- April 28, 2020
Irish Migration — The Cause, Consequences and Experiences
IrishMigration — The Cause, Consequences and Experiences
IrishMigration — The Cause, Consequences and Experiences
Irishmigration is one of the fascinating topics in European history. Thesignificance of the subject is borne on the estimation that well over70 million people around the world have an Irish descent1.While the Irish migrated to different parts of the world, a largepopulation happens to have settled in the United States. As O`Brienexplains, the population of people with Irish decent in the UnitedStates is now about seven times larger than the actual size of Irishpeople staying in Ireland2.The causes of the Irish migration and their experiences in theforeign countries are perhaps one of the interesting researchsubjects. Indeed, a look at the nature of the issue elicits an arrayof questions that need to be investigated.
Oneof the questions is what might have been the major cause of thetumultuous migrations of the Irish people to other parts of theworld, which also happened to be largely disproportionate to theother European migrants. Secondly, it is noted that, at a certainperiod, many of the Europeans who had migrated to America returned totheir countries. It is of particular interest to question how manyIrish might have returned, considering the migrant population happensto be larger than the actual inhabitants in the motherland. One ofthe common accounts is that many of the Europeans returned because ofadverse conditions experienced in the foreign countries3.If Ireland did not experience as much influx of returning migrants asother countries did4,would it imply the Irish people did not experience the adverseconditions in the foreign nations. If that is not the case, then whatcould probably provide an explanation for their persistent stay inforeign countries? This paper explores the history of Irishmigrations, focusing thecause, consequences, and experiences.
TheHistory of Irish Migration
Thehistory of Irish migration is documented and essentially traces tothe 17thcentury. Indeed, the first waves of mass migration of the Irishpeople happened in the second half of the 17thcentury, as well as after the Cromwellian era5.Although many moved to settle in the West Indies on a voluntarybasis, a significant fraction of them were transported as indenturedslaves.
Itis worth noting that, initially, Ireland was predominantly Catholic.Too many of the typical Catholics of the era, emigrations wentagainst the traditional Celtic traditions of clan and extendedrelations. Leaving families and relatives behind was considered anintolerable and unbearable exile. Based on this reason, the ambitionof migrating to overseas did not interest the traditional Irelandcommunities, no matter the oppression and adverse social and economicconditions they suffered in their home country because of clinging tothe faith. O`Briennotes that, in any case, the Irish did not have a place to go. Themigration of the Catholics to the North America remained illegaluntil after the War of Independence. Moreover, even after allowingthe migration, the cost of passage remained relatively unaffordable.Most Irish families were poor and migration would simply not be ontheir agenda. Those who secured passages and chose to maintain tieswith the motherland would sail to Kinsale and settle on coastal landsthat are now part of the Unites States6.
However,the populations in Ulster, in the Northern counties, held a differentattitude that was far-removed from the staunch Catholics.Predominantly Presbyterians and with Scottish Ancestry, many hadendured chronic discrimination in Ireland, yet they were also notinhabited to having strong ties to the relatives and soils. Thisgroup espoused to the view that, if they moved to North America, theywould find a much more fulfilling life. To a certain extent, many ofthis group of people were economically independent — they worked asshopkeepers, artisans, young professionals, and line traders. Becauseof their position, it was relatively easy for them to secure passageand move to North America. Therefore, apart from slavery, earlymigrations by the Irish were often orchestrated by economicdownturns, which compelled them to think about seeking a better lifeoverseas.
By1720, England was the best exit route to America. However, the Irishfamine of 1740 triggered a renewal of interest in the Atlanticpassage, and since then, the population of emigrants to Americastarted increasing drastically and never reduced. As O`Brien7notes, as from 1771 to 1773, over a hundred ships left Portrush,Newry, Belfast, Derry and Larne ports, each ferrying over 32,000Irish immigrants. At the same time, similar numbers left for NorthAmerica through Cork, Dublin, and Waterford, many of who wereCatholics. As of 1790, the population of Irish immigrants in theUnited States was well over 447,000, with over 66 percent of thesehaving traveled from Ulster. The population back in Ireland had grownto about 2.3 million, reaching about 5 million by the close of thecentury. A significant part of the population still lived in povertyand had high aspirations of traveling to the United States. Theconstant trend of migration reduced significantly following therevolution wars. And just when it was picking, the Napoleonic warsbroke out and curtailed the movements across the Atlantic. The trendonly started peaking again during the Eraof Good Feelings, coinciding with the political occupations of JamesMonroe, yet it did not peak until the 1830s8.
