Immigration to the United States after 1840.
A case study of Irish immigrants after 1840, why they left Ireland for the United States and why their failure to assimilate in to American society, led to changing opinions of ‘the Irish’.
In 1860, German social scientist Friedrich Engels, who was horrified by mass immigration of Catholic Irishman, stated that ‘if this calamity continues on for another 30 years, there will only be Irishmen in America’.[footnoteRef:1] Although it can be argued that Engels prediction was considered to be somewhat of an over exaggeration, French sculptor and philosopher Paul Dubois reverberated Engels sentiment over half a century later. In his statement, Dubois argued that ‘emigration will soon cause it to be said that Ireland is no longer where flows the Shannon, but rather beside the banks of the Hudson River’.[footnoteRef:2] For some historians, the mass emigration of Irish immigrants to the United States was in some way, far more extensive than Engels and Dubois could have predicted. Mary Lee Dunn for example, infers that although America had experienced high levels of Irish immigration in the early 1820s, the enormous wave that arrived after 1840, caused considerable political, social and economic unease amongst American nativists[footnoteRef:3]. However, it wasn’t just American nativists who found the emigration process to be a difficult and challenge adjustment. For many Irish immigrant, the prospect of moving to a foreign land left them feeling uncertain about their future. In this essay I will investigate the origins of Irish immigrants who arrived after 1840 and how this effected their ability to integrate in to American society. Additionally, this essay will explore why American nativists considered Irish immigrants who arrived after 1840, to be a considerable threat to their ideas of American nativism. [1: Engels, Friedrich. 2008. The Conditions of the Working Class in England. 2nd edition. New York: Cosimo Classics. 90-93] [2: Bayer, Ronald H. and Meagher, Timothy. 1997. The New York Irish. USA: John Hopkin University Press. 91] [3: Dunn, Mary Lee. 2008. Ballykilcine Rising: From Famine Ireland to Immigrant America. USA: University of Massachusetts Press. 1-36]
Predating the Great Famine of 1845-1849, there was a considerable immigration culture in Ireland. It is estimated that between 1825 and 1830, over 100,000 emigrants had left Ireland; with a majority of them traveling to North America, while a small minority joined colonies in New Zealand and Australia.[footnoteRef:4] For Bryan Fanning, it is highly likely that Irish immigrants who took this journey were lower members of Irish society who were able to use their limited resources to scrape together enough money to pay for their passage.[footnoteRef:5] Moreover, these people were more concerned with making their fortune and seeking out adventure than laying down roots. Although it is often assumed that many Irish immigrants who travelled to America during the early 1800s were followers of the Catholic faith, a majority were in fact Protestant. The Protestant Irishman were literate, respectable and highly skilled tradesmen. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, educated Irish protestants only made up a small minority of immigrants. Fanning suggests that by the onset of the Great Famine, 75% of Irish immigrants were poor Catholics who lacked self-reliance and were often illiterate. These immigrants were considered by local American business owners, to be cheap labour and therefore predominately worked in textile factories and construction sites .[footnoteRef:6]Although there is clear evidence to show that Irish immigration to American was taking place before the 1840s, it is without doubt that the Great Famine of 1845-1849, was a contributing factor in the mass immigration of Irish nationals after 1840. [4: O’Grada, C.A. ‘A Note on Nineteenth Century Irish Emigration Statistics’. Population Studies, Volume 29, March 1975, 143-9] [5: Fanning, Bryan. 2018. Migration and the Making of Ireland. Dublin: University College Dublin. 25-37] [6: Ibid.]
