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Where Did the Irish Settle in America?

The history of Irish emigration to the United States of America is a long and bittersweet tale but the diaspora that now exists, millions of Irish Americans, is the single greatest legacy of one of the toughest times in the Emerald Isle’s history.

Now the country benefits from an expanded network of brothers and sisters living and working in America and although there is still emigration today, between both countries, it is the bond created during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that is strongest. 

Cobh

Cobh, County Cork

Irish Emigration to America

Irish men and women first settled in the United States during the 1700s. These were predominantly Scots-Irish and they largely settled into a rural way of life in Virginia, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. This is generally considered the first wave of emigration but the second, much larger and more consistent wave, came during the late 1800s spurred on by the Great Potato Famine. 

This devastating famine, still remembered in Ireland to this day, lead to countless Irish seeking a better life away from their homeland. What followed, between the late 1800s and early 1900s, was the single biggest exit of people the country had ever witnessed. Cobh, a port in County Cork that was once also called Queenstown, seen 2.5 million people pass through her gates as trans-Atlantic roots became more established, reliable and safer during this period of transition. 

Irish Settling in America

This huge movement of people, and the increase in chain immigration (where families created a support network to fund more relatives to come across and join them), begged one key question – where would they all go? 

The simplest answer is “not very far”.

The Irish men and women who left their homeland weren’t the poorest in Ireland, as they could scrape together enough funds to travel, but when they arrived in America they were generally penniless and destitute by comparison. This resulted in huge numbers of Irish staying put in the ports they arrived in, primarily New York City and Boston, and creating unofficial Irish ghettos.

A large percentage of those who arrived were generally unskilled but America needed lots of manual labour and this lead to Irish ghettos providing thousands of workers, cheap labour, who in turn helped build and create America’s fledgling infrastructure of roads, railways and cities. 

Legacy of Irish Emigration to America

That legacy, on the Eastern Seaboard helping build a brand new infrastructure, has lead to the Irish being involved in every facet of modern American life. 

This involvement stems from the huge numbers of Irish who first made the jump into the New World. An 1890 census revealed 190,000 Irish living in New York City, 260,000 in Boston and 124,000 in Illinois, primarily in and around Chicago.

Incredibly, due to the growth of families over generations and an ever-present strong Irish heritage those numbers have exploded. Recent public census reports have shown that 33.3 million Americans (10.5% of the population) have Irish ancestors, connections or heritage and certain areas retain a huge connection to the Emerald Isle. Two noticeable examples include 24% of people living in Boston considering themselves of Irish descent and 45% of those in Breezy Point, a neighbourhood of Queens, New York.   

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Thankfully this legacy is only set to continue and from the heady heights of the likes of President Andrew Jackson and JFK right down to normal working-class people, Ireland will continue to have a presence in America. 

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