Despitethe upward trend has long started since the 1830s, the mid-1840srecorded the most sudden and drastic increase in the number ofimmigrants. This trend was attributed to the potato blight faminethat ravaged the country, destroying the crop the population hadrelied upon as stable food. A vast of Irish populations, numbering inhundreds of thousands, were driven from cottages and forced tomigrate to America. As opposed to the first immigrants, this newgeneration did not have skills and experience to fit into theknowledge economy of the foreign country. This population was alsocomprised of adversely poor people, possessing no clothes and withlittle hope for life. As documented by Langone,many of this group of immigrants was not educated. Despite theirstrong affiliation to Catholicism, they did not have formal religiouseducation9.Even before the outbreak of famine, most has been in abject povertyand regarded as the poorest in Europe. At the onset of famine, manywere evicted from the cottages, which had been nothing any betterthan hovels. The famine also coincided with the outbreak of choleraand some other infectious diseases. A significant fraction of thepopulation was wiped out by cholera more than by starvation. Thesurvivors who crossed the Atlantic to reach Canada and the UnitedStates had limited resources to fend for themselves10.Langonediscusses that emigration had the most profound impact on the ratesof immigration. The author notes that the easiest way ofconceptualizing this effect is by looking at the rates of emigrationsbased on annual totals. The population of migrants across theAtlantic peaked beyond 100,000 as of 1840s. As of 1845, the number ofimmigrants reached 220,000, increasing further to 300,000 in 1849. In1851, Ireland conducted a census, providing statistics of the numberof people that had been migrating across the Atlantic. It wasreported that well over 3,000,000 people had moved to either the USor Canada, while the six-year rates of mortality starting from 1845,extending to 1850 were 6.4 percent, 9.1 percent, 18.5 percent, 15.4 percent, 17.9 percent and 12.2 percent, respectively11.
Alarge population of first Irish immigrants was initially employed towork on the Erie Canal, but a host of other projects started itswake, and an increasing number of immigrants was employed to work onprojects such as railroads. It was easy for most of the emigrants tobe quickly absorbed because of the skills they possessed. Typically,the migrants would move to England, where they would learn differentskills before traveling across the Atlantic. However, the secondbatch of immigrants arriving after the second potato blight faminewas different and faced the most adverse of all conditions12.
Inone way, the Irish in America were subjected to different forms ofracial discrimination. As O`Briendiscusses the American cartoonist portrayed the high formsdiscrimination leveled against the Irish people. The cartoons werefeatured in the Boston newspapers on a regular basis, depicting theIrish as lazy people, dogs scavenging or paupers13.Besides, the Irish people who were perceived as only good for manuallabor. Discriminative content on the popular magazine depicting thepoor state of the Irish was common. They were stereotyped as lazy,unintelligent, carefree criminals and alcoholics. The author pointsout that the term paddy wagon, which was a nickname of “Patrick”that was widely used to address Irish men and was associated withcriminal mind.
Similarly,Quinlindiscusses that the Irish immigrants had very difficult experiences inthe oversea countries. Due to the low level of education, manyarrived in the US with only limited skills such as cooking, cleaningand basic knowledge, which meant they could only work kin factories.Besides, they had to contend with pronounced bigotry and stereotypes.Some common phrases that were used was “don’t get Irished up”,meaning ‘do not get silly like the Irish’14.Besidesracial discrimination, the Irish faced religious discrimination dueto their catholic background. Many Protestants, both in England andin America, perceived the Catholics as confused Christians whoworshiped Mary, rather than Jesus. Despite, the service, hard workand dedication that the Irish showed in their work, they faced abuse.For example, their masters called them brawls. However, as Quinlin15notes, not all these forms of treatment the Irish people weresubjected to affected them because they had already faced similarconditions in their home countries.
TheIrish immigrants in the cities occupied the shanty towns that hadpoor roads and sanitation and drainage, conditions that were not anybetter compared to those they left behind. The economic resourceswere scarce. Besides, most Irish people did not have an educationbackground and were referred to as the Massachusetts. During themayoral elections in 1854, newspaper’s editorial claimed that theIrish were ‘empty heads’16.The Irish still competed with African for the manual jobs thataccompanied with low pay, an act that was perceived to compromise theEuropean ideals. Norwooddiscusses that there was rampant social evil in the streets duringthe night in the form of prostitution and drunkenness, robberies,assault, rape and murder. The authorities conspired with criminals tocommit crime, for example, the city mayor provided shield for Irishcriminals to commit crimes as long as he received bribe17.
