We Came to North America: The Irish by Greg Nickles

Many millions of people in the United States and Canada celebrate Irish holidays, festivals, and heroes.  The people of Ireland brought their traditions, religions, and beliefs to North America where they helped build and define their nations.

Irish immigrants were some of the first Europeans to settle in North America in the early 1600s.  Millions more arrived in the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s.  Their journey was often a dangerous one that took them across the story Atlantic Ocean in crowded sailing ships.

Most of the immigrants had little choice but to leave Ireland.  Some fled unemployment, ruthless landlords, and conflicts with the ruling British government.  The Great Famine (1845-1849) and other crop failures brought mass starvation and disease that forced millions more to emigrate.

Some Irish immigrants had money, job skills, and spoke English, which helped them quickly succeed in their new land.  They found steady work and won the respect of their communities.  Irish Protestants were especially welcomed in North America, where most people involved in government and business also belonged to Protestant churches.

For other Irish, success was harder to find.  They came to North America penniless, hungry, and without the skills needed for decent work.  Many also spoke Irish as their first language.  These people struggled to escape poverty and earn respect.  Irish Roman Catholics had to work especially hard to fight prejudice from the Protestants, but they played a key role in establishing the Roman Catholic Church in North America, especially in the United States.  The church also provided a source of education and social life.

By the end of the twentieth century, descendants of the Irish had spread westward across North America.  They helped build farms, towns, factories, and railroads, and served in all levels of business, government, and the military.


The First Irish Immigrants

The Irish were among the first European settlers to come to North America in the early 1600s.  Over the next 200 years, they settled throughout Britain's colonies, which stretched down the east coast of the continent.

These colonies included the thirteen that had become the first United States in 1776, as well as Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia in Canada.

Life was difficult for the settlers in the 1600s.  Some settlers died for lack of food and supplies, others died from the bitter weather or from disease.  Battles with local Native peoples, from whom the settlers had taken the land, also claimed many lives.

During this period, people arrived form all groups of Irish society.  Many were the descendants of Scots who had once settled in Northern Ireland.  Many became known as the "Scotch-Irish" because of their heritage.

Many thousands of Irish immigrants of the 1600s and 1700s, including the Scotch-Irish, came from Protestant families and had money and an education, or a skilled trade.  Some wanted the freedom to worship as they saw fit.  Most of these settlers found success in their new home.

Not all Irish immigrants of this period came from such privileged backgrounds.  Thousands of peasants could not pay for their voyage across the Atlantic.  To cover their costs, they became indentured servants to wealthy North American colonists.  After working for several years, these servants were freed and allowed to start new lives.  Some people served their term and went on to become successful.  Others did not survive the harsh work conditions of their service.

Where Irish Settled

The first Irish immigrants in North America, like many other Europeans, settled in British colonies along the east coast.  As these colonies grew, land became more crowded and expensive.

Before the 1800s, Irish immigrants to North America often moved to the countryside.  Some worked in the fur trade, trapping and exploring, but most settled in rural farms and villages.  They cleared the land of trees, built homes, and planted fields.  Many others worked in coastal areas as fishers, on ships, and as dockworkers.  So many Irish fishers settled in Newfoundland, that the island is called Talamh an Eisc in the Irish language.

In the 1800s, Irish immigrants in the United States tended to stay in the large cities where they landed.  Men found work as general laborers in factories and construction.  Women also went to factories, or became seamstresses and servants.  Even children sold newspapers to earn money for their families.

The Irish earned such low wages that most could only afford to live in city slums.  The terrible conditions in the cities soon led some Irish to leave for the wide-open farmland of Texas and the Midwest.  Irish immigrants also settled in Savannah, Georgia where they worked on the canals and railways in the 1830s.  In New Orleans, they found employment at the New Orleans canal and Banking Company.  By the mid-1800s, Irish settlers were helping each other gain employment and were opening their own companies.

It took a few generations before many of the hardworking Irish families who remained in the eastern cities earned success.  Brave Irish factory workers, especially women, fought for and won better wages and working conditions.  Irish colleges were built to train doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.  Many Irish men found work in the police and fire departments of large cities such as New York and Chicago.

Music, Dance, and Literature

Irish immigrants brought with them a wealth of culture including traditional Irish music and song, dance, poetry, and folktales.

Irish music was one of the strongest traditions brought by the immigrants.  Today, both traditional and modern Irish music is loved for its sad, haunting melodies and brisk, happy beats.  Musicians play such instruments as the Irish harp, the uilleann bagpipes, the bodhran goatskin drum, the flageolet (or tin whistle), and the fiddle.

Irish musicians originally came from all over Ireland's countryside and at first played only their own local styles.  In North American cities, they heard other Irish styles for hte first time.  Irish-inspired music later reached millions of people through Irish Americans, such as musical-comedy composer George M. Cohan and actor-singers Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly.

Irish dance performed to traditional music is popular throughout North America.  Skilled dancers compete at traditional dance competitions, called feis.

There are three common types of Irish dance--jigs, reels, and the hornpipe.  Jigs are brisk, and dancers hop, slide, and skip to the music.  Reels can be very fast and exciting, and female dancers must do plenty of leaping.  The hornpipe is much slower and is performed in hard shoes that click like tap shoes.  The audience judges the performers on how they bring fresh ideas to the famous set music, which includes pieces called The Blackbird, Garden of Daisies, The Three Sea Captains, and King of the Fairies.

Some people say that the sad and joyous themes of Irish music can also be read in the poetry and literature of their descendants.  Many writers had drawn upon their Irish roots in their work.  Eugene O'Neill is the most famous Irish-American writer, and he became the first U.S. playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1936. His later plays, including The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night, drew upon his family's Irish immigrant history.

Other acclaimed Irish-American writers include Mary McCarthy, whose autobiography Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood was published in 1957, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Fitzgerald's novels were mostly about the glamour and destructive behavior of rich young people during the 1920s.


Courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society