Americans of Irish descent

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Irish Americans are citizens of the United States who can claim ancestry originating in the north west European island of Ireland. A total of 35,975,855 Americans (12% of total population) reported Irish ancestry in the 2006 American Community Survey.[1] The only self-reported ancestral group larger than Irish Americans are German Americans.[2] Note that this figure does not include those reporting Scots-Irish ancestry, who are counted separately.


Immigration to America


Irish Catholics have been migrating to the United States in steady numbers even before the American Revolution, some as domestic servants or as a result of penal deportations; their numbers increased immensely by the 1820s when migrants, mostly males, became involved in canal building, lumbering and civil construction works in the Northeast. Small but tight communities developed in growing cities such as Boston, Providence and New York City.

The large Erie Canal project was one such example where Irishmen were the majority of the laborers used. During and after the "Great Irish Famine" (or Great Hunger; Irish: An Gorta Mór) of 1845-1850, millions of Irish Catholics came to North America. Many lived in Canada and the United States. Many Irish who left Ireland for America during the famine and subsequent years did not make their destination. Due to poverty, ill health and poor conditions a significant number died en route. As a result the ships they travelled on became known as coffin ships. Nearly a third of all Irish who left on ships during the famine period to North America emigrated from the United Kingdom to its dominion in Canada, having a large impact on a smaller population there as many arrived in a disease stricken state. Although the greater portion of these arrivals stayed on in Canada, particularly in Toronto and Ontario and remained as subjects of the British Empire, a significant number moved on to the United States to join quickly growing Irish American communities, some after staying in Canada for only a few years. Between 1820 and 1860, fully two-thirds of the Irish immigrants to the United States were Catholic and constituted fully one third of all immigrants to the United States. By the 1840s as a result of the famine fully half of all immigrants to the United States originated from Ireland.[3]

Many of these immigrants went to the largest cities, especially Boston and New York, as well as Chicago, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Louis, Missouri, Philadelphia and Detroit. Even today, many of these cities still retain a substantial Irish American community while New York City still has more people who claim Irish heritage than Dublin's whole population. These cities became the conduit through which Irish, both Protestant and Catholic entered American society. For example, recruiting drives to enlist recent Catholic Irish emigrants as field soldiers during the Mexican-American War and later the US Civil War proved troublesome for the U.S. Army, but without employment some Catholic Irish wound up enlisting anyway. Draft riots occurred, the most well known the New York Draft Riots resulting from conscription ordered by President Lincoln in 1863.

After 1860, Irish Catholic immigration continued, a lot of it chain migration mostly to the large cities where Irish American neighborhoods were previously established.

The majority of Irish immigrants probably spoke English; some were bilingual or native speakers of Irish. According to the latest census, the Irish language ranks 66th out of the 322 languages spoken today in the U.S., with over 25,000 speakers. New York State has the most Irish speakers, and Massachusetts the highest percentage, of the 50 states.



The term Scots-Irish (aka Ulster-Scots) is usually used to designate descendants of immigrants from Scotland. Ulster is a region where much intermingling of Scots, English, and Irish people took place due to the Ulster Plantations. The number of this specific group is reported by the US Census of 2000 as being around 4.9 million.

The primary origin of this large population is centered around a quarter of a million Scots-Irish who fled the economic distress and social upheaval. They emigrated to America primarily before 1776 as subjects of the British Empire moving from one region to another. They settled especially in frontier areas of Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas, where land was free and collective action against Indian raids was needed. Given large tracts of free land, subsidized by British and colonial authorities, tens of thousands of these Protestant Scots-Irish became the force which pacified the American frontier. Many joined Presbyterian and Methodist churches.

The term Anglo-Irish is usually used to designate Anglican (see Church of Ireland) and Protestant Irish of English descent. They primarily originated from the areas of Dublin, Cork, Wexford, and the old Pale of Ireland, and moved following the upheavals of the Irish wars and the economic depression caused by the take-over of commercial regulation from the Kingdom of Ireland to the Kingdom of Great Britain. Much like the Scots-Irish, these colonists were also veterans of low-intensity warfare, were often former soldiers, and thus were encouraged to settle in frontier areas. Here they intermingled with the Scots-Irish to such an extent that the ability to distinguish between the two groups slowly became extinguished.

Some see a distinction between Catholic 'Irish Americans' and Protestant 'Scots-Irish' and 'Anglo-Irish' (though not all Scots-Irish migrants were specifically Protestant). Many people of both Anglo-Irish and Scots-Irish descent before 1849 described themselves as, simply, Irish. As Irish Catholic began to enter the U.S. in greater numbers the distinction Scots-Irish became popularized.

