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There were also numerous political refugees especially after the abortive United Irishmen uprising of However, by the s and s the overwhelming majority of those fleeing the country were unskilled, Catholic, peasant laborers. By this time Ireland was becoming Europe's most densely populated country, the population having increased from about three million in to over eight million by The land could not support such a number.

One of the main problems was the absence of the practice of primogeniture among the Irish. Family farms or plots were divided again and again until individual allotments were often so small— perhaps only one or two acres in size—that they were of little use in raising a family. Conditions worsened when, in the wake of a post-Napoleonic Wars agricultural depression, many Irish were evicted from the land they had leased as tenants because the landlords wanted it used for grazing.

The concurrent great rise in population left thousands of discontented, landless Irish eager to seek new horizons. Moreover, the increase in industrialization had all but ended the modest amount of domestic weaving and spinning that had helped to supplement the income of some families. In addition, famine was never distant—a number of severe potato failures occurred during the s and s before the major famine of the s. As the passage from Britain to the Canadian Maritimes was substantially cheaper than that to the United States, many Irish immigrants came first to Canada, landing at Quebec, Montreal, or Halifax, and then sailed or even walked down into America.

After about , however, most immigrants sailed from Ireland to an American port. Whereas most of the Irish Catholic immigrants during the eighteenth century became engaged in some sort of farming occupation, those in the subsequent century tended to remain in such urban centers as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia or in the textile towns where their unskilled labor could be readily utilized. The immigrants were impoverished but usually not as destitute as those who came during the famine. Many readily found jobs building roads or canals such as the Erie.

Still, times were tough for most of them, especially the Catholics who frequently found themselves a minority and targets of discrimination in an overwhelmingly Protestant nation. It was the cataclysmic Potato Famine of , one of the most severe disasters in Irish history, that initiated the greatest departure of Irish immigrants to the United States.

The Irish Americans: A History

The potato constituted the main dietary staple for most Irish and when the blight struck a number of successive harvests social and economic disintegration ensued. As many as 1. A great number of the survivors emigrated, many of them to the United States. From the beginning of the famine in the mids until about 1.

In the latter part of the century, though the numbers fell from the highs of the famine years, the influx from Ireland continued to be large. While families predominated during the Famine exodus, single people now accounted for a far higher proportion of the immigrants.

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By more single women than single men were immigrants. It has been estimated that from to about four million Irish immigrated to the United States. Though the majority of Irish immigrants continued to inhabit urban centers, principally in the northeast but also in such cities as Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco, a significant minority went further afield. Only a small number went west to engage in farming, however.


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Most Irish immigrants were indeed peasants, but few had the money to purchase land or had sufficient skill and experience. Still, despite the great exploitation, oppression, and hardships suffered by many nineteenth-century Irish immigrants, the majority endured and their occupational mobility began to improve slowly. Their prowess and patriotic fervor in the Civil War helped to diminish anti-Irish bigotry and discrimination. As the years went by, the occupational caliber of Irish immigrants gradually improved in line with the slow amelioration of conditions in Ireland.

The Irish Americans: A History

By the end of the century a high proportion were skilled or semi-skilled laborers or had trades. Moreover, these immigrants were greatly aided by the Irish American infrastructure that awaited them. While life was still harsh for most immigrants, the parochial schools, charitable societies, workers' organizations, and social clubs aided their entry into a society that still frequently discriminated against Irish Catholics.

Furthermore, the influx of even poorer southern and eastern European immigrants helped the Irish attain increased status. In the twentieth century immigration from Ireland has ebbed and flowed. After Congress passed legislation limiting immigration during the s, however, the numbers declined.

The Irish Americans: A History - Harvard Book Store

Numbers for the s were particularly low. After World War II numbers again increased; but the s saw emigration from Ireland falling dramatically as a result of new quota laws restricting northern Europeans. Accordingly, the number of Irish-born legal residents now in the United States is far lower than it was in the mid-twentieth century.

From the s onward, however, there has been an unprecedented influx of undocumented Irish immigrants, especially to such traditionally Irish centers as New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.

A Famine Forces an Unprecedented Migration.

These have been mainly young, well-educated individuals who have left an economically troubled country with one of the highest rates of unemployment in the European Community EC. They prefer to work illegally in the United States, frequently in Irish-owned businesses, as bartenders, construction workers, nannies, and food servers, exposed to the dangers of exploitation and apprehension by the law, rather than remain on the dole at home.

Their number is unknown, though the figure is estimated to be between , and , The Irish have been present in the United States for hundreds of years and, accordingly, have had more opportunity than many other ethnic groups to assimilate into the wider society. Each successive generation has become more integrated with the dominant culture. In the eighteenth century the Protestant Irish relatively easily became acculturated and socially accepted.

However, it was far more difficult for the vast numbers of Catholic Irish who flooded into the United States in the post-famine decades to coalesce with the mainstream. Negative stereotypes imported from England characterizing the Irish as pugnacious, drunken, semi-savages were common and endured for at least the rest of the nineteenth century.

