Some Irish people came to America in colonial times. They sometimes obtained wealth and position. Many Irish had begun coming to America even in the 1820's because of horrendous living conditions in Ireland. However, a large movement into America from Ireland began after the great potato famine of 1845. A fungus destroyed the entire potato crop. With no other means of income and food, one million Irish died within the next five years. Living conditions became more terrible than before the famine.
Before the famine, most Irish immigrants were male. After the famine, whole families came together. In the 1840's, almost one-half of immigrants were Irish. These immigrants had lived in rural areas and were not prepared for a city lifestyle. Usually, they had no money except for paying their passage across to America. They did leave behind those Irish who did not have even enough money for passage to this country.
The immigrants usually stayed near the port they arrived at. Eventually, more Irish lived in New York City than in Dublin, Ireland. Families lived together in small cramped apartments. Many times, there was no running water or sewage disposal. The disease resulted from such conditions. They had lived in mud huts in Ireland, so the living quarters in America seemed even better than their previous ones. If the Irish moved into a neighborhood, others moved out due to fear of disease, alcoholism, and unsanitary conditions.
Irish immigrants took jobs at the low spot on the occupational ladder. Women became domestic servants. Men worked on building the railroads and in coal mines. Some companies threatened to hire the Irish and pay them lower wages to stop their own workers from demanding more pay. In time, Irish immigrants rose to become teachers, firemen, and policemen. Second and third generation Irish families became more educated and wealthier than the original immigrants.
Most Irish immigrants were Catholic. The conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland followed the Irish to America. The American Party was formed and vowed to put up for office only those who had traditional American ideals. They excluded foreigners and Catholics. This group helped elect American Party governors in Massachusetts and Delaware and nominated Millard Fillmore for President.
During the 1800's, blacks and Irish fell into competition for jobs and housing. Both had the same types of backgrounds. Rather than uniting with common goals, they felt the need to compete for jobs. Blacks supported the Republican Party. Irish supported the Democrat Party.
In the pre-war South, slave owners did not want their slaves performing dangerous jobs because they were valuable, so building railroads and other hazardous jobs were left to the Irish. The Conscription Act of 1863 during the Civil War required all free white men between the ages of twenty and forty-five to enroll for the military draft. Blacks were exempt from this requirement. Poor whites were hit hardest because a white man with enough money could pay someone else to take his place.
For centuries, Britain had controlled the country of Ireland. Thus, the people developed a strong national identity. They were used to joining to get things done. In America, the Irish became a strong political force. Although they began by trying to improve social services for their people, they eventually controlled big city politics. There was much corruption in government. Irish power, however, helped the Irish get jobs and better living conditions. Some organized unions for workers. These Irish immigrants have contributed much to American culture.
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