Theuse of Brahmin label was outright in depicting the clear differencesand social exclusion of the Irish from the mainstream populations.Having developed by the Oliver Wendell Holmes, the concept of Brahmindescribes the mentality that the elite immigrants held aboutthemselves. As Quinlinnotes, Brahmins considered themselves to be at the top of theAmerican society and life by virtue of power, wealth and theprivileges they enjoyed. The elites were recognized by bloodlinelineages, depicted by the names such as the Quincys, the Shattucks,the Cabots, the Lowells and the Adams. Each of these families hadparticularly contributed much the wellbeing of the American society,especially Boston. These perceived great families comprised of bignames such as the Supreme Court Justices, Boston mayors, Presidentsof Harvard, attorneys and renowned doctors. While other cities alsohad great families, the Bostonians still considered that such did notqualify to be elites because they were all too common and did notexhibit any exceptional stature18.
Thetreatment they accorded to the indentured slaves and the Irish,despite being Europeans too, did not differ any significantly fromthat accorded to the slaves. This evidence was manifested bycomplains of adverse mistreatment. Therefore, it can be argued thatduring this period, the perception of differences was no longeroriented towards race, but social class. Some Irish people hadstruggled to fit into this type of life. O`Brien,for instance, provides an account the experiences a son to an IrishWard boss who, despite their status, continued to stay at EastBoston. While other ward bosses were accepted as Brahmins, it wasdifficult for them to be accepted just because they were Irish. Evenwhen interacting with Brahmins, his father would always be verycareful not to give way be seen as Irish. For instance, he changedhis name to Joseph so that he can be seen to be Americanized, and nolonger affiliated to Irish19.The Irish would envy the lifestyle of the Boston Brahmins. The Irishadmired how the Brahmins lived a lavish lifestyle, with theirchildren enjoying access to all forms of toys, foodstuffs, leisure,and entertainment. He could only envy this form of life, consideringthat a significant part of the Irish population was sufferingadversely, living on the edge of life.
Stevenshas explained that during the period of famine of the 1840, hundredsof thousands of the Americans fled to settle in Boston. Within ayear, the Boston population increased from just 30,000 to over150,000. Because many of this population comprised of poor people,they relied on servitude. Indeed, the Irish population accounts for70 percent of the Boston servants. Because of the tendency toservitude, the mainstream Boston population perceived the Irishpeople were a servant race. The female servants were called‘brigets’, while male servants were called "paddys." Ofcourse, the Irish did not like their social position while in theUS20.Traditionally, many Irish parents would name their children afterpopular Catholic saints. However, upon arrival in the United andCanada, many started changing their names, replacing them with thecommon American names, considering that the Catholic names carriedcertain excluding, derisive connotations for which they needed toerase the legacy.
TheIrish populations were noted to have high levels of loneliness andmelancholy compared to the mainstream population. This condition wascaused by the adverse living conditions they were subjected.According to Quinlin,this loneliness was to blame for high incidences of mental illnesses.The Irish population accounted for the highest number of patientsadmitted to mental facilities. The influx of the Irish people inIreland was not welcome by other populations in the US. In part, thisresistance against the Irish immigrants was exemplified by theformations of the Know-Nothing Party, which hated the Irish andadvocated against their settlement. Some mainstream Americanpopulations hated the Irish laborers who ‘compromised’ theEuropean ideals by just working to earn anything21.
TheIrish population was seen to be generally ‘nagging’ because oftheir assertiveness to seek to be employed even where there wereapparently no opportunities. In fact, at one time, employers startedplacing “No Irish Need Apply” signs, which would be often placedto “No Dogs Allowed signs”, symbolizing the negative attitudesthat were directed at the group22.
Likeother Europeans who migrated to the United States, the Irishexperienced tough conditions and even many contemplated returning.
AsSteven explains, the initial stages of America’s revolution sawlarge groups across racial divide migrate to America to exploit theeconomic potential that America represented. However, as Revolutiontook a toll, it was notable that a great number of Europeans beganreturning to Europe23.
Theauthor attributes the return of the Europeans to economic andpolitical forces that are responsible for triggering migration, theaspect of alienation that underlies relocating from native homes toforeign countries and difficulties that pertain to assimilation aswell as citizenship. It is cited that there were rampant cases ofprejudice, especially those that were based on race. This promptedimmigrants to look back to their homelands. Secondly, economicopportunities in Europe seemed to be better compared to those inAmerica. The perception that America was the land of opportunitieswas proven wrong in most occasions. For instance, Dino Cinel notesthat most Italians and a few Irish returned home to explore the newopportunities that came by the new land tenure systems. Somepreferred buying pieces of land in their homeland to buying inAmerica. There were also cases where other groups needed to unitewith their families after long time separation. Additionally, somegroups, such as the Italians, were opposed to changes that wouldalienate them from the community, and therefore chose to returnhome24.