Multitudes of cartoons depicting the Irish as small, ugly, simian creatures armed with liquor and a shillelagh pervaded the press; and such terms as "paddy-wagons," "shenanigans," and "shanty Irish" gained popularity. Despite the effects of these offensive images, compounded by poverty and ignorance, the Irish Catholic immigrants possessed important advantages.

They arrived in great numbers, most were able to speak English, and their Western European culture was similar to American culture. These factors clearly allowed the Irish Catholics to blend in far more easily than some other ethnic groups. Even their Catholicism, once disdained by so many, came to be accepted in time.

Though some prejudices still linger, Catholicism is now an important part of American culture. Today it is no longer easy to define precisely what is meant by an Irish American ethnic identity. This is especially so for later generations. Intermarriage has played a major role in this blurring of ethnic lines. The process of assimilating has also been facilitated by the great migration in recent decades of the Irish from their ethnic enclaves in the cities to the suburbs and rural regions.

Greater participation in the multicultural public school system with a corresponding decline in parochial school attendance has played a significant role as well; another major factor has been the great decrease of immigrants from Ireland due to immigration laws disfavoring Europeans. Today, with 38,, Americans claiming Irish ancestry according to the census , American society as a whole associates few connotations—positive or negative—with this group. Among these immigrants and their ancestors, however, there is still great pride and a certain prestige in being Irish.

Still, there exists in some circles the belief that the Irish are less cultured, less advanced intellectually, and more politically reactionary and even bigoted than some other ethnic groups. The results of numerous polls show, however, that Catholic Irish Americans are among the best educated and most liberal in the United States.

Moreover, they are well represented in law, medicine, academia, and other prestigious professions, and they continue to be upwardly socially mobile. Traditionally prominent in the Democratic ranks of city and local politics, many, especially since the Kennedy presidency, have now attained high positions in the federal government. Countless more have become top civil servants.

Irish acceptability has also grown in line with the greater respect afforded by many Americans to the advances made by the Republic of Ireland in the twentieth century. Ireland's cultural heritage, with its diverse customs, traditions, folklore, mythology, music, and dance, is one of the richest and most distinctive in Europe. Rapid modernization and the extensive homogenization of western societies, however, has rendered much of this heritage obsolete or, at best, only vaguely perceived in contemporary Ireland.

With their extensive assimilation into American culture there has been a decline in continuity and appreciation of the domestic cultural heritage among Irish Americans Irish step dancers prance along the parade route during a south Boston St. Patrick's Day Parade in Nevertheless, there exist many elements in the Irish American culture that are truly unique and lend this group a distinct cultural character. Irish music and song brought to America by generations of immigrants have played a seminal role in the development of America's folk and country music. Elements of traditional Irish ballads introduced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are easily discernible in many American folk songs.

Irish fiddle music of this period is an important root of American country music. This earlier music became part of a rural tradition. Much of what was carried to America by the great waves of Irish immigration during the nineteenth century, on the other hand, became an important facet of America's urban folk scene. With the folk music revival of the s came a heightened appreciation of Irish music in both its American and indigenous forms.

Today Irish music is extremely popular not only among Irish Americans but among many Americans in general. March 17 is the feast of St.

The Irish-American Experience PART I of IV

Patrick, the most important holiday of the year for Irish Americans. Patrick, about whose life and chronology little definite is known, is the patron saint of Ireland. A Romano-Briton missionary, perhaps from Wales, St. Patrick is honored for spreading Christianity throughout Ireland in the fifth century. Though Irish Americans of all creeds are particularly prominent on St. Patrick's Day, the holiday is now so ubiquitous that individuals of many other ethnic groups participate in the festivities. Many cities and towns hold St.

Patrick's Day celebrations, parties, and, above all, parades. One of the oldest observances in the United States took place in Boston in under the auspices of the Charitable Irish Society. It was organized by Protestant Irish. Boston, especially in the districts of South Boston, still holds great celebrations each year, though the holiday is now more closely identified with Catholic Irish. The largest and most famous parade is held in New York City, with the first parade in that city dating back to In the early years this parade was organized by the Friendly Sons of St.

Patrick; in the Ancient Order of Hibernians became sponsor and still holds the sponsorship today. New York's main cathedral is dedicated to St. Most people celebrating St.

The Irish Americans : A History

Patrick's Day strive to wear something green, Ireland's national color. Green dye is often put in food and drink. The mayor of Chicago regularly has the Chicago River dyed green for the day. If people cannot find a shamrock to wear they carry representations of that plant.

According to legend the shamrock, with its three leaves on the single stalk, was used by St. Patrick to explain the mystery of the Christian Trinity to the pagan Irish. In Ireland St. Patrick's Day, though still celebrated with enthusiasm, tends to be somewhat more subdued than in the United States due to a greater appreciation of the religious significance of the feast.


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