For Jay Dolan, the ‘blight’, which was caused by a fungus that turned the leaves of potato plants black and led them to fall apart, was a key turning point in Irish immigration history.[footnoteRef:7] With no crops to sell, peasants found themselves unable to pay rent and were soon evicted by their landlords. With food scares and disease riff, it is unsurprising that many Irish natives turned their backs on rural life and instead sort the wealth and fortune that American society had to offer. Nevertheless, while many chose to seek their fortune in America, others found themselves forced in to immigration by their landlords, who although had a duty of care for them, were more concerned with acquiring replacement tenants who could afford to pay regular rent. [7: Dolan, Jay. 2008. The Irish Americans: A History. New York: Bloomsbury Press.68-72]
As a result of English Poor Law, landlords in Ireland were compelled to support their tenants even if there were unable to pay their rent. However, they were more interested in obtaining rent money than the well fare of their tenants. Dolan, states that a majority of immigrants who went to American after 1840, were forced to do so by their landlords who believed it would be more profitable to pay for the passage of families who inhabited their properties than supply them with food and shelter.[footnoteRef:8] However from 1846, the number of landlord forced immigrations rose as estates began to be cleared and tenants who failed to produce their rent were offered free or subsidized passage to America and New Zealand. For Regina Donlon, landlord emigration had never occurred on such a vast scale before in Ireland until this point in time.[footnoteRef:9] It could be inferred that the Great Famine was a significant turning point in Irish immigration history, as it was without doubt one of the key factors that led these people to abandon their home land. It is also important at this point to highlight the fact that most famine immigration was not made by sole immigrants but rather whole households. Families, or what was left of them, travelled to new continents such as America, Canada and Australia, in the hopes of protecting future generations from the years of economic hardship that were to follow as a result of the famine.[footnoteRef:10] [8: Dolan. 2008. 68-72] [9: Donlon, Regina. 2018. German and Irish immigrants in the Midwestern United States,1850-1900. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. 35-36] [10: Kenny, Kevin. 2014. The American Irish: A History. New York: Routledge.133-135]
Although it is evident that that landlord immigration played a key role in the movement of Irish natives to America, the extent to which their immigration could be reversed is extremely important. For many Irish, Britain was seen as an attractive destination for those who planned to increase their wealth and return home within a short space of time. Historian David Fitzpatrick infers that for the Irish, the journey to England was cheap and short, and because of this, it meant that it was easy to return home if things did or didn’t work out.[footnoteRef:11] The voyage to America on the other hand, wasn’t as easily reversible. For many of the Irish poor, the journey to America was expensive and took several months to complete. However, many Irish chose to seek their fortune in America as it gave them an opportunity to change not just their financial circumstances but also help them to raise their social status within society. It is for these reasons that Donlon states, that very few Irish immigrants who went to America, never returned to Ireland.[footnoteRef:12] [11: Fitzpatrick, David. 1980. Irish Emigration in the Later Nineteenth Century. Irish Historical Studies. Volume 22. Issue 8. 126-143] [12: Donlon. 38-40]
Although a ticket to the United States was far more expensive than a ticket to Britain, America was a very popular and enticing destination for Irish immigrants who sort to make their fortune. It is estimated that by the 1870s, over half of immigrants who had settled there were of Irish ancestry, with many coming from poor backgrounds.[footnoteRef:13] For Fitzpatrick, the majority of Irish immigrants who went to America were usually peasants or farm workers who had been hit the hardest by the potato famine.[footnoteRef:14] He furthers this point by inferring that their agricultural background explains why most Irish immigrants who arrived between 1830-1840, initially settled in states where agriculture was the predominate industry.[footnoteRef:15] Furthermore, it is interesting that these poor and often ‘backwards’ immigrants, chose to take the far more expensive journey to America over the much easier and more reversible voyage to Britain. Barkan, further this notion by stating that American emigration was largely a chain movement which greatly increased during a period in which Britain was experiencing an economic recession and high unemployment rates.[footnoteRef:16] For Irish immigrants, the poor living conditions that were being experience by the poor of British society, made it look far less appealing. For these reason, it could be argued that many Irish immigrants decided to try their luck and make the journey to the United States in the hopes of settling in to a society where their living standards were higher, and the chances of making their fortune was far more likely. Although there is strong evidence to support the opinions of Fitzpatrick and Barkan, it must be noted that the United States was also suffering an period of economic hardship during this period following the end of the Gold Rush. Both historians also fails to consider that anti-Catholic riots such as the Gordons Riot of 1780, as well as the strong anti-Irish sentiment that was prominent in British society, were also contributing factor in the decision of Irish immigrants to choose America instead of Britain. However, even though Fitzpatrick and Barkan fail to consider these factors in their arguments, it would be wrong to completely ignore them all together, as there is evidence to suggest that there was a far higher demand for unskilled and causal labour in American than in Britain during the mid-nineteenth century.[footnoteRef:17] [13: Barkan, Elliot. 2013. Immigration in American History: Arrival, Adaption and Integration .USA: ABC-CLIO,LLC. 93-94] [14: Fitzpatrick, 126-143] [15: Ibid 129] [16: Barkan, 38-40] [17: Kenny,2014.131]