Theexplanations are quite plausible. Just as it is today, most returnmigrations are attributed to failed economic dreams that the foreignlands would have better intervened, reuniting with family, politicalreasons or emergence of intervening opportunities in the homelandsthat beckon for the return.
Byrnehas explained that many Irish did not return because they were tornbetween the tough social and economic conditions and some promisingreforms that kept them alive. The negative perceptions leveledagainst the Irish people had been waning over time. The author notesthat eventhis perception of differences did not last long, subdued by theadvocacies for quality and humanity. Indeed, by early 18thcentury, there was a general call for the society to exercisehumanity, make judgments based on religious morals, as opposed toracial, and class dispositions. The religious moral relevance ismirrored in practice and writings. For instance, using religiousknowledge to justify establishment treatment of slaves and the poorIrish people was notable. The religious advocates called upon thecommunity to embrace Christian values such as engaging in charity.Nevertheless, there are many other forms of writing that one willalso find evidence of these changes. Some expressed disappointment inthe failure of the Europeans to embrace Christian value, while somearticulated the need for religious values25.
Theperiod between 18th and 19th century was characterized by a dramaticchange in perception of human differences towards the Irish, mainlyevidenced by the waning European perception of other people [such isthe Irish] as lesser beings, paving way to new perception thatconsidered them as human — a change that was awaken by a call forexercising humanity based on religious values26.In this regard, change can be conceived to have happenedsystematically in three phases. In the first phase, the someEuropeans perceived themselves as a superior race and consideredother races as lesser beings. In the second stage, the Europeanrealizes that other tribes are not lesser beings, although they stillconsidered they had limited rights and freedom. In the last phase,the Europeans realized all people have equal rights, and need to betreated with humanity and religious moral values, regardless ofracial and socioeconomic differences.
TheIrish in the oversea countries continued to assert their position sothat they could also be recognized as Europeans. They opposed slaveryof Irish people. Then, the Irish also refused to work alone in farms,and companies, and protested to be recognized fully like otherEuropeans. It was because of these acts that enabled them to berecognized and be entitled to enjoy same privileges as other whites.The employers that were willing to hire black Americans and Chinesewere forced by the Irish to stop discriminating against the Irish.Because of the multiple strides, the Irish had made and gained somestatus among the white community by the late 19thCentury.Similarly,Byrnenotes that aftera hard fight to claim their freedom and improve their way of life, aconsiderable number of Irish people begun to practice business,politics, and other economic activities like other mainstream whiteAmerican populations27.
Inconclusion, this paper has sought to explore the historyof Irish migrations, focusing on the cause of migration and theexperiences that the Irish emigrants encountered overseas. Thisdiscussion has been motivated by the need to find answers to severalquestions. One of the issues is what might have been the major causeof the tumultuous migrations of the Irish people to other parts ofthe world, which also happened to be largely disproportionate to theother European migrants. Secondly, it is noted that, at a certainperiod, many of the Europeans who had migrated to the United Statesreturned to their countries. It is of particular interest to questionhow many Irish might have returned, considering the migrantpopulation happens to be larger than the actual people in themotherland. One of the common accounts is that many of the Europeansreturned because of adverse conditions experienced in the foreigncountries. If Ireland did not experience as much influx of returningmigrants as other nations did, would it imply the Irish people didnot experience the adverse conditions in the foreign countries. Ifthat is not the case, then what could probably provide an explanationfor their persistent stay in foreign countries?
Thehistory of Irish migration is documented and essentially traces tothe 17thcentury, but peaking in the 1840s. The first waves of mass migrationof the Irish people happened in second half of the 17thcentury, as well as after the Cromwellian era. Although many moved tosettle in the West Indies on a voluntary basis, a significantfraction of them were transported as indentured slaves. Over time,the main driver for their migration becomes the economic hardships —the Irish were perhaps the poorest of all the European communities.The peak migrations experienced in 1840s were orchestrated by thepotato famine.
