History of Irish Emigration to America

According to a 2013 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, around 33 million Americans identify as having Irish ancestry - that is more than 10% of the US population. With only 6.7 million people living on the island of Ireland, Irish emigration to the United States over the years has been staggering, having an important impact on both the culture and history of the United States, as well as the Irish people.

In this post we take a look at the history of Irish emigration and answer some of the most common questions Irish-American have about their ancestors.

When did the Irish first come to America?

There have been a number of waves of Irish immigration, with the Irish coming to America for a variety of reasons. The first notable wave of immigration occurred in the 1720s, with the arrival of the ‘Scots-Irish’. This is a term generally only used in North America to describe the people who came from Ulster and were Presbyterian with roots in Scotland and England rather than Irish catholic.

What did the Irish do when they came to America?

What exactly the Irish did when they came to America was dictated by which ‘wave’ of immigration they belonged to.

Irish emigration to America 1700s

The first wave of immigration saw  an estimated 200,000 Scots-Irish people migrate to America between 1717 and 1775. Although these people were generally descendants of Scottish or English colonists who had already made America home, the Scots-Irish were late to arrive, and found the land in the British colonies overpopulated or too expensive. This led them to occupy mountainous areas surrounding the colonies, living on the first frontier. They helped settle and secure the frontier although life was particularly difficult for them. The Scots-Irish brought the potato to America from Ireland and in Maine it became a staple crop and economic foundation for the people.

Irish emigration to America in the 1800s

At the beginning of the 1820s, Irish immigration increased greatly to labour requirements. Many Irishmen came over to work in canal building, civil construction works and lumbering. In particular, the large Erie Canal project attracted many Irish workers. However, the largest influx of Irish immigration around this time came as a result of the Great Irish Famine. It is estimated that between 1820-1860, almost 2 million Irish citizens arrived in the USA, with 75% of this number arriving between 1845-1852 when the famine hit.

Irish immigrants also played a significant role in the American Revolution, with an estimated 38% of the revolutionary army being of Irish descent. Irish Americans signed the foundational documents of the United States and Andrew Jackson, who was of Scots-Irish heritage served as president of the United States.

Irish emigration to America in the 1900s

Following the Civil War, attitudes towards the Irish in America had begun to change. There was a new-found respect for the Irish people after they participated so prominently in the war.

Furthermore, second and even third generation Irish-Americans had begun to move up the career ladder, entering into managerial roles and even the professions, police and fire service.  Although generally immigration numbers had greatly decreased, many still came to America to be reunited with relatives and chase the American dream.


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