Arriving in America
By the mid-nineteenth century, Americans recognised that there were two distinct groups of Irish immigrants. The first, which predominantly arrived between 1825 and 1835, were educated and skilled newcomers who commonly followed the Protestant religion. These Irishman were welcomed by American nativists and soon settled in to society where they soon found themselves climbing the social ladder. The second group however, which came to America after 1840, were often poor, uneducated, unskilled Catholics labourers. This group, received far less of a warmer welcome by American nativists who saw them as members of a lower race. For Susan Batroletti, the immigration of ‘famine immigrant’ led the term ‘Irish’ to became synonymous with crime, poverty, violence and alcoholism.[footnoteRef:18] As one Irishman in New York observed ‘ if a swindler, murderer or robber, no matter what his colour or country commit any offensive act, he is instantaneously set down as being a native of Ireland’.[footnoteRef:19] For many nativists, the arrival of destitute ‘Irish wretches’ who clustered together in cities to form strongholds of ‘Romanism’, threated the very essence of ‘native Americanism’.[footnoteRef:20] Although it could be argued that the dislike of the Irish grew following the mass immigration of unskilled labourers, was unclear as to why their opinions had changed so drastically between the 1820s and 1840s. The second part of this essay will now establish why American perceptions of the Irish change so radically following the arrival of Irish immigrants after 1840. [18: Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. 2005. Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850. New York: Houghton Miffin Company. 117-122] [19: Bayor, R.H. 2003. Race and Ethnicity in America: A Concise History. New York: Columbia University Press. 53] [20: Ibid ]
Opinion of American nativist
For Donna Gabaccia, the growing number of immigrants caused a significant surge in xenophobic sentiment within American society during the mid 1800s.[footnoteRef:21] As part of her argument, Gabaccia highlights that following the aftermath of the American revolution, many Americans, including most of its political elite, passionately believed that their new nation had isolated itself from its past as a colonized territory of British and had instead, created its own ‘American identity’.[footnoteRef:22] However, as the number of immigrants began to rise from 128,502 in the 1820s to over 1.4 million after the 1840s, American’s begun to fear the impact that these people could have not only their economy and society, but also their new found identity. [21: Gabaccia, Donna, R. 2012. Foreign Relations: American Immigration in Global Perspective. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.28] [22: Ibid.71]
Carl Wittke furthers this notion by stating that the mass immigration of Irish Catholics after the 1840s was a major concern for Americans. Although the United States had no official religion as a result of constitutional laws that separated the state and the church, Protestantism was the dominant religion within American society during the nineteenth century. For Philip Jenkins, Anti-Catholicism was a by-product of British colonial rule.[footnoteRef:23] He furthers his argument by stating that Puritans who opposed both the Catholic and Anglican church, on the grounds of their backwards thinking and medieval practices, made up ¾ of Britain’s who colonised and shaped American society.[footnoteRef:24] As some of the first settlers in colonised America, puritans were able to embed their religious teachings and beliefs in to the foundation of American society. It could therefore be argued that ‘nativist’ sentiments, which at its core was based on puritan ideas, meant that Irish Catholics found themselves in unfriendly territory when a majority of them arrived in the United States after 1840. [23: Jenkins, Phillip. 2004. The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 23-29] [24: Jenkins, 23-29]
1840s-1850 :Urban Irish immigrants
The history of Irish immigrants in the United States is considered by some historians as somewhat of an enigma. This is due to the fact that most Irish immigrants were originally from rural areas, but consequently decided to settle in large cities upon their arrival to America. For Donald Akenson, there are two key reasons that could explain why these people decided to turn their backs on rural life and in favour of urban living.
Firstly, Akenson infers that Irish immigrants who arrived in the United States after the 1840s, were often from poor backgrounds and could not afford to travel inland towards agricultural hotspots.[footnoteRef:25] Akenson then states that for this reason, these immigrants had no other option than to settle in coastal cities on the eastern seaboard.[footnoteRef:26] However, while Akensons argument is backed by substantial evidence, he fails to consider the fact not all immigrants were destitute when they arrived in American. It is estimated that around 20% of immigrants who made the journey from rural Ireland to the Americas east coast did in fact, have the funds to travel inland yet decided not to make the journey. Further evidence suggests, that these people also chose not to travel inland over fears that their minimal agriculture experience, would prevent them from obtaining employment.[footnoteRef:27] This could impart be due to the fact that serfdom and manorialism, that often existed within Irish rural society, meant that many agricultural workers were not encouraged to develop their skill or further their knowledge of the latest technical innovations. It has also been suggested by David Emmons, that many Irish immigrants turned their backs on farming and agricultural work as it reminded them of the hardship that they faced back home.