Irish Immigration Wave: The Emerald Isle Comes to America

Millions of Irish immigrants came to America in the mid-19th century to escape the horrors of the potato famine. Here, they faced new struggles. Learn more now.

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The infamous Potato Famine in Ireland in the mid-19th century was an almost apocalyptic experience for the Emerald Isle. The famine was so severe that newspaper photographers covering the event found some families were resorting to eating the bodies of other family members who had died of starvation. The bodies of children were not immune to this treatment, either, often set upon by desperately hungry parents and their ravenous siblings. People were being literally driven mad with hunger. It is no wonder then that so many people chose to escape this horror by fleeing the country.

While a lot of Irish Potato Famine refugees went to England and other places in Europe, millions of them crossed the sea to come to America. It was, after all, fabled to be a land of plenty. Starving immigrants, who often sold everything they had to make the voyage (and frequently left other suffering family members behind to secure safety for themselves), filled American shores in droves from the 1840s through the 1860s. This caused no small degree of resentment among Americans who were already here.

This resentment stemmed mainly from competition for jobs. Irish immigrants during this period were often willing to work for far less than a typical American worker. The competition for jobs, especially in unskilled labor positions, was fierce. This caused a period of intense discrimination and persecution against the Irish immigrants. Violence against them was common. Some business owners refused to serve the Irish, in an attempt to show solidarity with their loyal and angry American customers.

Business owners who could afford to pay higher wages often refused to hire the Irish on principal. Signs in store windows reading “Irish Not Welcome” or “Irish Need Not Apply” were common sights throughout the country. The areas where the ports were, where many of the Irish immigrants chose to stay, were the worst for this sort of treatment, though it went on everywhere.

London version of NINA song, Feb. 1862

London version of NINA song, Feb. 1862 (Wikipedia)

By the 1860s, many incoming Irish immigrants were immediately signed up to fight in the Civil War upon their arrival in exchange for citizenship when the war ended. Even coming right into a war in which they had no stake was a better choice for most immigrants than staying in Ireland. At least they knew they would be fed and clothed by the army, with the hope of citizenship and all of its benefits if they should survive the war.

In fact, for many of them, surviving the war was a greater possibility than surviving the famine if they stayed in Ireland. Throughout the entire immigration period of the famine, the only jobs available to women were domestic jobs as servants in private homes, hotels, and restaurants.

Families tried to keep in touch across the Atlantic, though it was hard. Mail was slow and unreliable. Many immigrants went so far west in their search for work, that the families they left behind never found them. There were several Irish-American newspapers during this time that ran advertisements from people in Ireland who were looking for information on their missing relatives (there is a database of one of these newspapers on the NEHGS website, and it is an excellent resource for those researching their Irish ancestry in America).

As the 1860s ended and the famine along with it, Irish immigration waned in America for a period of time. With fewer immigrants, American resentment of the Irish also began to disappear. The Irish stayed in America, became established in careers, started families, and were looked upon as respectable members of the community. Some even went back to Ireland, but the majority stayed here and transformed from immigrants to become what we all are… Americans.


About Ancestral Findings

Will established Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has been involved in helping genealogy researchers for over 25 years.