Irish Immigrant Anestors: Who, What, When, Where and Why?
Review of my last post: My last post revealed the immigration numbers for the period in which America “welcomed” its greatest influx of Irish and other immigrants. It also provided detailed location and occupation information. From it you were informed about the greatest progress made in America in the fairness of labor that was ushered in through the Irish immigrants.
Irish society that grew from Potato Famine immigration.
On 06 January 1848, the Louisville Daily Courier published an article entitled, “Some of the evils of foreign immigration are depicted in the following………….” The reporter in the article discussed the “ship fever” issue, exclaiming that in the “Quarantine Hospital” (referring to the Marine Hospital Quarantine Station on Staten Island, NY) there were “over six hundred immigrants—a large portion of whom are either down with the fever, and nearly all the physicians and nurses are down or have died.”
Those sounds of alarm are understandable in that disease could be labeled evil, and the city was being overwhelmed in its capacity to handle the sheer numbers. However, the articles goes on with a less sympathetic tone: “Either some government at Washington or some other authority, state or municipal, should adopt some plan to arrest the evil. Last year, Mr. Seaman introduced a bill into Congress, requiring the immigrants, before leaving Europe, to obtain a certificate from our consuls that they are not paupers; and imposing a fine on any shipmaster for bringing to this country any such passenger.” At this point in time, the Canadian and British Provinces had banned Irish immigration. The reporter was complaining that the number coming into New York had, therefore, exploded: “……and they’re all coming here.”
Of course, all who came on famine ships were paupers avoiding starvation. In part, they were being exiled to be gotten rid of. Legislation requiring that they be certified as healthy, wealthy and wise is designed to thwart emigration and is preposterous! Few immigrants are in a good situation or they wouldn’t be immigrants. Healthy, wealthy and content people are not clamoring to come to America and they never have.
The Louisville article absurdly numbered the immigrants in terms of who were “workers” and who were impoverished. This would be akin to the Polish turning back refugees from Ukraine who did not have homes or jobs or were not being killed. Would the Polish at the border say, “Go back into the bombing and wait until you have a home and a job again, then you can come back?”
In the Louisville Daily Courier, the Irish men immigrants totaled 714, of whom 238 were labeled paupers and 341 jobbers. There were 590 women of whom 172 were paupers, no number of jobbers; and of 319 children, 128 were paupers and no number was used to innumerate the jobbers among them.
The article ended with: “No means have yet been devised for dealing with the mendicant class.”[i]
Note: According to the Oxford Dictionary “mendicant” means: “begging, cadging, scrounging, sponging, or mooching”. Perhaps, “starving,” “wretched,” or “unfortunate” would have masked the generalized dislike of the impoverished Irish. Apparently, some reporters felt no need to “mask” their motive, i.e.: “Go back where you came from, mendicant.”
In fact, 75% of the Irish immigrants who came to America landed in New York. Over 50,000 Irish and another 50,000 plus Germans arrived in 1847. In five years, the Irish in America were more than 40% of the population. When the “mendicants” arrived, they generally settled (in the cities) with those from their own villages or counties in Ireland, trying to duplicate their comfort among “their kind.” It is understandable they wanted to stay together. Genetic studies have revealed that some family groups in Ireland lived in regions or villages together for as long as 900 years! Family is safety, security, continuity and love. Anti-immigrant voices spoke out about their clannishness. All immigrants depend on family.
Side Note: One of the last aristocratic Irish family to finally have its family lands confiscated was the McGuire/Maguire family of County Fermanagh who began their ascendancy in the 1300’s and were ruined after the Nine Years War that ended in 1603 and the Flight of the Earls in 1607. When the O’Neill and O’Donnell Lords fled, Old Gaelic Ireland was destroyed and the Plantation of Ulster, dominated by the monarchy was left to thrive. The McGuire family managed to hold on to some land into the 1700’s but they did not have any status or dominance with the British Monarchy. I have written a historical novel that features one of the last “hold out” member of their clan, an orphaned daughter and 1641 rebel soldier, Bébinn.
Family is our main purpose. To maintain their bonds or find normalcy, the Irish, desired to socialize through their traditional songs in voice and instruments; they maintained their dancing, gossiping or telling stories and reciting poetry. Also, sharing jokes and witticism was pervasive. These activities required a village of like-minded, related individuals. A tradition in the Irish families was to have a priest or nun, a lawyer, a writer, and a teacher. Another inherited attribute was, perhaps, an alcoholic or two.
