Introduction & History
Note: Every attempt was made by the authors and editors to ensure accuracy and sensitivity. It is impossible to recall in this brief booklet all of the countless Irish-Americans who have made and continue to make contributions to the growth and progress of the United States of America.
In January of 1892, fifteen year old Annie Moore of Ireland was the first immigrant to enter the United States through Ellis Island in New York City. She followed in the footsteps of millions of Irish who traveled across the Atlantic before her, and millions more would come later. Overcoming resentment and facing deep discrimination because of their immigrant status and their faith, Irish Americans remain a strong presence in the United States. Today approximately 40 to 50 million Americans are of Irish descent or origin. Irish immigrants and their descendents have become some of this nation’s most prominent and respected citizens. The study of Irish-American heritage provides the opportunity to recall and appreciate the contributions of these individuals.
The history of the Irish immigration is an important aspect of American history. The contributions of Irish Americans to this country’s history, society, and culture are immeasurable. In the face of ethnic and religious discrimination and hostility, Irish Americans would help build this country, from its canals and railroads to shaping American government in national politics. Irish men and women would help form American culture and society into what it is today.
Coming to America
A popular legend of Ireland and among Irish Americans is that of St. Brendan the Navigator. This monk is believed to have reached the shores of North America almost one thousand years before the voyage of Christopher Columbus. William Ayers, a native of Galway, arrived in the West Indies on Columbus’ first voyage. He was one of forty sailors who remained on Hispanola.
Although the great Irish Exodus to North America would not take place until the nineteenth century, Irish began coming to the Americas as early as the 1500s. When Sir Walter Raleigh reached the “new world” in the 1580s, many members of his crew were from Ireland, including Irish sailor John Nugent. Later, in 1677, an Irish immigrant named Charles McCarthy led forty-eight Irish immigrants to establish the colony of East Greenwich in Rhode Island. These early immigrants were predominately men, motivated by the promise of land, wealth, and religious toleration across the Atlantic. Many immigrants, however, were forced to find new homes because of the dire circumstances in which they lived in Ireland. Convicts or exiles from religious wars often escaped to America in the hopes of freely practicing their religion, and many served as indentured servants to wealthy settlers.
Unfortunately, the new immigrants faced hardship and discrimination in America. The lives of indentured servants were characterized by overwork, and they often faced discrimination at the hands of the colonial settlers. Prejudice and hostility against Irish Catholics was widespread, and the practice of Catholicism was banned in all colonies except Pennsylvania and parts of Maryland. Irish Catholic immigrants were forced to either abandon their faith or practice in secret. In the face of discrimination, Irish communities became unified and Irish immigrants depended on each other for survival.
The American Revolution
On March 5, 1770, Patrick Carr would become the first of many Irish immigrants who would give their lives to the Revolutionary cause when he was killed during the famous Boston Massacre. The Irish proved to be an integral part of the Revolutionary cause, from serving in militias and the armed forces, to printing and signing the Declaration of Independence. In fact, four signers of the Declaration of Independence; Matthew Thornton, George Taylor, and James Smith; were Irish-born. Charles Carroll was the only Irish Catholic to sign.
Irish immigrants would serve the Revolution in a variety of ways. Richard Montgomery, a former officer in the British Army and native of Dublin, was a strong supporter of American Independence, and gave his life in 1775 fighting for the American forces. According to author John Deignan, Irish-born John Barry would become known as the “father of the U.S. Navy,” and immigrant Stephen Moylan became a hero to the Irish-American community for his service as a colonel in George Washington’s staff. Another famous story from the American Revolution is that of Margaret Corbin, the daughter of Irish immigrants, who fought alongside her husband in Northern Manhattan in 1776. When her husband was killed by her side in battle, she took over for him, firing his cannon until she was also wounded. She was honored as a hero and later became the first woman in United States history to be awarded a pension from the federal government.
After the Revolution, one symbol of the Irish-American presence in the new United States would last throughout the nation’s history. In 1790, Irish Immigrant James Hoban won a gold medal for his architectural design of what would become The White House. He would be the principal architect and designer in charge of project in 1792, and again during its reconstruction in 1814.
An Gorta Mór
One of the darkest periods of Irish history is the Irish Potato Famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1852, and claimed the lives of more than one million Irish men, women and children. The disease that struck the Irish potato crop was so devastating because over one-third of Ireland’s population lived on the potato, eating literally pounds of potatoes a day. The fungus, Phytophthera infestans, destroyed nearly the entire crop. Over half of the crop failed in 1846, leading to the “Black 47,” the deadliest winter of the famine. This had devastating effects on Ireland, which lost over one million people to starvation, and another 2.1 million fled the country. It is estimated that 1.8 million of those who fled settled in North America.
The journey across the Atlantic was also extremely dangerous, and the vessels that carried the immigrants to the United States unfortunately came to be called “coffin ships.” Disease ran rampant through the ships, and often the majority of the immigrants never made it across the sea. Not only were diseases a major problem, but some of the worst shipwrecks occurred during the Famine years. In Grosse Ile, a major immigration port in Canada, it is estimated that at least 12,000 Irish who died during voyages from Liverpool are buried in the soil. The Potato Famine era would result in the great “Irish Exodus” and bring an estimated one million Irish to the Unites States. Yet these immigrants also suffered upon their arrival to the United States because of dire poverty and religious and ethnic discrimination.
The Civil War
The involvement of Irish in the Civil War is an important part of Irish American history. Irish Americans fought for both the Union and Confederate Forces, although their participation in the Union Army was considerably greater. Historian Kevin Kenny estimates that at least 145,000 Irish served in the Union Army, although it is possible as many as 170,000 enlisted. Several regiments were made up of predominately Irish soldiers, including the Pennsylvania 69th and 48th. The most famous of these, however, was the “Fighting 69th.” Led by Michael Concoran, the 69th fought in the most well-known battles during the Civil War, including Bull Run, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Chacellorsville, and Antietam. The 69th was later incorporated into the “Irish Brigade” led by Thomas Francis Meagher, an Irish Revolutionary exile. The Irish community in the United States produced many heroes of the Civil War, such as Irish General Phillip Sheridan and officer James Shields.
The participation of Irish-American women in the Civil War is also a fascinating part of Irish-American history. Many Irish women served as nurses during the Civil War and came to be known as the “Irish Bridgets.” One interesting story is that of Jenny Hodgers, an Irish immigrant woman who disguised herself as a man and enlisted and fought in the 95th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Her true identity was never discovered until the age of seventy, and after her death Jenny was given full military honors.
The Irish in America suffered heavy losses in the Civil War. However, their patriotism and willingness to enlist were praised by many Americans. The involvement of Irish men and women in the Civil War is an important point in Irish-American history because many were incorporated into mainstream American society following the war. In the decades to follow, the Irish would begin to climb their way into the American middle class.