Irish Immigration

Irish Immigration: A Recount of Full Assimilation

Thomas Dempsey, Fall 2020


In the years leading up to the mid-20th century, the Irish people suffered and toiled relentlessly to find a place in a new country that had the potential to offer them job security, religious freedom, and the potential for a better life.[1] The reasons for emigration from Ireland were many, but the new struggles that the Irish immigrants faced in America were just as numerous. By exploring the history of Irish immigration from 1850 to 1920, one can achieve a greater understanding of the reason for the Irish population in the United States, as well as obtain a rich historical knowledge of the events that shaped how American citizens view immigrants to this day.

In 1845, the integral potato crop in Ireland failed, and famine struck the homes of many. There was little to eat, and before the year 1850, over a million people had died due to this famine and lack of farming jobs. Many of the Irish people decided that it would be best to leave their country and pursue a better life.[2] This better life was believed to be found in the United States of America because they believed that there would be more jobs and food security in the U.S., as well as the ability for poor peasants to earn land.

The Irish believed that the best places in America to immigrate to would be New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other large urban cities in the New World. There was already a steady stream of Irish immigrants before the Great Famine, but the Encyclopedia of North American Immigration details how the famine altered the rate of Irish immigrants to America:

“…the laboring population had few choices…The immigrant wave peaked in the 1850s when 914,000 Irish immigrants arrived, most coming through New York Harbor…Between 1845 and 1860, about 1.7 million Irish settled in the United States…(and) between 1860 and 1910, another 2.3 million Irish immigrated to the United States..” [3].

This massive influx of new immigrants to a country on the brink of a civil war no doubt had a large impact on the public unrest of a country already so divided. It is important to mention that the majority of Irish immigration was divided into two waves: pre-Civil War and post-Civil War. This was expanded upon in Shiloh Briggs’ 2008 dissertation on the matter. He discusses how the first wave of Irish immigrants were mainly well-off people who had an easier time of assimilating economically than the peasant farmers that would make their way to America in the second wave. These peasants were looked down upon in American society, and were often handed the unwanted jobs that natural citizens deemed as “lesser”. Briggs also describes why the Irish decided that the united States would be a better home that Great Britain, for:
“…it was Great Britain’s failed colonial policies, combined with its unwillingness to deal with one of its colony’s natural disasters, that would lead to the immigration of nearly one and a half million Irish peasants to the United States, and ultimately propelled the United States past Great Britain in the proceeding century as a formidable world power.”[4]

Although the natural Americans first looked down upon the Irish as a stain on the upcoming legacy of their great country, it is important to explore how the Irish contributed to building the United States into what it is today, and what occurred to promote the full assimilation of Irish immigrants into society, eventually becoming a staple of the American melting pot.

From Immigrants to Insiders: The Story of Irish Assimilation

The story of Irish absorption of American society encompasses many moving parts that the full integration and acceptance of the Irish can attribute to. If one can understand how an entire culture and ethnic group went from being widely despised, shamed, and looked down upon to becoming a natural part of modern society, perhaps one may be able to infer how the acceptance of other ethnic groups may progress in the future.
Lee and Casey, in their bookMaking the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States, expand on why the Irish were so despised when they first immigrated to America:

“Irish Catholics were in many respects the first “ethnic” group in America . . . the first immigrant group to arrive in extremely large numbers, to gain high visibility …, and to appear sufficiently “different” in religion and culture so that acceptance by native-born Americans was not automatic, and assimilation was…prolonged.” [5]

The American culture that the Irish people were attempting to assimilate into was on the cusp of a major Civil War, which revolved very closely around racial issues and the debate of civil freedoms of African Americans. This established the very large presence of racial and ethnic discrimination. The Civil War focused on the rights of the people of color who resided within the country, but the issue of Irish immigration was different. This is because the Irish looked just as Caucasian as any United States citizen of European descent, but they were still part of the “otherness” that so many Americans feared. This is because much of the natural citizens were Protestant, while most of the Irish immigrants identified as Catholic. Lee and Casey noted these differences from the American people that created that dislike for the Irish immigrants: the fact that they were immigrants in the first place, and the question of their religion. [6]

The Irish were not the only ones hated by the Americans. There was also a general distaste for ANY immigrants at all, including the Chinese and the Germans. In 1892, Zabdiel Sampson discussed this distaste, and asserted that the immigrants should be left to their own devices and to cancel each others’ “badness”, in a sense:

“Let one evil kill another. Let the mean, selfish characteristics of the Irish clash with and kill the mean, selfish characteristics of the Germans, and so forth.” [7]

This primary source captures an image of how the U.S. citizens viewed immigrants, and by delving deeper into history, one can fully understand how the Irish came to be accepted.