Drinking. Unfortunately, along with the village came the drinking. Irish drinking became a serious problem that didn’t exist in Ireland in the same way until they settled here. In the United States, there was a serious increase of alcoholism among the men of all ages—including children. It initiated fights that broke out between families and clans or between rival immigrant groups. Back home, such brawling and breaking of rules were normally reserved for wakes, fairs or festivals. However, it was not the norm of daily life in Ireland, or America. In 1800’s America, the neighbors of the “drunken Irishmen” who moved into town had little tolerance. The Irish immigrant men met in pubs after work, probably continued discussions about pressures or unfairness in their work, and that is where they likely met conflict.
In Ireland, according to John Waters, “Drinking in Ireland is not simply a convivial pastime, it is a ritualistic alternative to real life, a spiritual placebo, a fumble for eternity, a longing for heaven, a thirst for return to the embrace of the Almighty.”[ii]
The pubs is where the Irish practiced their story-telling skills, recalled their history, and honed their conversations. However, because they landed on the doorstep of English-dominant Boston and began “misbehaving,” their welcome disintegrated and was met with disgust and disdain by the English who, after years of bigotry, conflict and warfare in the United Kingdom, did not appreciate the Irish as a group to start with.
They had no desire to hire them as there was the development and carry-over of the attitude that the Irish were “brutish, feckless, or so strongly papist that they would not be loyal to the United States.” (This is the same profound ignorance and bias that causes some members of our Congress to call peers “terrorists” due to their clothing, skin color, and religion.)
Whereas, the Irish were once noted for their honesty, modesty and industry; elements of the culture changed in the cities, further bolstering prejudice against them in predominant English communities. They lost their footing in class (a reputation won by earlier immigrants) and slipped to the bottom rung of the social latter.
Unfortunately, there had been anti-Catholic mobs in Philadelphia and New York who had burned down Irish homes and churches in 1844. The Archbishop in New York City put a fence and stationed weapon-carrying guards from the “Ancient Order of Hibernians” around St. Patrick’s Cathedral (the church identified at the heart of the Quigley family drama in Mary Quigley’s Da).
Side Note: My maternal Protestant grandmother (born in Iowa in 1886) told me that when she was a little girl she still heard stories that Catholics priests had been sent here from Rome to crawl in people’s basements and kill Protestant babies. She was told that priests were cannibals. (Sounds Q Anon.) It was generally believed that a new Vatican was to be established in Cincinnati.[iii] In Mary Quigley’s Da, the older brother Michael Quigley did not feel “at home” in Cincinnati, even though he was there among other Irish to build a seminary. The Irish stone masons were sent because the German stone masons were dying of cholera, probably spread by steamboats. However, they were not trusted. Once Michael’s job was done, he headed toward family and more Irish-friendly Kansas City.
Forces that dispersed immigrants in America
In 1849, the “Know-Nothings” political party was dedicated to not electing any Catholics or Irish because it was believed that basic American values were being eroded by the Irish. The party was most successful in Massachusetts. They passed laws that enabled them to deport 300 poor Irish to Liverpool and bar naturalized citizens from voting. Living in the U.S. for 21 years before becoming eligible to vote was introduced by the Know-Nothings. It did not become law.
James Buchanan, who was elected president in 1857, and who divided the nation further on the issue of slavery, was also thought to be a Catholic and a cannibal. He did beat out Fillmore who blamed Catholics for his defeat. Fillmore stoked the Yankee fear of Irish Catholics and refused to argue against the cannibal theory.[iv] Does that sound like behavior familiar in politics today where the truth of evidence does not matter?
Possibly because of the history of the Northeast, Irish Catholics who did not “group” together in the cities, chose to fan out to Irish communities around the country from 1849 on. The New England Emigrant Aid Society of Boston, formed in 1854, helped the Irish and others to move into the Kansas Territory (my McManus family included) to prevent the territory from becoming a slave state when it joined the Union. These newer immigrants were being used to become strong supporters of abolition and volunteered or were recruited to the Union Army.
