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Trials of My Irish Ancestors

Updated on July 31, 2011

Among the earliest settlers in the Colonies, the Irish fled to the United States in mass numbers during the 1800’s. The people of Ireland suffered from oppression long before a single Irishmen’s foot touched the soil of America. Animosity and hatred between the English and Irish that was born in their native lands continued in the New Americas. The land in Ireland was under English rule after the Act of Union in 1803 (Shapiro 1991). Most of the people of Ireland rented the land they tilled from the English (Baba 2007). Irishmen could work their whole lives on the land and never own it themselves. To add to the oppression in Ireland, Protestant priests tried to force their religion on the Catholic Irish people. Many people left Ireland hoping to escape the lack of sympathy for their traditions.

While many people from Ireland were instrumental in colonizing the United States, the greatest surge of Irish people entering the United States was during the famous Potato Famine. According Mary Baba of Yale University, around 1845 a fungus began to overtake whole crops of potatoes until the fungus had affected all of Ireland. Families not only could not bring in their crops, they could not feed their own families. The potato famine has spurred stories that were passed down from generation to generation. Those stories are told about whole families dying of starvation in Ireland. The potato famine was said to have killed 2.5 million people (Baba 2007). Stray survivors of the famine were looking for a new hope. Hope presented it’s self in the form of the United States. People who had entered the United States wrote letters back to Ireland speaking of jobs and land (Shapiro 1991). The Irish people were desperate for a land where they would be accepted and escape the tyrannical rule of England.

Conditions during the passage to America were inhumane. Irish and Scots were packed onto boats of as many as 900 people (Shapiro 1991). Conditions on the boats were unsanitary. Circumstances of those people arriving to the United States were not much better then on the ships. Irish people were naive to the swindlers who would take what ever money they had claiming to provide them with accommodation that were acceptable.

Mary Baba wrote ; People were crowded into rooms with often a whole

family living in one room. In 1850, it was reported that in the Irish Fifth

Ward in Providence, an average of nine people or 1.82 families lived in

one or two rooms.4 The Five Points slum area in Manhattan was described

by a witness as having 75 people living in 12 rooms and paying about $4

a month for rent. At this time, this was equivalent to about one week’s pay.

In the back of the building were wooden hovels which rented for $3 a month.

Many tenements did not have indoor plumbing or running water. Sewage

collected in outhouses and rats were prevalent, carrying and spreading disease,

often to children. In 1857, 2/3 of New York City’s deaths were children under

age 5, mostly Irish. (W., p. 67) There were also epidemics of typhoid, cholera,

tuberculosis and pneumonia throughout East Coast cities.

The United States did not have a government regulated program to process immigrants until 1892 when Ellis Island opened its first center (Baba 2007). Irish immigrant accounted for over one third of all the immigrants from 1820 to 1860.

Even though the Irish were great in numbers they were the object of harsh stereotypes and negativity. As more Irish people poured into the United Stated the view of the Catholic Irish people changed. The Irish became victims of negativity by Protestant Whites. Religious tension mounted between the two groups. Cartoon depicting the Irish in a derogatory manner became common in the newspapers and printed articles. Housing was in short supply due to the quickly growing population.

The biggest form of discrimination the Irish felt was in employment. The overwhelming influx of immigrants created a lack of jobs in the larger cities. Do to the crop failures in Ireland many Irish people did not was no leave the cities to become farmers. Irish people became the victims of a dual market. Many wealthy business owners would not hire the Irish do more than dangerous manual labor. In the newspaper ads Irish people were excluding from applying for certain jobs. Irishmen were credited for building roads, houses, canals, and railroads (Baba 2007).

Mary Baba also explained how Irish woman were given jobs in industry working for as little as 90 cents a week while being denied employment in less demanding positions. Irish women were victims of double jeopardy due to being both women and Irish. Basically, the Irish people were not considered good enough for business or office work. Even tavern jobs were not open to people who were Irish. There is speculation that signs banning Irish people from applying were posted in windows of many businesses (Jensen 2004). Whether this direct form of discrimination actually happened is still questioned by historians. Historians do seem to agree that discrimination in employment against the Irish was common place in the cities.

I have Irish ancestors on both sides of my family. Do to the diluting of bloodlines and the current cultural diversity in the United States; I have not been the prey discrimination like my ancestors. As a woman I have felt discrimination business situations including glass ceilings and wage differences. It would be disrespectful for me to compare my few little moments of defeat with the oppression of thousands of Irish people.


Baba, Mary. (2007). Irish Immigrant Families in Mid-Late 19th Century America. Yale-

New Haven Teachers Institute. Retrieved on February 29, 2007 from

Chermayeff, Shapiro Wasserman.( 1991) Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the

Immigrant Experience. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Retrieved on

February 29, 2003 from

Jensen, Richard. (December 22, 2004) "No Irish Need Apply" A Myth of Victimization.

Journal of Social History 36.2 (2002) 405-429. Retrieved on February 29, 2007



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    • LoosingIt profile image

      LoosingIt 6 years ago

      Lots of detail and examples. Very good article.