Irish Americans

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Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
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Irish Americans

Brendan A. Rapple and Jane Stewart Cook


Irish Americans are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Ireland, an island west of Great Britain across the Irish Sea and St. George's Channel. The island is divided into two separate political entities: the independent Republic of Ireland, which occupies nearly five-sixths of the island, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom but is chiefly self-governing. Known as the Emerald Isle, Ireland is the third-largest island in Europe after Great Britain and Iceland. With a total area of 32,595 square miles, the entire island is a little larger than the state of Maine.

According to 2011 estimates by their respective governments, the population of the Republic of Ireland was nearly 4.6 million and that of Northern Ireland was about 1.8 million. The Republic of Ireland's population is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic; about 87 percent claimed Catholicism as their religion in 2011, down from 95 percent twenty years earlier. Northern Ireland, by contrast, is made up of about 40 percent Roman Catholics, followed by Presbyterian (18 percent), Church of Ireland (14 percent), and nonreligious (10 percent). After a period of rapid economic growth in the early twenty-first century, the Republic of Ireland experienced a recession and economic uncertainty during the late 2000s global financial crisis, suffering much greater declines than the rest of Europe and having to undergo serious austerity measures to cope with its collapsing banking sector. The country has a very service- and export-dependent economy, with its once-dominant agriculture sector in decline. Northern Ireland, similarly, has seen its once-industrial economy grow more dependent on services and financials in recent decades.

The Irish were among the earliest European immigrants to the American colonies. Their numbers swelled during the nineteenth century, when famine and political unrest drove more than two million Irish to immigrate to the United States, most of them settling in such major metropolitan areas as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Suffering from discrimination and poverty, many Irish Americans remained poor laborers well into the twentieth century. From the mid-twentieth century to today, however, Irish Americans have emerged as a well-educated, prosperous ethnic group, with considerable representation all over the nation. Recent economic troubles in Ireland caused a resurgence of Irish immigration to the United States, but as a whole this has been small relative to the total number of Irish Americans.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (2011) estimates, more than 34.5 million Americans claim Irish ancestry—only about 3 million less than the 2011 population of the state of California. Irish Americans are the nation's second largest ethnic group after German Americans. Roughly 260,000 of all Irish immigrants are foreign-born. Another 3.5 million Americans consider themselves Scotch-Irish; these are largely descendants of immigrants from the province of Ulster, which is partially in the Republic of Ireland and partially in Northern Ireland. Irish Americans are well distributed around the nation, but northeastern cities (particularly Boston, New York, and Philadelphia), Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco—all major destinations during the primary period of Irish immigration—still retain particularly large populations of Irish Americans. They have generally been absorbed into the larger population, though some urban neighborhoods, such as South Boston and Woodlawn in the Bronx, retain considerable Irish character.


Early History Sometime between 600 and 400 BCE, Ireland was occupied by Celtic peoples, who came to be known as Gaels. Because the Romans never invaded Ireland, the Gaels remained isolated and were able to develop a distinct culture. In the fifth century St. Patrick came to Ireland from Britain and introduced the Gaels to Christianity, initiating a new religious and cultural period. Irish monasteries—preserving the Greek and Latin of the ancient world—not only became great centers of learning but also sent many famous missionaries to the European continent. Towards the end of the eighth century, the Vikings invaded Ireland, fighting for sovereignty for more than two centuries. Finally, at the 1014 Battle of Clontarf, the Irish under King Brian Boru soundly defeated the Viking forces. An important legacy of the Viking invasion was the establishment of such cities as Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Limerick, and Wexford. In 1167 a local Irish king turned to King Henry II of England for help in fighting a rival. A series of Anglo-Norman Page 460  |  Top of Articleconquests commenced, leading to the English Lordship of Ireland. By the close of the medieval period, many of the Anglo-Norman invaders had been absorbed into the Gaelic population.

English kings traveled to Ireland on several occasions to impose order and rally allegiance to the Crown. The English were generally too occupied with the Hundred Years War (1337–1453) against France and the War of the Roses (1455–1485) within England to adequately rule the Irish, however. By the sixteenth century English control over Ireland was limited to a small area of land surrounding Dublin. Consequently, Henry VIII (who ruled England from 1509 to 1547) and his successors endeavored to force the Irish to submit through military incursions and by “planting” large areas of Ireland with settlers loyal to England. At the end of the sixteenth century, the northern Irish chieftain Hugh O'Neill led a strong resistance movement against the English reconquest. Following O'Neill's defeat in 1603 and his subsequent flight to the Continent, the Crown commenced the large-scale plantation of Ulster with English; Scottish Presbyterians soon followed. During the seventeenth century Ireland came increasingly under English rule. In 1641 the Irish allied themselves with King Charles I, supporting the Stuart cause in the impending civil war between the monarchy and the republicans. After the defeat and execution of Charles in 1649, Cromwell and his Puritans devastated much of Ireland, massacred thousands, and rewarded his soldiers and followers with vast tracts of Irish land. Hoping to regain some of their property, the Catholic Irish sided with James II of England, a Catholic, but their fortunes further declined when James was defeated by William of Orange, the Protestant contender for the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland, at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Viewing the Irish as an inferior race and themselves as civilizers, the English enacted a series of brutal penal laws to keep the Irish subservient and powerless. These succeeded so well that eight-eenthcentury Catholic Ireland was economically and socially shattered.