The Catholic Church assigned Irish priests to Kansas and Missouri communities that were Irish. One of those was Fr. Thomas Butler of Dublin who was assigned to Leavenworth, Kansas. Fr. Butler’s job was to study Irish immigration by traveling around the state. He wanted to make sure it was “safe” for the Irish who had already suffered persecution in Ireland. He decided it was safe for Irish Catholic communities, so he began to recruit Irish Catholics to his area. [v] Father Bernard Donnelly had preceded him. This was two years after the Civil War, where the Irish farming communities in Kansas and Missouri continued to grow and prosper after the war.
Between 1845 and 1855, the Irish went to such far-away places as Butte, MT, a mining town. Many there had migrated from the mining community on Beara Peninsula, County Cork. [vi] Presently, Butte is known as America’s most Irish town, though the rest of Montana does not have many Irish communities.
Today’s Irish communities
It is the states of Oklahoma and Massachusetts that have a population 23-28% Irish, as does Prince Edward Island in Canada. Iowa, Missouri, Delaware and Rhode Island and Nova Scotia follow with 21-23% Irish population. Oregon, Montana, Kansas, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New Hampshire come in with 20-21% as do New Foundland, Labrador, and St. Pierre Island, Canada. At 19-20% are Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Nebraska, West Virginia, Connecticut, and Vermont and areas in Nova Scotia and Yukon Territory, Canada. Utah, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and Louisiana have the least at 5-14% and the rest of the states have from 14%-19% of the population identifying themselves as Irish.[vii]
Wikipedia has a list of cities and towns with large Irish-American populations. (See below.) If you have had trouble finding your ancestors, try looking through Census records for these cities.[viii] I must warn you that according to Wikipedia, this article and list may not meet their “quality standards” because “additional citations are needed for verification.” I supply these links only as a guide.
Who knows, you might get lucky. In my research for family, I turn over every stone, whether it seemed likely or not. Irish immigrants were extremely numerous and they went anywhere for an opportunity. By 1852, most had a family member, distant relative, friend, or neighbor who had possibly moved to any one of these locations.
- Boston, Massachusetts 21.5%
- Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 16.2%
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 14.2%
- Louisville, Kentucky 13.2%
- Buffalo, New York 11.23%
- Nashville, Tennessee 9.8%
- Kansas City, Missouri 9.66%
- Raleigh, North Carolina 9.5%
- Cleveland, Ohio 9.43%
- Saint Paul, Minnesota – 9.4%
- Baltimore, Maryland 9.14%
- Cincinnati, Ohio 9.05%
- Austin, Texas 8.5%
- Charlotte, North Carolina 8.4%
- Chicago, Illinois 8%
- Memphis, Tennessee 7%
- New Orleans, Louisiana 6.8%
- Weymouth, Massachusetts – 45.5%
- Quincy, Massachusetts 33.5%
- Scranton, Pennsylvania – 30.3%
- Albany, New York – 18.1%
- Fayetteville, Arkansas – 15.21%
- Charleston, South Carolina – 14%
- Savannah, Georgia – 13.8%
- Knoxville, Tennessee – 13.5%
- Erie, Pennsylvania – 12.4%
- Omaha, Nebraska – 11.9%
- Syracuse, New York – 12.4%
- Columbia, South Carolina – 10.1%
- Huntsville, Alabama – 10.2%
- Little Rock, Arkansas – 9.6%
- Lowell, Massachusetts – 9.4%
- Mobile, Alabama – 8.7%
- Shreveport, Louisiana – 7%
- Baton Rouge, Louisiana – 6.4%
Smaller cities and towns
- Scituate, Massachusetts – 61.5%
- Holly Bluff, Mississippi – 58.33%
- Almond, North Carolina – 50%
- Salem, Alabama – 47.3%
- Braintree, Massachusetts – 46.8%
- Marshfield, Massachusetts – 46.7%
- Belmont, Louisiana – 45.56%
- Pearl River, New York – 45.75%
- Milton, Massachusetts – 44.7%
- Hull, Massachusetts – 44%
- Walpole, Massachusetts -43.0%
- Duxbury, Massachusetts – 41.4%
- Vaucluse, South Carolina – 40.62%
- Crum Lynne, Pennsylvania – 39.2%
- Gloucester City, New Jersey – 38.8%
- Fackler, Alabama – 38.16%
- Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania – 37.9%
- Cleary, Mississippi – 32.3%
- Iron City, Tennessee – 31.3%
- Oak Lawn, Illinois – 30.4%
- Waldwick, New Jersey – 30.1%
- Puckett, Mississippi – 29%
- Troy, New York – 24.3%
- Butte, Montana – 23.6%
- McEwen, Tennessee – 22.7%
- Albany, Louisiana – 22.5%
- Abbeville, Mississippi – 21.9%
- Havertown, Pennsylvania – 21.7%
- Erin, Tennessee – 21.0%
- Hester, Louisiana – 18.4%
- Hernando, Mississippi – 18.1%
- Greenwood Village, Colorado
- Brandon, Mississippi 16.5%
Regardless of where your Irish ancestors landed, if you learn about their lives, you will be rewarded. Like my own second great grandfather, Joseph Quigley, not all of them were stellar people or heroes. Many were flawed in some way. However, they were deserving of credit for their courage and resilience. To some extent, immigrants have already been “worked over” in their home countries. This is something we need to know or learn: that we are all immigrants who came here so we could thrive. They left for a reason.
