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Irish Immigration to America From the 1800s to the Present
by The American Immigration Law Foundation

From Huddled Masses to the White House
Irish Immigration to America From the 1800s to the Present

Irish Immigration to America represented the first mass immigration to the United States and set the stage for all future immigrating ethnic minorities. Reflecting on their experiences brings insight to the challenges facing today's twentieth century immigrants.

In this the second of two reports focusing on Irish immigration to America, we bring to light numerous contributions the Irish have made in virtually all aspects of American Society.

The Roots of the Irish Political Machine

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the thousands of Irish immigrants who came to the United States seeking a better life were often met with prejudice and resentment. Newspaper adds touting, "No Irish need apply," and less obvious forms of prejudice were not uncommon, yet the Irish learned of a power they had not previously enjoyed in Ireland, the power of the polls.

Because the Irish were concentrated in large cities, they held considerable clout when it came time to vote. The grassroots urban political organizations formed by the Irish would thrive on the concept of providing for those who could not otherwise help them-selves in exchange for their votes come election time.

A Different Style of Politics

In 1828, Andrew Jackson became the first president of the United States of Irish heritage. His style of politics known as "Jacksonian Democracy," disbursing favors to loyal supporters gained the support of the commoners and disenfranchised, and would forever change the face of American Politics. In America's short history, the list of Irish politicians who have influenced its system of government is both long and distinguished. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan as well as Senators George Mitchell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan are just a few among the many.

"America demands for her development an inexhaustible
fund of physical energy, and Ireland supplies the most of it."
--mid-19th century newspaper

Remember the Alamo

While the majority of Irish immigrants settled in large cities, many preferred the wide-open spaces of the "West." Two such notable frontiersmen were Davy Crockett and Colonel William Barret Travis. They were among the small garrison of 186 Texas volunteers that held off Mexican General Santa Anna long enough for fellow Irishman General Sam Houston to regroup his forces and win the decisive victory securing Texas' independence in the battle of the Alamo.

The Industrial Revolution and the Irish

As the Industrial Revolution raged in America, its appetite for manual labor was matched only by the Irish supply of workers. One mid-nineteenth-century newspaper claimed that "America demands for her development an inexhaustible fund of physical energy, and Ireland supplies the most of it."

Although the majority of early Irish immigrants were common laborers, as the nineteenth century matured Irish American workers could be found in almost every conceivable occupation and at all levels. Irish success in government quickly translated into economic opportunity and the number of contracts and jobs delegated to Irish Americans proliferated at an unprecedented rate.

For example, the massive Brooklyn Bridge that took fourteen years to construct was presided over by the Irish-born contractor William Kingsly and Irish laborers, skilled and unskilled alike, did much of the excavation work for the foundation.

Originators of the Unions

The Irish's ability to build support for organizations didn't end with politics. For years Irish immigrants dominated the labor-intensive positions associated with the construction industry. In 1855, twenty percent of the Irish were working as unskilled laborers compared to the 3 percent average for other immigrant groups.

With heavy labor came long hours and rarely did the pay increase despite the grueling hours and often dangerous working environments. Over time, Irish Americans banded together to organize unions and improve the working conditions of all laborers. In 1879, Terence Powderly, a son of Irish immigrants, was elected head of the Knights of Labor, a national association of labor unions. Under his stewardship, it grew to include more than 700,000 members.

Powderly's success was short lived as the industrial magnates tightened down in response to worker unrest. However, at the turn of the century, Sam Gompers and P.J. McGuire, a second-generation Irish American, co-founded the American Federation for Labor (AFL). By 1910, nearly half the AFL's 110 member unions were led by Irish-born or Irish American. In 1920, union membership rose to new heights reaching 5 million nationwide.

With the increase in numbers, the unions' ability to facilitate strikes and boycotts posed a real threat to industries. Soon negotiations were taking place and the working conditions for U.S. laborers began to improve dramatically.

The AFL-CIO and its Irish Heritage

In 1955, George Meany, who began as a plumber's apprentice, became the first head of the merged American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Workers (AFL-CIO), the nation's largest labor organization. Today the AFL-CIO, which represents more than 13 million working Americans, is directed by John Sweeney, a second-generation Irish American.

Other Notable Irish Americans

The son of Irish immigrants, Henry Ford would go down in the history books as the man responsible for introducing the concept of mass-production and for making the first car affordable to the middle class, the Model T. Single handedly, Ford created a social and economic revolution in a class of its own.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas Flanagan and Frank McCourt are among an extensive list of Irish American novelists. Among America's greatest actors, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara both hailed from Ireland.


Irish immigrants played a significant role in diversifying the early American populous and paved the way for future ethnic groups to do the same. The United States of America will forever show the indelible and remarkable stamp of the Irish.

Prepared, August 2001


1. Golway, Terry. "The Irish in America." New York: Hyperion Books 1997.

2. Hoobler, Dorothy and Thomas. "The Irish American Family Album." New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 1995.

3. Sullivan, Robert and Michael Padden. "May the Road Rise to Meet You: Everything you Need to Know About Irish American History." New York: Plume 1999.

About The Author

The American Immigration Law Foundation was established in 1987 as a tax-exempt, not-for-profit educational and service organization. The Foundation's mission is to promote understanding among the general public of immigration law and policy, through education, policy analysis, and support to litigators. AILF is governed by a Board of Directors and a Board of Trustees.

Working closely with leading immigration experts throughout the country, AILF has established three core program areas: the Legal Action Center, the Public Education Program, and an Exchange Visitor Program. Through these programs, the Foundation sponsors numerous awards programs, publishes policy reports, engages in impact litigation, and provides policymakers and the public with complete and accurate information about the benefits of immigration.

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