Two possible reasons have been suggested for the disparity of the figures of the census and the estimation. The first is that the English and Scots-Irish may quite often regard themselves as simply having either Irish ancestry (which 10.8% of Americans reported) or Scottish ancestry (reported by 4.9 million or 1.7% of the total population) or English ancestry. The other is that most of the descendants of this historical group have integrated themselves into American society, even reporting their ancestry as simply "American" (the most common ancestry in areas historically settled by the English and Scots-Irish mostly throughout much of the Southern United States).

The 'English' and 'Scots-Irish' Protestants, in contrast with later Catholic Irish immigrants, assimilated quickly into the new society, many abandoning old-world characteristics they no longer found useful, as Frederick Jackson Turner explained in his Frontier Thesis. That is they became "American" and indeed helped redefine what it meant to be American.

The Protestant Irish, particularly of the Scots-Irish background usually retained a strong interest in farming, herding, and hunting. Additionally through the cousinage and clan ties many of the Scots-Irish were rapidly encouraged to move onto the frontier where fellow Scots-Irish and American natives of Scots-Irish background awaited. Nonetheless, a significant number of the Scots-Irish who remained in the cities of the United States quickly took advantage of the new Republic's opportunities and assimilated into the artisan, craftsmen, and small business classes.


Irish Catholic immigrants went directly to the cities, mill towns and railroad or canal construction sites in the east coast. Few became farmers. They were hired by Irish labor contractors to work in "labor gangs" as manual laborers on canals, railroads, streets, sewers and other construction projects, particularly in New York state and New England. Large numbers moved to New England mill towns, such as Lowell, Massachusetts, Fall River, Massachusetts and Milford, Massachusetts, where Protestant owners of textile mills welcomed the new low-wage workers. They took the jobs previously held by Yankee Protestant women known as Lowell girls. A large fraction of Irish Catholic women took jobs as maids in middle class households and hotels.

Although the Irish Catholics started very low on the social status scale, by 1900, they had jobs and earnings about equal on average to their neighbors. After 1945, the Catholic Irish consistently ranked toward the top of the social hierarchy, thanks especially to their high rate of college attendance.[4]

The Irish quickly found employment in the police departments of major cities, particularly in the North East. In the 1860s more than half of those arrested in New York City were Irish born or of Irish descent but nearly half of the City's law enforcement officers were also Irish. By the turn of the century, five out of six NYPD officers were Irish American. Irish Americans continue to have a disproportionate membership in the law enforcement community, especially in New England, where they continue to have a dominating role. When the Emerald Society of the Boston Police Department was formed in 1973, half of the city's police officers became members.

Discrimination and prejudice

It was common for Irishmen to be discriminated against in social situations. Intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants was uncommon (and strongly discouraged by both ministers and priests). An important response was the creation of a Catholic parochial school system, in addition to numerous colleges, that isolated about half the Irish youth from the public schools.

Nativist prejudice against Irish Catholics reached a peak in the mid-1850s with the Know Nothing Movement, which tried to oust Catholics from public office.

After 1860 the Irish sang songs about signs reading "HELP WANTED - NO IRISH NEED APPLY", which were also referred to as "the NINA signs." The song had a deep impact on the Irish sense of discrimination. The issue of job discrimination against Irish immigrants is hotly debated among historians, with some insisting that the "No Irish need apply" signs so familiar to the Irish in memory were myths,[5] and others arguing that the Irish continued to be discriminated against in various professions into the 20th century, on an ad-hoc and unofficial basis.

Stereotypes and images

Irish Catholics were always the subject of stereotyping. According to historian George Potter, the media often stereotyped the Irish in America as being boss-controlled, violent (both among themselves and with those of other ethnic groups), voting illegally, prone to alcoholism, and dependent on street gangs that were often violent or criminal.

The Irish had many humorists of their own, but were scathingly attacked in German American cartoons, especially those in Puck magazine from the 1870s to 1900. In addition, the cartoons of German American Thomas Nast were especially hostile; for example, he depicted the Irish-dominated Tammany Hall machine in New York City as a ferocious tiger.[6]

Sense of heritage

People of Irish descent, particularly Roman Catholics, retain a sense of their Irish heritage. A sense of exile, diaspora, and (in the case of songs) even nostalgia is common in Irish America.

