The Irish were the first of Europe’s many impoverished peoples to seek economic advantages in the New World in large numbers in the 19th century, providing one of the great immigration streams to both Canada and the United States. According to the 2000 U.S. census and the 2001 Canadian census, 30,528,492 Americans and 3,822,660 Canadians claimed Irish descent. Most Irish immigrants originally settled in major urban centers, most prominently New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal, and Quebec. Because significant Irish immigration began early in the 17th century and continued for 300 years under a wide variety of circumstances, the Irish are now spread throughout North America and have become an integral part of American and Canadian culture.
The island of Ireland covers a little more than 32,000 square miles in the North Atlantic Ocean, about 80 miles west of Great Britain. In ancient times, it was inhabited by Celtic peoples, and the land was usually divided among multiple kings. The Irish were converted to Christianity in the fifth century by St. Patrick and for hundreds of years produced outstanding Christian scholars and missionaries. By the 12th century, English kings established a foothold near modern Dublin and gradually extended their control over the eastern half of the island. During the 1640s, most of Ireland was brought under English control by Oliver Cromwell, leading to a diffuse but persistent Irish resistance. Beginning in the 15th century, large numbers of Scots and English citizens were resettled in Ireland, mostly in the six counties of the north, on lands confiscated from the rebellious Irish nobility (see Ulster). These settlers formed the basis of the Protestant Ascendancy, a minority population that gradually came to view itself as Irish. By the late 18th century, many members of the Protestant Ascendancy were themselves calling for either self-government or complete independence from Great Britain. After the rebellion of 1798, Ireland was brought under more direct British control with the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1801). Throughout the 19th century, resolution of the Irish problem was continually hampered by two closely related issues: the question of the traditional unity of the island of Ireland and the cultural and religious division of the land between the Protestants of the north and the Roman Catholics of the south. The Irish Civil War (1919–21) led to the division of the land into the Republic of Eire—making up 27,133 square miles, or about 85 percent, of the island, fully independent from 1937, and Northern Ireland—the six counties of the north (5,451 square miles), which remained legislatively linked to Great Britain. Eire’s population of 3.8 million (2001) was 92 percent Roman Catholic; 45 percent of Northern Ireland’s 1.7 million people (2001) were Roman Catholic. With Catholic population growth in the north steadily outstripping that of Protestants, it was expected that Catholics would constitute the majority population in the north within a relatively short period of time, thus enhancing the possibility that the island will be politically reunified.
Following the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, Irish exiles, revolutionaries, and dispossessed Catholics frequently immigrated to Spain, France, and the Low Countries. In the 17th century alone, it has been estimated that there were 35,000 Irish soldiers in the French army. These, along with Irish merchants employed by France, made their way to New France in significant numbers during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1700, there were 130 families either fully Irish or of mixed Franco-Irish heritage. As political turmoil in Ireland increased, France and New France remained popular destinations for those with strong anti-British sentiments, including a few disgruntled settlers from British colonies to the south. Protestant immigrants, however, far outnumbered Catholic immigrants until the 1820s, and most Protestants settled in the British colonies south of New France. Between 1717 and 1775, more than 100,000 Presbyterian Scots-Irish settled in America, mainly because of high rents or famine and most coming from families who had been in Ireland for several generations. In the colonial period, they were in fact usually referred to simply as Irish, making it difficult to determine exact figures. Although Scots-Irish filtered throughout the colonies, they most frequently settled along the Appalachian frontier and largely influenced the religion and culture of the frontier regions as they developed. Altogether this represented the largest movement of any group from the British Isles to British North America in the 18th century. Many came as indentured servants (see indentured servitude), driven to the American colonies by the desperate economic condition of their homeland.
This illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 20, 1866, shows Irish immigrants leaving their home for America on the mail coach from Cahirciveen, County Kerry, Ireland. With poverty rampant in Ireland, emigration was an attractive alternative for many Irish well before—and long after—the great potato famine. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)
During the 18th century, Ireland grew more rapidly than any European country, with the population of the island increasing from 3 million in the 1720s to more than 8 million by the early 1840s. The exploding Irish population— which grew by 1.4 million between 1821 and 1841 alone—coincided with the fall of agricultural prices and the decline of the textile industry at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815), throwing hundreds of thousands out of work, with little prospect for economic improvement. The situation was made worse by the Irish land system, dominated by Protestant landlords, with most of the cottiers (tenant farmers with very small holdings) and laborers being Irish. Those most hurt economically were the larger tenant farmers, both Protestant and Catholic, who were often unable to pay rents and evicted from their lands, then entered an already depressed workforce. Rather than replace evicted farmers, landlords—often absentee in England—shifted to sheep and cattle raising as a more economically viable activity for the poor land. Also, with no system of primogeniture guaranteeing the eldest son the whole land inheritance, Irish farms were quickly divided among large families, with plots soon becoming too small to support a family. A series of potato famines further heightened the distress, adding starvation to destitution as compelling factors toward immigration.
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, the poorest laborers and cottiers tended to stay in Ireland or to immigrate to Britain, where industrialization was rapidly opening job opportunities. Protestants, generally better off financially than their Catholic neighbors, found it easier to immigrate to the New World, especially to the colonies of what would later become the United States. They had the added incentive of escaping rural violence then common, as Catholic secret societies attempted to undermine the Protestant Ascendancy.
