The Irish in America

The Irish in America

Every year since 1991 March has been proclaimed Irish-American Heritage Month by the US Congress or President. While the Irish have been coming to live in America for centuries, the period between 1820 and 1860 saw the largest influx, with almost 2,000,000 people arriving from Ireland. The majority of these came after the devastating Irish Potato Famine of 1845.

Irish farmers of the time were very poor. They worked small tracts of land that were owned by wealthy landlords. As rents were continually increased and farming plots divided into smaller and smaller parcels, Irish farming families fell deeper into poverty. Small mud huts, often without windows or chimneys, were home to large Irish families. The average lifespan of the rural Irish was 40 years, and children often did not reach adulthood. The potato, on which these families depended for their livelihood, could not have been more important to Irish farming families.

Potatoes are not native to Ireland. In the early 1500s, Spanish conquerors found the Incas of South America growing the vegetable, called the patata. It was taken back to Europe, where the name was changed to potato by the English. About 1590, potatoes were introduced to Ireland. Farmers quickly discovered that potatoes thrive in the country's cool, moist soil. An acre of fertilized potato field could yield up to 12 tons of potatoes, enough to feed a family of six for a year with leftovers going to the family's animals. By the 1800s, the potato had become the staple crop in the poorest regions. More than three million Irish peasants subsisted solely on the vegetable which is rich in protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin and Vitamin C.

The Famine began quite mysteriously in September 1845 as leaves on potato plants suddenly turned black and curled, then rotted, seemingly the result of a fog that had wafted across the fields of Ireland. The cause was actually an airborne fungus originally transported in the holds of ships traveling from North America to England.

Winds from southern England carried the fungus to the countryside around Dublin. The blight spread throughout the fields where under ideal moist conditions, a single infected potato plant could infect thousands more in just a few days. Leaves of the plant blackened and withered in front of the disbelieving eyes of Irish peasants. Potatoes dug out of the ground at first looked edible, but shriveled and rotted within days. There had been crop failures before, but none lasted more than one season. This time it was different. Lasting for six years, the potato famine killed over a million men, women and children in Ireland. For many, hope for survival lay across the Atlantic Ocean in the new and growing country of the United States.

The majority of Irish immigrants to the United States during this period settled in the large cities in which they arrived. Cities with large numbers of Irish immigrants included Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, among others. In 1910, there were more people in New York City of Irish heritage than Dublin's whole population! Today, many of these cities still retain a substantial Irish American community.