In his book, Becoming American under Fire, Christian Samito discussed how the Irish chose to embrace American principles, which they believed would make them citizens. Many Irish immigrants served alongside the African Americans in the Civil War, which cemented their inclusion into society, which definitely shaped some Americans’ opinions of their belonging in the United States.[8]

This change of thinking can be seen in a debate document from Edith Phelps, who wrote down popular arguments both for and against immigration in the early twentieth century. These arguments were concisely summarized with the statement that “…some feel that the remedy lies in further restriction of immigration; others, rather in better assimilation and distribution of the immigrants.” [9] This change was very evident in the culture of America, for many new Irish immigrants made their way into the United States after the Civil War. This second wave, as previously discussed, could be attributed to the news of changing perceptions of the Irish, and the growing likelihood that the newcomers would eventually be fully assimilated into society.

These changing attitudes took a head when John F. Kennedy was elected into office. This event was, as Lee and Casey so eloquently put it, a sign that “…‘the symbolic exclusion was ended, and with it the psychological basis” for the tendency to make…(negative)…claims…(about)…the Irish political culture that groomed him for the White House…(However, it)…did not vanish overnight. It just became less visible.” [10] This was a true sign that the Irish had mostly assimilated into American society. Although there was still work to be done, the Irish immigrants morphed from being hated members of society that did not belong in the United States to a normal and integral part of the American experience.

Modern Debates on Immigration

This course of events could help historians and modern citizens predict how the total assimilation of new kinds of immigrants may occur in modern days. Lee and Casey discuss this in their book and they state that “Nowhere else in the United States…presents a better case study of what happened to the immigrant in mid– nineteenth century America, when the traditional mold was broken and relations between native stock and immigrants were set free from the shackles of history, to take a new course.’” [11] This quote offers an understanding on why the study of these historical events is important, because it offers a precedent for what may happen in the future.

The study of the story Irish immigration and assimilation shows that America is indeed the land a cultural melting pot, for nearly every single citizen today has ancestors not of this country. The historical assimilation of such a widely hated group may dictate how people of color and other ‘different from us’ backgrounds may assimilate into society in the future, such as Latino immigrants and Islamic people.
This study of 19th century Irish immigration offers new insight into accepting people different from oneself, and it inspires the everyday American citizen to be more open to the ever changing culture that makes America what it is; a rich melting pot of people from all different walks of life.


[1] Library of Congress. Irish : Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History : Classroom Materials at the Library of Congress : Library of Congress. The Library of Congress, February 2020.

[2] Shores, Mona. Immigration to the United States 1840-1920. US Immigration 1840-1920: Step One, July 9, 2012.

[3] Powell, John. Irish immigration. In Encyclopedia of North American Immigration, by John Powell. 2nd ed. Facts On File, 2016.

[4] Briggs, Shiloh. Nineteenth Century Irish Immigration and its Impact on the Union’s Victory in the Civil War. California State University, Dominguez Hills, 2008.

[5] Lee, Joseph, and Casey, Marion R., eds. 2006. Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States. New York: New York University Press.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sampson, Zabdiel Sidney. The Immigration Problem. An excerpt from an 1892 text discussing the critique of Chinese and Irish immigration. | DPLA, 1892.

[8] Samito, Christian G.. 2011. Becoming American under Fire : Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[9] Phelps, Edith M. Selected Articles on Restriction of Immigration. An excerpt from a summary of the era’s arguments for and against immigration policy reform, designed for debate teams. | DPLA, 1920.

[10] Lee, Joseph, and Casey, Marion R. Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States.

[11] Ibid.

Further Reading

Hotten-Somers, Diane M. “Relinquishing and Reclaiming Independence: Irish Domestic Servants, American Middle-Class Mistresses, and Assimilation, 1850–1920.” Éire-Ireland 36, no. 1 (2001): 185-201. doi:10.1353/eir.2001.0010. (Subscription or login may be required)

Worcester State University Fall 2022