[footnoteRef:28] For many Irish farmers, agriculture symbolised poverty, oppression, starvation and suffering. Knowing that famine had led them to desert their homeland, many famers hoped that by avoiding agricultural work, they would be able to avoid having to up root their families for a second time if famine hit rural American states. It could therefore be inferred that although lack of funds prevented a large proportion of Irish immigrants who arrived after 1840, it was actually a lack of agricultural knowledge and skill mixed with negative past experiences, that prevented these people from moving to rural areas. [25: Akenson, Donald. 1984. ‘An Agnostic View of the Historiography of the Irish-Americans’. France: Labour/Le Travail. 123-159] [26: Akenson. 1984. 123-159] [27: Emmons. David. 2010. Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West 1845-1910. USA: University of Oakland Press. 6-14] [28: O’Grada, C.A. ‘A Note on Nineteenth Century Irish Emigration Statistics’. Population Studies, Volume 29, March 1975, 143-9]
Akenson’s second argument is that poor Irish immigrants who travelled after 1840 were also socially and culturally unsuitable for working in rural areas.[footnoteRef:29] The feeling of loneliness that many former Irish farmers had experienced back at home, led many former agricultural workers to reside in American cities, such as New York, where they could live in close proximity to their family, friends and neighbours. Historian Carl Wittke agrees with this notion and states that following the second wave of Irish immigration, New York City hosted more Irishmen than Dublin.[footnoteRef:30] Although many American nativist disliked the formation of Irish communities such as Five Points, for Catholic Irishman, sticking together was a form of self-defence against members of anti-Catholic groups such as the Orange Order who often ragged violent attacks against on their fellow Irishman.[footnoteRef:31] [29: Akenson. 1984. 166-172] [30: Wittke,23-23] [31: Gordon, Michael. 1993. The Orange Riots: Irish Political violence in New York City 1870-1871. New York: Cornell University. 14-23]
Overall, it could be argued that the reason most Irish immigrants chose to leave Ireland following the Great Famine, and move to the United States in the 1840s, was due the sentiment that they would have a better quality of life than if they chose to settle in Britain. It could be inferred, that high unemployment rates, poor living conditions and rampant discrimination were all contributing factors in their decision to choose New York, over London. However, Irish immigrants who arrived after 1840 found it much harder to settle in to American society than their fellow Irishman who had arrived two decades before. For example, those who arrived before 1840, were predominantly educated Irish protestants, who intended on integrating in to American society in the hopes of making their fortune. In stark contrast, those who arrived after 1840 were often unskilled and uneducated Catholic labourers who were often forced to immigrate by their landlords. These people often felt strongly connected to their Irish heritage and therefore felt reluctant to embrace American culture. As a consequence of their reluctance to integrate, American opinions of the Irish began to change. It can be inferred that by the late 1840s, nativists viewed the Irish as a group of people who were unwilling to assimilate. As a result it could be argued that Americans saw the Irish’s unwillingness to integrate as a sign that they in fact, wanted to force their religion, culture and morals on to a society that was already well established. Evidence of this can be seen in written memoirs of American nativists who state that the building of several Catholic churches accompanied by the expansion of Irish neighbourhoods, demonstrates that they were slowly trying to assimilate American natives in to their community.[footnoteRef:32] However, what these nativists often forgot to consider is that their own society was in fact, built on immigrant puritan values. It could therefore be concluded that the changing opinions of American nativists was based on a simple misunderstanding of the intentions of Irish immigrants who simple wanted to lay down roots and live with their fellow Irishman who were also forced to abandon their homeland in the hopes of a better life. [32: Gabaccia, 2012. 71-73]
· Akenson, Donald. 1984. ‘An Agnostic View of the Historiography of the Irish-Americans’. France: Labour/Le Travail.
· Barkan, Elliot. 2013. Immigration in American History: Arrival, Adaption and Integration .USA: ABC-CLIO,LLC.
· Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. 2005. Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850. New York: Houghton Miffin Company.
· Bayor, R.H. 2003. Race and Ethnicity in America: A Concise History. New York: Columbia University Press.
· Dolan, Jay. 2008. The Irish Americans: A History. New York: Bloomsbury Press
· Donlon, Regina. 2018. German and Irish immigrants in the Midwestern United States,1850-1900. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan
· Dunn, Mary Lee. 2008. Ballykilcine Rising: From Famine Ireland to Immigrant America. USA: University of Massachusetts Press
· Emmons. David. 2010. Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West 1845-1910. USA: University of Oakland Press.
· Engels, Friedrich. 2008. The Conditions of the Working Class in England. 2nd edition. New York: Cosimo Classics.
· Fanning, Bryan. 2018. Migration and the Making of Ireland. Dublin: University College Dublin
· Fitzpatrick, David. 1980. Irish Emigration in the Later Nineteenth Century. Irish Historical Studies. Volume 22. Issue 8.
· Gabaccia, Donna, R. 2012. Foreign Relations: American Immigration in Global Perspective. New Jersey: Princeton University Press
· Gordon, Michael. 1993. The Orange Riots: Irish Political violence in New York City 1870-1871. New York: Cornell University.
· Jenkins, Phillip. 2004. The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
· Kenny, Kevin. 2014. The American Irish: A History. New York: Routledge.
· O’Grada, C.A. ‘A Note on Nineteenth Century Irish Emigration Statistics’. Population Studies, Volume 29, March 1975.