Emerald Heritage | What Irish Immigrants Brought to America
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What Irish Immigrants Brought to America

Over the centuries flashpoints in Ireland’s history has resulted in huge swathes of Irish men, women and children leaving the Emerald Isle in search for new identities and opportunities. 

Although the Irish have travelled as far and wide as New Zealand, Brazil, India, mainland Europe and more, their influence can perhaps be seen and felt strongest in the United States of America.

As we’ve explored in the past, millions of Irish made the journey across the Atlantic at various stages in history and their legacy lives on in countless aspects of modern American culture we see today.

A Huge Workforce

Figures change depending on the source but one thing that can be certain is that millions of Irish immigrants arrived on American shores between the 19th and 20th centuries. One figure suggests as many as 4.5 million Irish men, women and children arrived between 1820 and 1930! 

This massive influx of able-bodied workers provided the fledgling United States with a huge workforce that helped drive the country into the modern world as many of the men went straight into construction and helped build the skyscrapers, bridges, railroads and highways that still stand today.

Similar to the men, Irish women arrived in America with little or no skills and essentially became servants or help. These jobs included the likes of cook, cleaner, chambermaid and nanny.

It should be noted that although the Irish took on unskilled, low paid work, many were abused and mistreated as immigrants. History shows that many Americans at the time didn’t welcome this new influx and movements like the Know-Nothings sprang up in retaliation from the 1840s onwards. 

The Future of Unions

Every year, on the first Monday of September, millions of Americans celebrate Labor Day but what they might not know is just how much of an impact their Irish ancestors had on the labour practices of America. 

Gigantic figures like Mary Harris, Terence Vincent Powderly, George Meany and the Mollie Maguires group, fought for worker’s rights, the abolition of child labour, improved working conditions and so much more.

At times, as in the case of the Mollie Maguries, this action took on a violent side as leaders like Black Jack Kehoe organised workers, both skilled and unskilled, into strikes and threatened bosses and mine owners. At other times, as in the case of Mary Harris also known as Mother Jones, the action remained peaceful and in the form of non-violent strikes. 

Either way, the legacy of these figures rippled throughout 20th century America as working practices improved the trade unions took prominence in the decades to come. 

Spread of Catholicism

Irish immigrants have been crossing the Atlantic towards the Americas for centuries and many of those who made the first journeys were actually of a Protestant or Presbyterian background. 

The same, however, can’t be said of the millions that journeyed towards the USA in the wake of The Irish Famine and the growing need for jobs and economic saviour at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The vast majority of these immigrants were Catholic and their influence quickly spread throughout their new home. The legacy of which can still be felt today.

Every major town and city in the United States now boast a sizeable Catholic population and the latest figures, released by the Catholic church, suggest there are over 70 million!

Whilst this isn’t all down to the influx of Irish they definitely helped popularise the religion in a growing country ready to enter the modern world.

Saint Patrick's Day

Saint Patrick’s Day might be Ireland’s day, and the day of our country’s national saint, but over the decades it has developed into a global celebration and this can be seen in modern day America. 

The first ever recorded recognition of Saint Patrick’s Day in the USA came in Boston in 1737 when the Charitable Irish Society met to discuss help and support for Irish immigrants in the greater Boston area. The first ever parade, or celebration, in New York City took place in 1756!

Nowadays the date is marked and celebrated in every major American city usually in the form of parades or live events.

East Coast Legacy

Although Irish immigrants, and their ancestors, have percolated into every state in America, a particular legacy can be found on the east coast of the country. 

For many Irish men, women and children, the east coast of America was their first introduction to the new world, either through a glimpse of Boston harbour, the Statue of Liberty in New York or similar ports and cities along the seaboard.

As a result some of the highest percentages of Irish population density can be found along the east coast. In certain parts of New York state these figures reach 18% of the local population and in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Boston up to 15% of the population has a connection to the Emerald Isle to this very day! 

Stars And Stripes

Famous Faces

Every nation of immigrants will fondly look towards those who rise highest within their chosen professions and the Irish in America are no different! 

Over the decades Irish-American families and neighbourhoods have produced countless famous faces who have went on to impact American life in a myriad of different ways.

John F. Kennedy, his father, siblings and their children, have all had a huge impact on political and social life in America and are, most likely, the most famous Irish-Americans of all time.

Other notable names include the likes of Henry Ford, the son of immigrants, the 7th President of the United States Andrew Jackson, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, novelist Frank McCourt and actors Bill and Joel Murray.


This is just a brief overview and by no means a comprehensive guide to the impact of Irish immigrants in America!

If you think we’ve missed a crucial point or have a fascinating story to tell then get in touch by clicking here! We’d love to hear your, or your family’s, version of the Irish story in America. 

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