In 1798 the English defeated a United Irish (Protestants and Catholics) rebellion led by revolutionary Wolfe Tone. Two years later Parliament passed the Act of Union, combining Great Britain and Ireland into one United Kingdom, and, in 1829 (chiefly as a result of the activities of the Irish politician Daniel O'Connell), the Catholic Emancipation (or Relief) Act, which lifted general civil and political limitations and the Irish penal laws. During the 1830s and 1840s, a new nationalist movement arose: Young Ireland. The rebellion it launched in 1848 was easily defeated, however. The second half of the 1840s was one of the grimmest periods in Irish history: the crop failure of Ireland's staple food—the potato—led to the Great Famine. Millions died or emigrated, mainly to the United States. The second half of the nineteenth century brought increased nationalistic demands for self-government and land reform, most notably in the activities of the Home Rule Movement under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell. Although the Government of Ireland Act 1914 was finally passed, its implementation was deferred because of the onset of World War I, and it never took effect. On Easter Monday 1916 a small force of Irish nationalists rebelled in Dublin against British rule. The rising was a military failure and had little support among the public. The harsh response of the British government, however, and particularly its execution of the rising's leaders, won many over to the independence cause.

Modern Era In 1921 the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the secessionist Irish Republic, creating the Irish Free State. Although it was self-governing, it was tied to the British Commonwealth and its constitution and required allegiance to the Crown. The Free State was composed of twenty-six of Ireland's thirty-two counties; the other six chose to remain part of Britain as Northern Ireland. Ultimately, in 1949 the twenty-six counties left the British Commonwealth and became the Republic of Ireland, an independent nation, spur-ring a period of modernization and economic expansion throughout the Republic. The surge was interrupted by periods of stagnation in the late 1970s. Ireland joined the European Economic Community (later the European Union) in 1973 and was one of the original states to adopt the Euro in 1999. Earning the nickname “The Celtic Tiger,” the nation underwent a period of particularly strong economic growth in the 1990s and early 2000s as property values and foreign investment soared, infrastructure was modernized, and new immigrants arrived from throughout Europe. One of Western Europe's poorest nations became one of its wealthiest. This growth came to a rapid end in 2008, however, as the global economy collapsed and Ireland's economy, dependent on real estate and banking, followed suit. By 2012 the nation was crippled by debt, its gross domestic product had contracted, and its rate of unemployment was among Western Europe's highest. Leaders enacted a series of austerity measures to try to bring the nation's spending into balance.

Despite the establishment of an independent Ireland in 1949, the island's six northern counties remained part of United Kingdom, while the Republic consistently maintained its claim over them. Violence erupted frequently over this issue throughout the twentieth century in what came to be known as “The Troubles.” Such rival groups as the Irish Republican Army (which fought for unification) and the Ulster Defence Association (enforcing loyalty to the United Kingdom) carried out retributive attacks that sometimes spilled over into the Republic of Ireland and England, resulting in the deaths of more than 3,000 people. Hostilities diminished in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 (between the British and Page 461  |  Top of ArticleIrish governments and the political parties of Northern Ireland), the disarmament of paramilitary groups, and moves toward power-sharing in the Northern Irish government. By 2007 bloodshed had decreased to a point that the United Kingdom allowed Northern Ireland greater control over its own affairs. Although disputes still exist, violent confrontation over this issue is far less frequent.


The Irish like to boast that an early Irish monk, St. Brendan, sailed to the Americas almost a millennium before Christopher Columbus. There is no physical evidence of such an event, but the Irish were still among the first Europeans in the New World. Galway-born William Ayers was one of Columbus's crew in 1492. During the seventeenth century the majority of the Irish immigrants to North America were Catholics. Most were poor, many coming as indentured servants; others, called redemptioners, arrived under agreements to reimburse their fare sometime after arrival. A minority paid their own passage. A small number came seeking adventure, while others were among the thousands whom Cromwell exiled to the West Indies during the 1640s and who later made their way to North America.

There was an increase in Irish immigration during the eighteenth century, though the numbers were still relatively small. Most of the century's arrivals were Presbyterians from the northern province of Ulster who had originally been sent there from Scotland as colonists by the British Crown. Many of these, dissenters from the established Protestant Church in their homeland, were fleeing religious discrimination. In later years, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, it was common to assign the term Scotch-Irish to these Ulster Protestant immigrants, although they thought of themselves as strictly Irish.

