The United States has always been known as The Land of Immigrants. People from all parts of the globe have traveled to America, to be free from oppression, disease, and hunger, or simply to start a new life. Many different people of different culture, race, and religion have made their mark and helped to shape the American culture. One of the most influential immigration movements in American History is the Irish Immigration.
During the 18th century the Irish slowly began their migration to America. Centuries of oppression from Protestant English rule had forced them to live very poor lives under strict rules, in some cases having to renounce their Catholic beliefs and having to abandon their Gaelic language (Watts 23). There were few Irish in America until 1845, when a disease struck the potato crops of Ireland, wiping out the chief, and in some cases only, source of food for many poor farmers. This continued for the next five years, killing over 2.5 million people. Many Irish said God put the blight on the potatoes, but England put the hunger upon Ireland. The Irish farmers did have other crops and livestock but they were all shipped to England as rent for the landlords. Without the rent money the starving Irish would not even have a home (Considine 50).
In the years to come, hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants saved all the money they could to send a family member on the journey across the Atlantic. It was their pain and suffering which powered them and gave them the strength to survive. The ships were overcrowded with immigrants, where disease and hunger followed them and many more died on the journey. Upon arrival at the ports of the United States, the immigrants were described as being demoralized and confused (Walt). The Irish men fought, in many cases physically to get labor jobs of long hours and low pay. The women worked manly as servants called Brigets, to upper class families.
In the south, mainly New Orleans, the Irish lived in the swampland, living with diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. The Irish men were looked at as lower than slaves, as one historian puts it If a plantation owner loses a slave, he loses an investment, If a plantation owner loses a laborer he can just find another (Walt). Because of this, many were put into very dangerous jobs.
In cities such as Boston and New York, Irish immigrants were packed into slums and many still were dying as a result of hunger and disease. The Irish were discriminated against, mainly for being Catholics in an almost exclusively Protestant society. Many factories and employers posted signs on their doors, workers wanted, no Irish need apply (Considine 5). With the low wages that the Irish were earning (although much higher than they would receive in Ireland), one would think that the money would all be spent on feeding and housing the worker and their family, but this was not the case. Through backbreaking sacrifice, they were able to send home a few shillings or pounds at a time until a sister, a brother, a mother, father, daughter, aunt, uncle, cousin or friend had enough money to buy the ship ticket (Considine 46). This devotion of the Irish to their family and their fellow countrymen is a remarkable aspect of their culture.
From the depths of society, the Irish begin to rise to greatness, slowly Irish workers begin finding better jobs and many buying land and living on their own. The first event, which told the Americans that the Irish were truly American, was the Civil War. The Sixty Ninth New York State Volunteers or The Fighting 69th, was made up of all Irish men fighting to preserve the union. This Irish brigade soon became known for its bravery and willingness to die for the cause. By the end of the war, The Fighting 69th had fought in every major campaign in the eastern front of the war. Of the two thousand regiments of the Union Army, the NYSV ranked sixth in losses (Powers). When people heard news of this Irish brigade they realized that the Irish were indeed true Americans who were willing to put their lives on the line to preserve their new country.
Still, there were many Protestants who did not want the Catholics to have any power in government. A movement started to put down the rise of the Catholics, at the head of the movement were the Know Nothings, a group named because when they were asked about their cause the replied I know nothing (Walt). These people wanted to limit immigration and only give the vote to those, which were born in America. This movement did not last too long because, the Irish, with their huge numbers already had the vote and the Know Nothings were soon gone.
Soon the Irish were spread all throughout the United States, many of them on the frontier, building railroads west, and following the gold rush. One man John Mackay, rose up from being a lowly miner to one of the richest men in the world when he discovered a huge gold deposit. The most remarkable aspect of John Mackay was that he never left his friends behind because of his money, many times he gave fellow miners needed money. He was a model of many Irish beliefs, to never leave your friends behind, and always remember where you came from (Walt).
The Irish men became known for hanging out in the Taverns with friends after a hard day’s work. At these Taverns the men sang, told stories, and sometimes fought. Out of these barroom brawls came bareknuckle fighting, the precursor to boxing. John L. Sullivan from Roxbury, Massachusetts, soon became well known for his triumphs in the ring. One of his matches, against John Kilrane, lasted 75 rounds until Sullivan triumphed. Sullivan made a huge impact on the Irish, they finally had a name to look up too, a role model. As for everyone else, it became a privilege to be Irish, many non-Irish fighters changed to Irish surnames (Walt).
In the late nineteenth century, the Irish finally began to make a lasting imprint on American culture. They set a standard for work ethic, their religion became the major religion in many cities, and they soon became political machines empowering the Democrats. Their culture gave us pride in ourselves, and our home, and they gave us a model of true friendship, the willingness to do anything for a friend. All of these aspects of Irish culture are still alive today. The Dropkick Murphy’s, a Boston punk band, uses the themes of Irish culture in many of their songs. As one song goes:
Say hey Johnny Boy the battle call,
United we stand, divided we fall,
Together we are what we can’t be alone,
We came to this country, you made it our home (Dropkick).
This song tells of the camaraderie which the Irish posses, and how they find strength in numbers. One Irish historian states, to be Irish is to be against it, and fight for what is yours and to know the value of sticking together(Walt). For these reasons, the Irish made a lasting impression on our culture and will go down in history as one of the most influential movements in our history.