Most Irish immigrants arrived in ports along the eastern seaboard of North America, including Halifax, Nova Scotia; Montreal, Quebec; Boston; Philadelphia; and New York. Most landed first at Canadian ports, as transportation rates there were considerably cheaper. Many then migrated southward, often after a number of years. Most immigrants stayed in the cities, but a significant number ventured into the Appalachian backcountry of Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia. By 1800, the Irish population of Philadelphia was 6,000, the largest in America. Most were Presbyterians, but there were Quakers and Episcopalians as well and an increasing number of Catholics by the turn of the century. The Irish were the largest non-English immigrant group in the colonial era, numbering perhaps 400,000 by 1790 (see British immigration). Between 1820 and 1840, the character of Irish immigration began to change, with a greater percentage of poor Irish Catholics among them. During this period, more than one-third of all immigrants to the United States were Irish, most by way of Canada. By the 1840s, however, they usually came directly to Boston or New York City.
Although fewer Irish stayed in Canada, between 1770 and 1830, they transformed the character of the maritime colonies. Newfoundland, once thought of only as a “colony built around a fishery,” was the first area of substantial Irish settlement. By the late 18th century, more and more sojourning fishermen were choosing to settle permanently on the island, despite a formal British ban. By the 1830s, when declining trade virtually ended Irish immigration, half of Newfoundland’s population was Irish (38,000). As Newfoundland’s transatlantic economy suffered after 1815, more Irish Catholics chose to settle in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick. Though Irish Catholics remained a small minority on Cape Breton Island, by 1837 they constituted more than one-third of the population of Halifax, and almost a third of the population of the entire colony. Between 1827 and 1835, it is estimated that 65,000 Irish immigrated to New Brunswick, attracted both by the fisheries and the rich farmland. Most were from the Irish provinces of Munster and Ulster, and perhaps 60 percent were Catholic. The Irish formed the largest immigrant group in Canada during the first half of the 19th century, more than the English, Scottish, and Welsh combined.
The Great Famine of 1845–49 dramatically accelerated an already-growing trend. The Irish peasantry had since the 18th century relied largely on the potato for their basic food supply. In the 1840s, an average male might eat 14 pounds of potatoes each day. Pigs, the primary source of meat in the Irish diet, were also fed potatoes. When potato blight destroyed a large percentage of the potato crops in 1845, 1846, and 1848, the laboring population had few choices. A million or more may have died as a result of the famine; another million chose to emigrate. In the 1820s, 54,000 Irish immigrants came to America; in the 1840s, 781,000. The immigrant wave peaked in the 1850s when 914,000 Irish immigrants arrived, most coming through New York Harbor. With friends or family already in the United States and British North America, the decision to emigrate became easier. Between 1845 and 1860, about 1.7 million Irish settled in the United States, and another 360,000, in Canada. Although the rate of immigration declined as the century progressed, the aggregate numbers remained large. Between 1860 and 1910, another 2.3 million Irish immigrated to the United States, and about 150,000, to Canada.
Whereas 18th-century Scots-Irish had often headed for the frontier, Irish immigrants after the Great Famine almost always settled in eastern cities. Many stayed in Boston and New York to work in industry or fill newly emerging publicsector jobs as police officers or firemen. Others moved on to jobs in canal and railway construction, filtering westward along with the progress of the country. Irish people were widely discriminated against in the 19th century but created an extensive culture of self-help, aided by their numbers and an almost universal commitment to the Roman Catholic Church (see nativism). The Irish helped transform the Catholic Church from a struggling minor denomination at the turn of the century to a major social and cultural force. By the 1870s, Irish Catholics came to dominate the church, which had earlier been led principally by French and German priests. In Canada, Irish Catholics joined with the significant French minority to further strengthen the Catholic Church there. By the early 20th century, Irish Americans were holding key political and financial positions in Boston, New York, and other large American cities. In Canada, they played a smaller role, however, being fewer in both number and percentage than in the United States, and having come to a society with an already-established Catholic Church in the French tradition.
As late as the 1920s, an average of more than 20,000 Irish immigrants were arriving annually in the United States. During the 1930s, however, the annual rate dropped dramatically to 1,300. During the 1930s, depression and the declaration of Irish independence (1937) combined to provide more stability in Ireland and the beginnings of a gradual improvement in the Irish economy. Between 1951 and 1990, more than 120,000 Irish immigrants arrived in the United States. Between 1992 and 2002, more than 4,000 arrived annually, with numbers falling dramatically after 1995. The Irish percentage of total immigrant arrivals averaged about 38 percent between 1820 and 1860, ensuring a substantial impact on the culture of the United States. By the post–World War II period, the Irish were part of the American mainstream, and new immigration was largely by individuals seeking greater economic opportunity. Between 1950 and 2002, Irish immigrants composed only 0.7 percent of all immigrants coming to the United States.
Irish immigration to Canada after the Great Famine tended to be more heavily Protestant than in the United States. It also marked the final widespread arrival of Irish there. In the worst years of the famine, between 1846 and 1850, about 230,000 Irish arrived in the maritime colonies and the Canadas. Nativism was prevalent in Canada as well as the United States. The Irish, often arrived ill and in poor condition and were herded into overcrowded quarantine stations where infectious diseases were rife, suggesting to local residents an association with filth and disease. At the peak of the immigration in the 1830s and 1840s, almost two-thirds of all Canadian immigrants were Irish. During that period more than 624,000 Irish immigrants arrived, accounting for more than half of all Irish immigrants between 1825 and 1978. By the 1850s, higher taxes, less regular transportation between Ireland and Canada, and lower fares to the United States diverted most Irish immigrants to the south. Between 1855 and 1869, fewer than 60,000 Irish arrived. During the 1880s and 1890s, the few who came tended to be Protestants who settled in Ontario and the west, though Irish numbers in the western provinces remained small. Irish immigration further declined in the 20th century. Of the 25,850 Irish immigrants in Canada in 2001, more than 35 percent (9,185) arrived before 1961, and only 6 percent (1,835) after 1990. Throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Irish Protestants have outnumbered Irish Catholics in Canada about two to one.
See also Canada—immigration survey and policy overview; United States—immigration survey and policy overview.