of streets and gas lines, and a large portion of new York City's elevated railway system.

The California Gold Rush of 1849 was the cause of great excitement among many newcomers and it especially appealed to the Irish. Several were fortunate enough to strike it rich, including "Leadville Johnny" Brown and his wife, Margaret Tobin. Margaret nevertheless made her mark on the world when she survived the sinking of the Titanic and will forever be remembered as the "Unsinkable Molly Brown."

America's diversity and ability to incorporate people of all socioeconomic levels and ethnicities is in large part a direct result of the Irish-American experience of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Prepared, June 2001
(To be continued...)

About The Author

The American Immigration Law Foundation was established in 1987 as a tax-exempt, not-for-profit educational and service organization. The Foundation's mission is to promote understanding among the general public of immigration law and policy, through education, policy analysis, and support to litigators. AILF is governed by a Board of Directors and a Board of Trustees.

Working closely with leading immigration experts throughout the country, AILF has established three core program areas: the Legal Action Center, the Public Education Program, and an Exchange Visitor Program. Through these programs, the Foundation sponsors numerous awards programs, publishes policy reports, engages in impact litigation, and provides policymakers and the public with complete and accurate information about the benefits of immigration.