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Why so many Irish emigrated to America

Updated on March 19, 2016

Over 36 million citizens of the United States call themselves Irish Americans. That's compared to around 6 million people living on the island of Ireland today. Why did so many Irish emigrate to America? Since the eighteenth century there have been two major waves of Irish immigration to the US; around 250,000 Scots-Irish left in the 1700s in pursuit of greater religious freedom, while an estimated 1 million Irish Catholics set sail for the United States during the great famine of 1845-1849.

Both groups have made an important contributions to American life today. While most Irish Americans would trace their ancestors to the second wave of Irish emigrants in the 1800s, the earlier arrivals, the Scots-Irish did much to shape the culture of regions like Appalachia.

Scots-Irish set out for freedom in the New World

Scots-Irish ( sometimes called Scotch-Irish, or Ulster-Scots), refers to the people whose ancestors moved from Scotland to the north of Ireland around 1600 at the time of the Ulster Plantation. Unlike English settlers who were moving to Ireland at this time, the Scots-Irish were mainly 'dissenters' or Presbyterians in faith and they did not recognise the Established Church of England (Anglican / Episcopalian). As Ireland was now effectively controlled by the English Crown this meant there were many laws of religious prohibition in Ireland which discriminated against Presbyterians, as well as Catholics at this time. These were known as the 'Penal Laws' and the penalties for breaking them could be severe - even death. In the 17th and 18th century Scots-Irish 'dissenters' were not allowed to build churches, they were forced to pay a tithe to the Established Church (even though they did not recognize it) and they were charged higher rents for their lands than followers of the Anglican faith.

Both religious and economic factors inspired many Scots-Irish to immigrate to America. The New World promised freedom of conscience and the opportunity to set up a community free from repressive religious laws. In one parish near where I live, a pastor named James McGregor set sail for New Hampshire in 1718 with a large part of his congregation.High rents and problems in the Irish linen industry inspired many others to set sail for America which was seen as a land of freedom and opportunity.

Up to a quarter of a million Scots-Irish are estimated to have emigrated. While the first waves of emigration arrived mainly at New England, the later majority of Scots-Irish settled in Pennsylvania and Virginia - where their influence can be seen to this day in traditional bluegrass music. They were mainly small-time farmers and tradesmen. George Washington himself was said to have regarded their fighting prowess and staunch character particularly highly, and after their treatment by the English crown in Ireland, the Scots-Irish were very much willing to take up arms for the cause of independence.

Areas of the United States with the greatest concentration of Scots-Irish descendants today.
Areas of the United States with the greatest concentration of Scots-Irish descendants today.
In the 1800s many Irish were tenants on poor rocky land where they relied on the potato crop to feed their families.
In the 1800s many Irish were tenants on poor rocky land where they relied on the potato crop to feed their families.

Irish Catholics flee famine and poverty

By the mid-nineteenth century the Ireland was over-populated and large Catholic families in particular relied almost solely on potatoes to feed their families. This was because even a small patch of land could yield enough potatoes to feed a large family through the year. However, in the years 1845 - 1848 disaster struck. The potato crop in large areas was destroyed by blight in successive years. Many impoverished families had literally nothing to eat. The biggest estimates are that up to one million people died, and that another million had to emigrate to avoid starvation.

Those who emigrated at this time faced great hardship on the journey and many did not survive to see the American shore. As third class passengers they were kept in dark holds below decks and forbidden to move out of their quarters for the whole of the six week journey. Sickness spread like wildfire. Hence the nick-name ' coffin ships'. Many of these Irish emigrants did not really want to leave their homeland, and there are many sad but beautiful Irish folk songs about leaving Ireland at this time.

This new wave of Irish immigrants settled mainly in the North East - Boston and New York, and also around Chicago. They began at the bottom rung of society in America, though many families have worked their way up to the highest level today - a famous example being the Kennedys. Occupations such as the police and fire service seem to have particularly drawn recruits from the Irish American community.The Catholic Irish immigrants brought their folk music and their traditions such as St Patrick's Day and Halloween.

Famous Irish Americans

The Scots-Irish who moved to America in the eighteenth century and the Catholic Irish who emigrated in the nineteenth can count many famous Americans among their descendants.

Davy Crokett was half Scots-Irish. Fourteen American presidents have some Scots-Irish ancestry, most notably Andrew Jackson, Thedore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Dolly Parton has said she is very proud of her Scots-Irish roots and John Wayne once remarked that he was just a 'Scotch-Irish little boy'.

The Kennedys are probably the most famous Irish Americans involved in politics, but Reagan is also an Irish surname and even Barak Obama has some distant Irish ancestry. Judy Garland was the granddaughter of an Irish woman, and Grace Kelly was also from an Irish American family.


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    • Joy56 profile image


      4 years ago

      I am an English lass living in Ireland..... Love the video of Barak Obama

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Yes. Just don't do anything silly like take sides (even if you do have a side) bseauce like most Europeans, people in Northern Ireland think Americans are ignorant of the rest of the world and don't even know about sectarianism.Belfast, in general, is super safe. Derry is a little less so. But it's all about the neighborhood you're in and which time of night. Crime is crime and there's a lot of drug related crime in Northern Ireland (the whole IRA v. Unionists conflict now is basically centered around the drug trade). So just stay out of bad neighborhoods after dark like you would anywhere else on Earth.

    • Marie McKeown profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie McKeown 

      6 years ago from Ireland

      You make a good point Mazzy. Although we hear a lot about the emigration to America, many more Irish have emigrated to England over the years!

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image

      Mazzy Bolero 

      6 years ago from the U.K.

      I've read of the coffin ships - so many died on the journey. Hundreds of thousands moved to Britain, too, especially Lancashire, where many settled in Liverpool and Manchester. In Lancashire, the majority of Christians are Catholic because of the Irish ancestry. Being from Manchester, and with Catholic ancestors, I'm almost certainly of Irish descent, but then almost everyone from Lancashire is.

    • viking305 profile image

      L M Reid 

      8 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks for a wonderful hub on our Irish emmigration history. Those ships were well named. Coffen ships must have been hell on earth for all those people who left our shore through no choice of their own.

    • BrendyMac profile image


      8 years ago

      Loved this hub..I was asked by an American friend to explain how the famine started in Ireland...I'll refer them to this article,though I tried to explain it myself!! Your explanation is a lot clearer than mine could ever be!!

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      8 years ago from North Carolina

      In the earlier times, many came as indentured servants or seeking free land or jobs. The great Irish potato famine in the middle 19th century brought perhaps the biggest surge, Later many came seeking work in the fast industrializing U.S.


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