During times of war, like my own ancestors in Missouri during the Civil War, both sides of warring parties lay claim to any resources they can find. They have to feed their troops and horses. Some families on particular trails or in vulnerable regions of Missouri were robbed of everything or burned out more than once. When they defended their goods, they were often killed. It took courage to stay or return to the region after the war.
When I realized that my great grandfather and his German and Irish neighbors joined the Home Guard, then the State Militia and stayed amid the chaos, I was very proud. Of course, where else could they go? Nearly all the men in Kansas also served during the war. They were tough, having survived starvation and disease, and they realized that after others left—especially after Order 11—there would be farmland available to them and they’d already be there if they survived. Their tenacity gave them strength to start over again—something they had done before.
I like to end by sharing these words from my Dedication Page in Mary Quigley’s Da:
To our immigrant and slave ancestors, who prevailed through hunger, sickness, and natural or man-made catastrophes and inequities. They embraced opportunities and sacrificed much to rise above it all. From the 1600s to today, they built a country and kept their families as whole as they could under the circumstances usually beyond their control. All were part of the complexity of our nation, including my Scots-Irish family who were fervent and active abolitionists while being officers in the Indian Wars. Such unresolved events and unreconciled antitheses remain America’s open wounds. Fortunately, my Celtic family has embraced the addition of many other DNA cultures, as have most “American” families who might not be aware of their own histories. Each culture has given a boost to the strength, health, and intelligence of the family and sent it into hundreds of amazing story lines.
Like Mary Quigley’s da, we are your legacy: good or bad.
Note: I give presentations based on the information in these blogs as well as Irish genealogy and writing on difficult and historical topics. If you are interested in having me as a guest, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] The Louisville Daily Courier, “Some of the evils of foreign immigration are depicted in the following, which we copy from the New York Express of the 30th.” (Louisville, Kentucky). Thursday, 06 January 1848, p. 2.
[ii] O’Connor, Dr. Garrett. Irish America Magazine. “Breaking the Code of Silence: The Irish and Drink. January, 2012. https://irishamerica.com/2012/01/breaking-the-code-of-silencee-the-irish-and-drink/ Accessed 13 October, 2020, Tuesday.
[iii] Klein, Christopher. History.com, “When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century Refugee Crisis.” Originally posted 16 March 2017; updated 14 March 2019. https://www.history.com/news/when-america-despised-the-irish-the-19th-centurys-refugee-crisis Accessed Sunday, 11 October 2020, 2:53 p.m.
[v] Wikipedia. “Thomas Ambrose Butler.” Last edited on 24 March 2019, at 23:23 UTC. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Ambrose_Butler Accessed Sunday 11 October 2020, 7:19 p.m.
[vi] Rota, Kara. Irish America, “Butte: Montana’s Irish Mining Town.” Posted August/September 2010. https://www.history.com/news/when-america-despised-the-irish-the-19th-centurys-refugee-crisis Accessed Tuesday 27 August 2019, 6:45 p.m.
[vii] Wikipedia, “Irish Americans”. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/5e/Irish_ancestry_in_the_USA_and_Canada.png Accessed Sunday, 11 October 2020, 4:26 p.m.
[viii] Wikipedia. “List of cities with large Irish-American populations. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._cities_with_large_Irish-American_populations Accessed October 2020.