IRISH EMIGRATION TO NORTH AMERICA


Colonial Period 1603-1790

Irish Background: "Flight of the Earls" 1607; religious strife, Civil War and Cromwellian resettlement; land confiscation, political and economic restrictions on Catholics; famine of 1740-41; changes in the linen industry and financial squeeze on small landholders.

Areas of emigration: mostly from Ulster (mainly Presbyterian)and the north midlands, but some Catholics, Episcopalians, and Dissenters (especially Quakers) from the southern counties, mostly from east and south coasts (Cork, Wicklow & Wexford).

Status of immigrants: Mostly single males and young families. Indentured servants, farmers from moderately prosperous middle-sized farms, craftsmen and tradespeople. From the mid eighteenth century it is almost all a voluntary emigration.

Settlement: West Indies; Pennsylvania and Maryland; the Carolinas and Georgia; central New England and New York state. By the end of the period, Scots-Irish from the interior valley of the Appalachians were moving west into Kentucky and Tennessee.

Total emigration: 400,000 plus. United States population at first census estimated as 5.9% Ulster Irish and 3.6% southern Irish.

Early National Emigration 1790-1845

Irish Background: Agrarian unrest and Rebellion of 1798; Napoleonic Wars (War of 1812); Act of Union 1801 ends separate Irish Parliament; Young Ireland Movement and Catholic Emancipation 1829 (O'Connell). Population surge in Ireland, much mobility of agrarian labor; industrialization in England. Significant "assisted emigration," mostly to Canada, from crown lands and some private estates.

Areas of emigration: From throughout the island, still including a heavy Ulster and Southeast contribution, but increasingly including east-central Leinster (Dublin, Meath & Kildare) and central and southwest Munster.

Status of immigrants: Very mixed. People of modest circumstances--skilled artisans, woolen industry workers, marginal farmers. Fewer families and many single people of both sexes from late teens to early thirties, though all age groups were represented. Substantial stage migration through England and Scotland.

Settlement: Mostly southern New England, New York and Pennsylvania. Irish ghettos and slums emerge in American port cities, but many find employment in smaller manufacturing towns. Irish workers follow the developing canal and railroad net throughout the U.S east of the Mississippi, with substantial settlements in northern Illinois and Ohio.

Total emigration: About 1.5 million.


The Famine Years 1845-1855

Irish Background: Massive failure of potato crop 1846 & 1847; bankruptcy of many landlords; forced expulsion of surplus population.

Areas of emigration: Heaviest through the midsection of Ireland (from Sligo & Fermanagh in the north, to Tipperary & Kilkenny in the south), though for the first time there is also mass emigration of Irish-speakers from the severely distressed west coast (Clare, Galway, & Mayo).

Status of immigrants: All groups from landlord to poor cottier, but mostly small farmers and day laborers. Often arriving singly or in small groups, extended families of three generations might migrate over a several year period. Unskilled labor predominates.

Settlement: Follows the pattern of the previous period, but the upper Midwest provides haven to many who arrived through Quebec and the St. Lawrence valley. New Orleans and San Francisco also draw many settlers.

Total emigration: To the United States, over 1.5 million, with another million to other destinations from England to Australia.


From Famine to Partition 1856-1921

Irish Background: Fenian Movement; Land War of the 1870's; Home Rule demands of the late century (Parnell); the Easter Uprising of 1916. Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21 ends with partition of the island by treaty.

Areas of emigration: Universal, though comparatively lighter from the southeast and northeast than previously.

Status of immigrants: Young marrieds and many single women, who predominate. The "American wake" (when friends and family gathered to bid an emigrant farewell) became an Irish village custom. Many widowed or retired parents emigrate to rejoin their children.

Settlement: Northeast and Midwest; California and the Pacific Northwest. Far more urban than rural.

Total emigration: Slightly over 3 million.


Two Irelands: The Free State and Northern Ireland 1922-1949

Irish Background: Great Britain accepts a 26 county "Irish Free State" and a separate 6-county Northern Ireland. Irish Civil War follows, 1922-23. Renamed Eire in the 1930's, the south chips away at remaining legal and political ties with England and stays neutral in World War II.

Status of immigrants: Mixed.

Settlement: The established Irish-American communities.

Total emigration: Lower than in decades, slows to a trickle during and after the Great Depression.


Contemporary Conditions 1949-1999

Irish Background: Eire declares a republic, ending its British political connection; prosperity and industrial development in 1960's produces a net inflow of population during the 1970's. Civil strife in the North (Bloody Sunday 1972) followed by suspension of Northern Ireland Parliament; Hillsborough Agreement (1985) gives the Republic a limited voice in Northern affairs. IRA cease fire in the north opens the way to political talks 1994. Current economic problems and severe unemployment create new pressures for emigration in both north and south.

Status of immigrants: Mostly young educated professionals.

Settlement: Established Irish-American urban communities.

Total emigration: ca. 300,000.


Copyright 2001 Edward J. O'Day
Last revised: August 20, 2001