Irish Emigration to United States
The year 1641 saw the Irish Catholics revolt in the massacre of the Protestants. This action led to instances of revenge, specifically from the English dictator Oliver Cromwell that was directed at the Irish Catholics. The land belonging to Irish Catholics was largely confiscated, and by the early 1700s, Catholics had only a small portion of land in Ireland.
At the end of the seventeenth century, major events started to take place in the Catholic population. First, James II, who was the last monarch of Catholic English, was defeated by William of Orange; however, his reign became oppressive to the Catholic population; for instance, the Catholic clergy were constrained, and the Irish education system became non-existence. To complicate the matter for the Irish population, various discriminatory and oppressive statutes called Penal Laws were enacted aimed to deprive Irish all political and economic power. Moreover, the oppressive laws became unbearable and gave rise to mass emigration of Irish to the United States around the year 1930.
Secondly, potatoes were the favored Irish food which again acted as the means of income for the larger peasant population. In the late 1840s, potato disease known as blight struck the Irish farms, the results of which were catastrophic for it led to widespread famine and many deaths. As a result, the choice for the larger population became emigration in order to escape the inevitable perishing that would otherwise befall them in their homeland. Moreover, the rural economy for most Irish people became ruined and unpromising; therefore, they were pushed and forced to move to the USA.
At the same time, due to the worsening rural economy and disorganization in labor, the USA appeared promising in terms of unlimited labor opportunities, and therefore, it became almost irresistible to the Irish to ignore such opportunities. At that time, millions of Irish left for the USA and occupied low-paying jobs in railroads, canal construction, stevedores in docks, and in the various building projects in cities. What was evident was that the Irish largely had no necessary skills required for job mobility and economic success.
When they migrated to the USA, the Irish were initially viewed to belong to a race or ethnicity that was regarded as indeterminate for a long time. In many instances, especially in labor classification, they were not considered black, and at the same time, they did not qualify to be members of the white race – which was dominant. Indeed, Noel Ignatiev observes that “Strong tendencies existed in antebellum America to consign the Irish, if not to the black race, then to an intermediate race located socially between black and white”. Thereafter, the racial status of the Irish was eventually decided as a result of government policies, census designations, and the employer preferences that expressed separation between the white ethnicities from the African Americans. Through this, the Irish were made ‘whites’ in order to separate them from the blacks and became accustomed to the American racial system, which promoted white supremacy. On a large scale, the Irish population was naturalized, an opportunity that gave them ‘license’ to the white world.
The Irish relationship with African Americans has been characterized as harsh and sometimes confrontational. This harsh relation originates from the fact that African Americans have been the chief competitors of the Irish, and in the past, African Americans were used to deflate the wages or to curtail strikes by the Irish workers. This has sometimes ended up in riots depicting the two groups, as it was evidenced in 1863. Moreover, some attempts to integrate the two racial groups have not been fruitful as racial epithets continue to characterize their relations.
Most Irish immigrants chose urban life and lived in urban centers. This, in turn, provided them with political advantages, especially in urban elections, as they quickly became the voting members of the Democratic Party, a situation that provided them with a stable political base that became central to their economic advancement.
Economically, the Irish migration significantly influenced the rapid development of US cities. In addition, commerce expanded rapidly, and manufacturing accelerated at high speed due to the supply of labor by the Irish population. Moreover, due to political success in elections, the Irish started to compete for jobs equally occupied by Native Americans in areas such as policemen, firemen, bigger companies, and other business contracts equally.
Socially, the Irish enhanced and promoted their religious values in American society. Catholic Church membership grew steadily, and there was also the alteration of the balance of power between Protestants and Catholics in the USA. Indeed, catholic bishops, initially with a small congregation, started to have thousands of followers, which resulted in the great transformation of the Catholic Church in the USA.