Althoughthe Irish migration to America was driven by the aspirations to finda happy and fulfilling life, the experiences in the oversea countriesdid not turn out to be any better than the motherlands. Many Irishcontinued to struggle with economic hardships. They also faceddiscriminations from the mainstream American communities.Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the second group of immigrants,those who moved to America in the 1840s because of potato blightfamine, were particularly the worst hit because, unlike the earliermigrants that had some skills to fit into American knowledge economy,the second batch would not. Therefore, when speaking of adverseconditions experienced, it is important to bear in mind thedifferences between these two groups of immigrants because the firstbatch did not face as many difficulties as the second lot. Whilethe account of the Irish who returned home is limited, it can only bepostulated that many Irish did not return because they were tornbetween the tough social and economic conditions and some promisingreforms that kept them alive. The negative perceptions leveledagainst the Irish people had been waning over time, and manyconsidered it would be rewarding to cling on.
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Cullen,Bernard. TheStory of the Irish in Boston.James B. Cullen & Co, 2013
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Norwood,Stephen."MaraudingYouth and the Christian Front: Antisemitic Violence in Boston and NewYork During World War II". AmericanJewish History.91(2003): 233–267.
O`Brien,Michael. AHidden Phase of American History: Ireland`s Part in America`sStruggle for Liberty.Dodd, Mead, 1919.
O`Brien,Michael. TheIrish at Bunker Hill: Evidence of Irish Participation in the Battleof 17 June 1775.Irish University Press, 2013.
O`Connor,Thomas. TheBoston Irish: A Political History.Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995
Quinlin,Michael. IrishBoston: A Lively Look at Boston`s Colorful Irish Past.Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.
Ryan,Dennis P.. Beyondthe ballot box: a social history of the Boston Irish, 1845-1917.ScholarWorks, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 2013.
Ryan,Dennis. Imagesof America: A Journey Through Boston Irish History.Arcadia Publishing, 2012.
Stevens,Peter. HiddenHistory of the Boston Irish: Little-Known Stories from Ireland`s"Next Parish Over".Arcadia Publishing. 2008
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1 O`Brien, Michael. The Irish at Bunker Hill: Evidence of Irish Participation in the Battle of 17 June 1775. (Irish University Press, 2013) , pp 23
3 Ryan, Dennis. Images of America: A Journey Through Boston Irish History (Arcadia Publishing, 2012), pp 12
4 Norwood, Stephen. "Marauding Youth and the Christian Front: Antisemitic Violence in Boston and New York During World War II". American Jewish History. 91 (2003): pp 267.
5 O`Brien, Michael. A Hidden Phase of American History: Ireland`s Part in America`s Struggle for Liberty (Dodd, Mead, 1919), pp 45
6 O`Brien, Michael. A Hidden Phase of American History: Ireland`s Part in America`s Struggle for Liberty (Dodd, Mead, 1919), pp 89
7 O`Connor, Thomas. The Boston Irish: A Political History (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995), pp 89
8 Ibid, pp 91
9 Whyte, William. "Race Conflicts in the North End of Boston". The New England Quarterly. 12 (2000): 623–642.
10 Langone, Fred. The North End: Where It All Began. Boston: Post-Gazette, American Independence Edition
11 Ibid, pp 2
12 Ryan, Dennis. Images of America: A Journey Through Boston Irish History (Arcadia Publishing, 2012), pp 452.
13 O`Brien, Michael. A Hidden Phase of American History: Ireland`s Part in America`s Struggle for Liberty. Dodd, Mead, 1919.
14 Quinlin, Michael. Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston`s Colorful Irish Past (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), pp 34.
15 Ibid, pp 36
16 Ibid, pp 39
17 Norwood, Stephen. "Marauding Youth and the Christian Front: Antisemitic Violence in Boston and New York During World War II". American Jewish History. 91 (2003): pp 267
18 Quinlin, Michael. Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston`s Colorful Irish Past (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), pp 56.
19 O`Brien, Michael. The Irish at Bunker Hill: Evidence of Irish Participation in the Battle of 17 June 1775. (Irish University Press, 2013), pp 45
20 Stevens, Peter. Hidden History of the Boston Irish: Little-Known Stories from Ireland`s "Next Parish Over" (Arcadia Publishing. 2008), pp 78
22 Quinlin, Michael. Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston`s Colorful Irish Past (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), pp 34.
23 Stevens, Peter. Hidden History of the Boston Irish: Little-Known Stories from Ireland`s "Next Parish Over" (Arcadia Publishing. 2008), pp 78
24 Ryan, Dennis P.. Beyond the ballot box: a social history of the Boston Irish, 1845-1917 (ScholarWorks, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 2013), ppp 167
25 Byrne, James. Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History: a Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia, Volume 2 (ABC-CLIO. 2008), pp 79
26 Ibid, pp 78
27 Byrne, James Patrick. Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History: a Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia, Volume 2 (ABC-CLIO. 2008), pp 56