An Introduction to Irish Immigrant Ancestors #1

Irish Immigrant Ancestors: Who, What, When, Where, and Why?

Welcome to my series of posts that will cover the Immigration of the Irish to the United States.  The motivation behind this series is to help home genealogists without a full knowledge of history. It contains information that was helpful to me in my research and understanding.  I would like to provide a compass for people who are floundering or might have lost their motivation.


The focus will be from the 1600’s to the 1900’s. Over the weeks information will be chronologically presented beginning with the original colonies.


Most information will be about the Irish Catholics. Often, the Scots-Irish who settled in Pennsylvania are in the same data group. However, I approach them as two completely different groups of immigrants.

I will also touch on the Germans, French, English, Dutch, African American and other cultural groups. Like everything else, history belongs in context. The immigration picture of the time period includes every single non-indigenous American. In order to enrich understanding and provide a factual accounting of our ancestors, the geopolitical or social conditions and circumstances that explain their motivations provide clues essential to both finding them and getting to know them.

Including the Presbyterian Scots-Irish, Irish Quakers, Protestant Irish, or Irish Catholics in the same ethnic group skews the picture of an Irish immigrant. Distinct groups came from Ireland; some had little in common other than place and time, and sometimes, not even that.  


A searcher needs to make the distinctions of their family’s religion, level of education, occupation, or social class to find them. Though they may have arrived from Ireland at the same time or same port, for example, the Irish Catholic would not be found in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with the first-arriving Presbyterian Scots-Irish (aka Scotch-Irish). From this presentation, you may learn from which group your family can likely be excluded as well as included.

 Side Note: This is where I allow myself to remark or elaborate on something interesting, to share an anecdote, or give an example that might enrich your understanding.

Gaining insights. Getting on the right track:

I give personal examples from my family history as a way of providing insight into the lives of those who came. I only know my family’s history, but the groups who settled together were often “birds of a feather” in some way: they were related, had been neighbors back home, etc. Ancestors are more than their names. How one person fit into his or her community or knowing who is in their communnity can tell you something about your own family. It can elevate or enrich your story, or at least make it accurate. (That’s one reason I read the entire census from a township. You might find family you didn’t know about.)

An example of the importance of knowing history is a maternal great grandmother whose family lived in a community with Hutterites (German Anabaptists). My cousin assumed that she was a Hutterite—a logical conclusion. Family legend was, however, that she and her family were Catholic. It would have been very unlikely that she would have traveled here with a group of Hutterites who were escaping Catholicism. Instead, she and her English husband arrived from Canada to their New York settlement with an ox cart full of apple trees. They were planters—certainly not from the New Amsterdam region. Knowledge about religious groups, ports of departure and entry, and knowing that her surname was French, not German, sent me in the right direction.

Those I Separate from “Irish Immigrants.”

The Scottish “plantationers” / colonists who were exiled to Ireland by King Charles, and the Scottish colonizers recruited to Ireland but emigrated to America from Ireland in the 1700’s I do not treat as Irish immigrants. They were Presbyterian and their numbers in the 1700’s represent well over 50% of emigrations of all groups from Ireland. Data sometimes includes these immigrants; I do not.

Protestant Irish and Catholic Irish who came to America at the same time left with different sets of circumstances. Catholics came in numbers greater than a million from the 1845 potato famine on.  However, Irish trickled into the country long before the potato famine. Coming from the north they were more likely Protestant, but if they left Ireland from the south, they were a mix.


I am neither a scientist nor historian, but I’ve spent most of my adult life, about thirty years, doing genealogical research which also necessitated reading a lot of history books. I’ve done ridiculously time-consuming things like combine all records of Quigley surnames in America from 1830 to 1890 then construct family trees with nearly all those people. On my family tree I presently have ~ 35,500.

Hopefully the information I share will motivate or inform your research. History was imperative for motivating my historical novel, Mary Quigley’s Da. There were many Irish on the Kansas-Missouri border during the Civil War, my great grandparents among them. The time period of the story of my grandmother’s tragic childhood is from 1849-1877. From learning the history of the period, (by starting with the history of Ireland) I was able to put the puzzle pieces together to write the stories of my father’s family. What happened to immigrants during the Civil War might astonish you if you read their histories! It was natural casualties and the consequences of slavery that affected them the most. If you have ancestors who were on the frontier, Mary Quigley’s Da might inform you about your own Irish Catholic family.

Who Were the Irish?

This might seem to be a silly question. Every March we’re all Irish, right? The hard truth is that you cannot fully appreciate, understand, or find your Irish ancestors without knowing it’s not just about potatoes, cabbage, music, or storytelling with searing and witty sarcasm.

As a toddler, my father began telling me I was Irish like my grandmother Mary Quigley. At an early age he told me about the “starvin’ Irish,” but I didn’t know how it was that “all Irish” came to America in a state of starvation. (It wasn’t true, but his assessment was close, and especially true of the Catholics.) By the time I was in elementary school I became my father’s Grand Inquisitor. As a result, my “Da” dutifully taught me to hate the English who had occupied Ireland –not in a good way, from 1100 on.   

Side Note: I thought “hating the English” was somewhat unique and ardent in me for this century until I heard Stephen Colbert comment on “hating the English”. He was relating how he took his Irish Catholic girlfriend to meet his mother who was staying in a New York hotel. Being very Catholic, he too, had learned to “hate the English.” However, it wasn’t until he stepped out of their cab and watched his erudite girlfriend’s long pause as she looked up and read the name of the hotel—The Oliver Cromwell—that her look told him he might be in trouble!

