The Irish & Racism During the 1800s

Millions of Irish emigrated to America in the 1800s.
... Henry Guttmann/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The 1800s witnessed a large-scale migration from Ireland to the United States. An estimated 4.5 million Irish arrived in the United States between 1820 and 1930, according to the Library of Congress, while around one-third of all migrants arriving between 1820 and 1860 were Irish. Poverty, politics and famine led the Irish to leave their homes, but their new lives could be very difficult. Throughout the 1800s, America’s Irish Catholics experienced recurrent waves of discrimination.

1 Employment

Immigrant Irish experienced a degree of discrimination in the employment market, although research by historian Richard J. Jensen suggests this was not as widespread as many people believe today. Most Irish entered the labor market at the bottom, working as unskilled laborers or servants. Some employers, such as West Virginia coal mining companies, antagonized locals by firing them to employ cheaper, non-unionized Irish and Italian immigrants alongside African American laborers. Other employers used Irish immigrants' willingness to work for low wages as a threat to maintain wages for their existing employees at a low level.

2 Location

Irish immigrants of the 1800s tended to concentrate close to the ports at which they arrived, establishing distinctively Irish neighborhoods. As early as 1820, the Irish population of New York City stood at 25,000, while the massive immigration of the 1840s and 1850s meant that, by 1860, this had risen to just under 500,000, or 12.8 per cent of the city’s population. Unencumbered by sanitation, fire or safety regulations, local landlords and con artists took advantage of newly-arrived immigrants, charging exorbitant rents and offering “help” to find work in exchange for money.

3 Organized Anti-Irish Groups

The growing issue of the Irish and other migrants led some Americans to form anti-immigrant organizations. The Roman Catholic religious faith of many immigrants made them suspect in many American eyes; as Jay P. Dolan of Notre Dame University puts it, “To be Catholic in the United States in the 1840s and '50s was to be portrayed as a menace to national security. To be Catholic was also to be Irish.” These feelings gave rise to the American Party, commonly known as the “Know Nothings,” which was active in the 1850s. The party opposed the large-scale immigration of Catholics and had 43 congressmen at its electoral peak in 1853.

4 Inter-Irish Tensions

Irish migrants also brought their own inter-community tensions with them to the United States. Descendants of an earlier wave of Irish Protestant migrants, resident in the United States since the 1770s, clashed with the large numbers of Irish Catholics arriving in the mid-1800s, leading to sporadic outbreaks of violence. For example, in 1831, a group of Protestants burned down St. Mary’s Catholic Church in New York City, while in July 1871, 60 civilians died when Catholic protestors attacked a Protestant Orange parade in Greenwich Village.

Rita Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She began writing in 2002 and her work has appeared in several academic journals including "Memory Studies," the "Journal of Historical Geography" and the "Local Historian." She holds a Ph.D. in history and an honours degree in geography from the University of Ulster.