Many Irish Americans were enthusiastic supporters of Irish independence; the Fenian Brotherhood movement was based in the United States and launched several attacks on British-controlled Canada known as the "Fenian Raids". The Provisional IRA received significant funding for its paramilitary activities from a group of Irish American supporters — in 1984, the US Department of Justice won a court case forcing the Irish American fundraising organization NORAID to acknowledge the Provisional IRA as its "foreign principal".[7]

Irish settlement in America

Irish Catholic Americans settled in large and small cities throughout the North--railroad centers and mill towns especially. They became perhaps the most urbanized group in America, as few became farmers.[8] Strongholds include the metropolitan areas of Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco, where most new arrivals of the 1830-1910 period settled. As a percentage of the population, Massachusetts is the most Irish state, with about a quarter of the population claiming Irish descent.reference required The most Irish American town in the United States is Milton, MA, with 38% of its 26,000 or so residents being of Irish descent. Boston, New York, and Chicago have neighborhoods with higher percentages of Irish American residents. Regionally, the most Irish American part of the country remains central New England. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Delaware are the three states in which Irish heritage is the most dominant. Interestingly, in consequence of its unique history as a mining center, Butte, Montana is also one of the country's most thoroughly Irish American cities. Greeley, Nebraska (population 527) has the highest percentage of Irish American residents (43%) of any town or city with a population of over 500 in the United States. The town was part of the Irish Catholic Colonization effort of Bishop O'Connor of New York in the 1880's.

Irish in politics and government

The Catholic Irish moved rapidly into law enforcement, and (through the Catholic Church) built hundreds of schools, colleges, orphanages, hospitals, and asylums. Political opposition to the Catholic Irish climaxed in 1854 in the short-lived Know Nothing Party.

By the 1850s, the Irish Catholics were a major presence in the police departments of large cities. In New York City in 1855, of the city's 1,149 policemen, 305 were natives of Ireland. The creation of a unified police force in Philadelphia opened the door to the Irish in that city. By 1860 in Chicago, 49 of the 107 on the police force were Irish. Chief O'Leary headed the police force in New Orleans and Malachi Fallon was chief of police of San Francisco.[9]

The Irish had a reputation for being very well organized,[10] and, since 1850, have produced a majority of the leaders of the Catholic Church in the U.S., labor unions, the Democratic Party in larger cities, and Catholic high schools, colleges and universities. John F. Kennedy was their greatest political hero. Al Smith, who lost to Herbert Hoover in the 1928 presidential election, was the first Irish Catholic to run for president. From the 1830s to the 1960s, Irish Catholics voted 80-95% Democratic, with occasional exceptions like the election of 1920.

Today, most Irish Catholic politicians are associated with the Democratic Party, although some became Republican leaders, such as former GOP national chairman Ed Gillespie, former House Homeland Security Chairman Peter T. King and the late Congressman Henry Hyde. Ronald Reagan boasted of his Irishness. (The son of an Irish Catholic father, he was raised as a Protestant.) Historically, Irish Catholics controlled many city machines and often served as chairmen of the Democratic National Committee, including County Monaghan native Thomas Taggart, Vance McCormick, James Farley, Edward J. Flynn, Robert E. Hannegan, J. Howard McGrath, William H. Boyle, Jr., John Moran Bailey, Larry O'Brien, Christopher J. Dodd, and Terry McAuliffe. The majority of Irish Catholics in Congress are Democrats; currently Susan Collins of Maine is the only Irish Catholic Republican senator. Exit polls show that in recent presidential elections Irish Catholics have split about 50-50 for Democratic and Republican candidates; large majorities voted for Ronald Reagan.[11] The pro-life faction in the Democratic party includes many Irish Catholic politicians, such as senator Bob Casey, Jr., who defeated Senator Rick Santorum in a high visibility race in Pennsylvania in 2006.[12]

In some states such as Connecticut, the most heavily Irish communities now tend to be in the outer suburbs and generally support Republican candidates, such as New Fairfield.[13]

Many major cities have elected Irish American Catholic mayors. Indeed, Boston, Cincinnati, Houston, Newark, New York City, Omaha, Scranton, Pittsburgh, Saint Louis, Saint Paul, and San Francisco have all elected natives of Ireland as mayors. Chicago, Boston, and Jersey City have had more Irish American mayors than any other ethnic group. The cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Oakland, Omaha, St. Paul, Jersey City, Rochester, Springfield, Rockford, San Francisco, Scranton, and Syracuse currently (as of 2006) have Irish American mayors. All of these mayors are Democrats. Pittsburgh mayor Bob O'Connor died in office in 2006. New York City has had at least three Irish-born mayors and over eight Irish American mayors. The most recent one was County Mayo native William O'Dwyer, elected in 1949.

The Irish Protestant vote has not been studied nearly as much. Since the 1840s, it has been uncommon for a Protestant politician to be identified as Irish (though Ronald Reagan notably did and Bill Clinton claims to have Irish ancestry). In Canada, by contrast, Irish Protestants remained a cohesive political force well into the 20th century with many (but not all) belonging to the Orange Order. Throughout the 19th century, sectarian confrontation was commonplace between Protestant Irish and Catholic Irish in Canadian cities.