Someone who doesn’t have a clue about Irish history, and the continuous set of persecutions and oppressions that lasted close to 800 hundred years, may not understand the humor in Colbert’s story.

I did not hate English people, my mother among them, but the damaging outcomes of the monarchy’s religious bigotry and colonialist policies for hundreds of years were “baked” into the Irish culture. Cromwell was BIG in that when we now days say, “It can’t get any worse than this,” it gets much worse. Things were horrible, and the Penal Laws made a devastating impact. (If you go to Dublin Castle, look up at the names around the loft in the chapel. As I read them, I wept at the Irish misery represented by some of the names—Cromwell among them. They are the names of the earls, lords, chancellors, dukes and other English peerage who were given confiscated land and often earned their laurels through visiting misery on the Irish.)

Around the “loges” of the chapel in the Tower of Dublin, in gold leaf, are the names of the ruling Lords of Ireland, earls, chancellors, dukes, viceroys, and persons of English peerage from ~ 1200 on. To this day, this chapel is used for swearing in of Presidents of Ireland—a more pleasant use for the facilities than torturing and jailing troublesome Catholics. In 1920, three young men of the IRA (Dick McKee, Conor Clune and Peadar Clancy) were tortured and killed in the tower.  It’s a wonder all the floors in the tower aren’t red after seven hundred years of “justice.”

My mother was English whose ancestors included Edmund “Crouchback” Prince of England (1244-1295), and first Earl of Lancaster. King Edward III was my 16th great grandfather. It was with chagrin that I found English peerage here and there.  (My father never knew, nor did my mother.)  Daddy very much loved my mother, so Irish political conversations took place in the milk barn, out in the pasture, hoeing the corn—anywhere he and I were alone on the farm. However, my father’s lessons made me believe I was thoroughly Irish, like his Ma. That’s what he had intended. He chose me (the surrogate) to lay down his Irish burdens! Thank you, Daddy. Seriously.

Read the history.

If you want to understand and appreciate the behavior of the Irish, you must read their history, as seen through the lens of an Irish person.  I strongly recommend the first two of the following three histories. They are the best ever:

  • MacManus, Seumas. The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland. Old      Greenwich, Connecticut: The Devin-Adair Company, 1979. Originally published in    Dublin, Ireland: The Irish Publishing Company, 1921. 

(I recommend reading this book first. The MacManus writing style is grandiloquent, but the            impassioned tone and poetic infusion is Irish. His passion for his subject oozes. It is truly the essence of Irish writing. MacManus was a dramatist, a poet and wrote about Irish folktales. He was born in County Donegal in 1869 and died in 1960. If I could teach college-level history, I’d start with this book. It is not necessarily an easy read! There is a lot of Irish genealogy—  like B.C. history you might not remember. Doesn’t matter; read it.)

  • Elliott, Marianne. The Catholics of Ulster: A History. New York: The Penguin Press, 2001.

(This scholarly work by the Irish native, is thorough, easy to read, and long.  It has facts that other histories do not have. It is not boring. Elliott includes tons of notes, a huge bibliography, a great index, and if you intend to read only one book, this would be it. The title would suggest that it ignores the whole of Ireland. What happened in the North and in Dublin   dictated what happened everywhere else. Ireland is an island. It’s like driving from one end to the other in the western half of my home state.)

  • Bottingheimer, Karl S. Ireland and the Irish: A Short History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

(This book is very different from the two above, being shorter and easier, and it is written by an American scholar. He provides the best metaphor that encapsulates the tragedy of Irish history. I share it within its full context:

The eighteenth century is sometimes called the period of ‘the Protestant nation.’ This term makes little sense unless one understands that the Catholic majority had been reduced to a second, inferior, and less visible nation. The wealth of its aristocracy largely expropriated, its clergy fugitive, its army serving a French king abroad, and many of its natural leaders in exile, Catholic Ireland became the vast, submerged portion of an iceberg.”)

In my next post, I will take Irish immigration “from the top” by starting with the “Irish history” of the American colony of Jamestown.

Me standing next to the Dublin Tower and the chapel (closest left), and next to some important person’s car. I travel solo, so a stranger caught the sun as well as me. When my sixth great-grandfather was in Parliament, he would have worked in the Castle, which was government headquarters in the early 1700’s. Though he had been a Scottish Presbyterian Covenanter, he was elected to Irish Parliament—something that wasn’t unusual because the Irish Parliament was not for Irish or Catholics at the time. Ultimately, he came down on the side of the Irish, from whom the vote in their own country was stripped. A lesson from history: things can absolutely get worse. You can end up having no voice in your government if you are ruled by an autocracy or a monarchy. Then, big money, power and absolute corruption prevail.
Mary Jaffe (neé Scott)

Mary Jaffe

Mary Jaffe (neé Scott) dreamed of becoming a National Geographic journalist, but it was a dream unrealized--even though she spent her entire eighth grade summer sleeping outdoors along a river, in the woods with the bears, in a barn, in lightening storms, etc. to determine if she was made of the right stuff. Now, at age seventy-seven--after thirty-five years of teaching elementary, adolescent and adult incarcerated students; raising her family as a single mother; singing professional opera; and caring for her beloved terminally ill husband for more than a decade--she has turned to writing historical fiction.