Here are some facts about Irish immigration. The population of Northern Ireland stands at about 1.8 million; that of the Republic at nearly 4.5 million. Yet, around the world there are over 60 million people who claim ancestry from either the northern or southern parts of the island. Of these the vast majority reside in the United States but there are also numerous in Canada, Australia and New Zealand with smaller communities in other countries. In Australia nearly two million claim Irish ancestry (9% of the total population) while as many as 30% have some ancestral connection to Ireland. In Great Britain 10% of the people have one Irish grandparent and as many as one quarter have at least some Irish ancestry that they are aware of. How did this come about?
Northern Ireland and the Protestants
During the centuries when Ireland was part of Great Britain Protestants faired better in Ireland than Catholics and perhaps felt less of a need to immigrate. Nonetheless, relatively large number travelled to America mostly in the 18th century in order to escape hardships at home. Most settled in rural areas and took up farming. They were quickly assimilated into the fabric of then mostly Protestant American society. According to estimates those of Protestant Irish ancestry number more than 5 million. Read on for more facts about Irish immigration, this time from the Catholic population.
Irish Catholics Travel to the US
Irish immigrants travelled to America in small numbers even before the declaration of American independence. Numbers increased from about 1800 onwards. One of the reasons may have been the fact that in Ireland they were considered as second class citizens while America promised freedom and a more tolerant environment. Another reason was the opportunity for work. Ireland had a relatively large population. Some estimate it at 5 million at the beginning of the 19th century growing rapidly to as much as 8 million by the middle of the century. Work was not easy to find at home. By contrast, America promised better work opportunities. Some of the major projects of the early 1800’s like the opening of the Erie Canal required large number of laborers and the Irish swiftly moved in to fill that role.
More Facts About Irish Immigration: The Great Famine
The flow of immigrants from Ireland to America turned into a flood with the Great Famine of 1845-1848. Irish peasants lived on small plots of land and depended mostly on potatoes for food. Beginning in 1845 blight attacked the crop. As much as 50% of the crop was destroyed that year. While Ireland had had bad crops in earlier times, things became more complicated because the 1846 and 1847 were also disastrous. Within three years Ireland lost two million people. About one million died and another million immigrated, mostly to America, but also to Britain.
Even after the famine immigration continued at a steady pace with Irish Catholics sometime accounting for 50% of immigration to the US. Unlike Irish Protestants, Catholics settled mostly in cities. Between 1820 when immigration records began to be kept, and today, 4.8 million Irish have immigrated to the US.
According to the 2000 US census, 34.5 million Americans claimed Irish ancestry, which is about 12% of the total population. In the state of Massachusetts the Irish contingency stands 24%, double the national average. These facts about Irish immigration are indicative nor only of the large scope of immigration, but of the tenacity of identity. Third and fourth generation immigrants still remember fondly their land of origin.
They have left their mark
If we were to try to name all the famous Americans of Protestant or Catholic Irish ancestry it would probably take several book volumes. I remember a friend and amateur historian from Larne telling me that no less than six US presidents hailed from the vicinity of Larne. I have not taken the time to debunk or confirm this account but I would not at all be surprised if it were true.
Apart from the big and the famous the Irish had played their part in everyday life. St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most celebrated holidays in the US while American Country music has clear points of contact with Irish music.
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