Presidents of Irish descent

Two presidents of the United States have been ethnic Irish descended in their paternal line. Because it is common in the British Isles for the home nations to intermarry, there are at least twenty-three in total who are Irish descended through other lines. Some such as Andrew Jackson for instance, are instead descended from the Scotch-Irish ethnic group. The mainstream media payed most attention to president Kennedy's purported "Irishness", although Reagan was also from an Irish-Gaelic background in his paternal line, his father had converted from Catholicism to Presbytarianism and thus the media payed less attention to this aspect.

  1. John F. Kennedy, 35th President 1961-63
  2. Ronald Reagan, 40th President 1981-89

Contributions to American culture

The annual celebration of Saint Patrick's Day is the most widely recognized symbol of the Irish presence in America. In cities throughout the United States, this traditional Irish religious holiday becomes an opportunity to celebrate all things Irish, or faux Irish. The largest celebration of the holiday takes place in New York, where the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade draws an average of two million people. The second-largest celebration is held in Savannah.

Since the arrival of tens of thousands of Irish immigrants in the 1840s, the urban Irish cop and firefighter have become virtual icons of American popular culture. In many large cities, the police and fire departments have been dominated by the Irish for over 100 years, even after the populations in those cities of Irish extraction dwindled down to small minorities. Many police and fire departments maintain large and active "Emerald Societies," bagpipe marching groups, or other similar units demonstrating their members' pride in their Irish heritage.

While these archetypal images are especially well known, Irish Americans have contributed to U.S. culture in a wide variety of fields: the fine and performing arts, film, literature, politics, sports, and religion. The Irish-American contribution to popular entertainment is reflected in the careers of figures such as James Cagney, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, John Ford, Gene Kelly, Grace Kelly, Tyrone Power, and Spencer Tracy. Irish-born actress Maureen O'Hara, who became an American citizen, defined for U.S. audiences the archetypal, feisty Irish "Colleen" in popular films such as The Quiet Man and The Long Gray Line. More recently, the Irish-born Pierce Brosnan gained screen celebrity as James Bond. During the early years of television, popular figures with Irish roots included Gracie Allen, Art Carney, Joe Flynn, Jackie Gleason, and Ed Sullivan. Today, comedians such as George Carlin, Jane Curtin, Jimmy Fallon, Bill Murray, and Conan O'Brien often reflect humorously on their Irish-American roots.

Prominent Irish-American literary figures include Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning playwright Eugene O'Neill, Jazz Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, social realist James T. Farrell, mystery writer Raymond Chandler, and Southern Gothic writer Flannery O'Connor. The 19th-century novelist Henry James was also of partly Irish descent. While Irish Americans have been underrepresented in the plastic arts, two well known American painters claim Irish roots. Twentieth-century painter Georgia O'Keeffe was born to an Irish-American father, and 19th-century trompe-l'œil painter William Harnett emigrated from Ireland to the United States.

The Irish-American contribution to politics spans the entire idealogical spectrum. While socially conservative Irish immigrants generally recoiled from radical politics, two prominent American socialists, Mother Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, were Irish Americans. In the 1960s, Irish-American writer Michael Harrington became an influential advocate of social welfare programs. Harrington's views profoundly influenced President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy. Meanwhile, Irish-American thinker and political writer William F. Buckley Jr. emerged as a major intellectual force behind American conservative politics in the last half of the 20th century. Buckley's magazine, National Review, proved an effective advocate of successful Republican candidates such as Ronald Reagan.

The wide popularity of Celtic music has fostered the rise of Irish-American bands that draw heavily on traditional Irish themes and music. Such groups include the Dropkick Murphys, a Celtic punk band formed in Quincy, Massachusetts. The Decemberists, a band featuring Irish-American singer Colin Meloy, recently released "Shankill Butchers," a song that deals with the Ulster Loyalist group of the same name. The song appears on their album The Crane Wife.


  1. US Census Bureau
  2. US Census Bureau
  3. Library of Congress
  4. Greeley 1993
  5. "No Irish Need Apply": A Myth of Victimization, by Richard Jensen at University of Illinois, Chicago site
  6. A variety of 19th century images from the United States and England indicating anti-Irish racism
  7. Irish America and the Ulster Conflict 1968-1995
  8. Kenny (2000) p 105-6
  9. Potter p.530
  10. Satirical image indicating "Irish power" at The History Project at UC Davis
  11. George J. Marlin, The American Catholic Voter (2004), pp 296-345
  12. Prendergast, William B. The Catholic Voter in American Politics: The Passing of the Democratic Monolith (1999)
  13. Enrollment statistics at Connecticut government site
Part of this article consists of modified text from Wikipedia, and the article is therefore licensed under GFDL.
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