There were also numerous Irish Quaker immigrants, as well as some Protestants from southern Ireland. A significant minority of eighteenth-century immigrants were southern Catholics. Most of these were escaping the appalling social and economic conditions and the draconian penal laws enacted by the British to annihilate the Celtic heritage and the religion of the Catholic majority. In time, some of these Catholic arrivals converted to Protestantism, after encountering severe antipapist discrimination as well as an absence of Catholic churches and priests. The preferred destinations of most of the eighteenth-century Irish immigrants were New England, Maryland, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, and Virginia.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Protestants continued to account for the majority of Irish immigrants to the United States, many them skilled tradesmen. There were also numerous political refugees, especially after the abortive United Irishmen uprising of 1798. Because the passage to eastern Canada was substantially cheaper than that to the United States, many Irish immigrants landed there first, at Quebec, Montreal, or Halifax, and then sailed or even walked down into the United States.

By the 1820s and 1830s, however, the overwhelming majority of those fleeing the country were unskilled, Catholic, peasant laborers. Ireland had become Europe's most densely populated country, the

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The first time I saw the Statue of Liberty all the people were rushing to the side of the boat. ‘Look at her, look at her,’ and in all kinds of tongues. ‘There she is, there she is,’ like it was somebody who was greeting them.

Elizabeth Phillips in 1920, cited in Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigrant Experience, edited by Ivan Chermayeff et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1991).

population having increased from about three million in 1725 to more than eight million in 1841. The land could not support such a number. One of the main problems was the absence of the practice of primo-geniture (with the firstborn inheriting all) among the Irish. Family farms or plots were divided again and again until individual allotments were often so small—perhaps only one or two acres in size—that they were of little use in raising a family. Conditions worsened after the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), when an agricultural depression led many Irish landlords to evict their tenants, wanting to use the land for grazing. Meanwhile, increased industrialization had all but ended the modest amount of domestic weaving and spinning that had helped to supplement the income of some families. In addition, famine was never distant—a number of severe potato failures occurred during the 1820s and 1830s, before the Great Famine of the 1840s. The concurrent steep rise in population left thousands of discontented, hungry, landless Irish eager to seek new horizons.

Whereas most of the Irish Catholic immigrants during the eighteenth century had taken up farming in their new country, those arriving in the first decades of the nineteenth century tended to sail from Ireland directly to an American port and to remain in such urban centers as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia or in the textile towns where their unskilled labor could be readily utilized amid the rapidly industrializing (and urbanizing) American economy of the 1820s and 1830s Market Revolution. Some found jobs building roads or canals (such as the Erie) as the nation's infrastructure expanded for domestic and international trade. These immigrants were impoverished but usually not as destitute as those who came later, beginning in the 1840s. Still, times were difficult for most of them, especially the Catholics, who frequently found themselves in the minority and were targets of discrimination in an overwhelmingly Protestant nation.

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Mrs. Bridget Casey, of County Cork, Ireland, is photographed with her nine children right after arriving in New York. 1929 Mrs. Bridget Casey, of County Cork, Ireland, is photographed with her nine children right after arriving in New York. 1929 BETTMANN / CORBIS

It was the cataclysmic Potato Famine of 1845–1851, one of the most severe disasters in Irish history, that initiated the greatest departure of Irish immigrants to the United States. The potato constituted the main dietary staple for most Irish and when blight struck a number of successive harvests, social and economic disintegration ensued. As many as 1.5 million individuals perished of starvation and the diverse epidemics that accompanied the famine. A great number of the survivors emigrated, many of them to the United States. From the beginning of the famine in the mid-1840s until 1860 about 1.7 million Irish immigrated to the United States, mainly from the provinces of Connaught and Munster. In the latter part of the century, though the numbers fell from the highs of the famine years, the influx from Ireland continued to be large. While families predominated during the famine exodus, single people now accounted for a far higher proportion of the immigrants. By 1880 more single women than single men were immigrating, creating one of America's only major immigration waves consisting of more women than men. It has been estimated that from 1820 to 1900 about four million Irish immigrated to the United States.

The majority of Irish immigrants continued to inhabit urban centers, principally in the northeast but also in such cities as Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Only a small number engaged in farming. Most Irish immigrants were indeed peasants with experience working on small farms, but few had the money to purchase land or had sufficient skill and experience to make a success of large-scale American agriculture. Despite suffering exploitation, oppression, and hardships, most nineteenth-century Irish immigrants endured, and their work-related mobility slowly improved. Their prowess and patriotic fervor during the Civil War helped to diminish anti-Irish bigotry and discrimination. As the years went by, the occupational caliber of Irish immigrants gradually improved in line with the slow amelioration of conditions in Ireland. By the end of the century, a high proportion were skilled or semiskilled laborers or had trades. Moreover, these immigrants were greatly aided by the Irish American infrastructure that awaited them: the parochial schools, charitable societies, workers' organizations, and social clubs smoothed their entry into a society that still frequently discriminated against Irish Catholics. Furthermore, the influx of even poorer southern and eastern European immigrants helped the Irish attain increased status.

Emigration continued apace through additional economic troubles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with Ireland consistently being among the top five countries of origin for American immigrants. Increasing American concern about immigration, particularly about rising numbers of unskilled immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, led to the tightening of immigration laws in the 1920s. In particular, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of new immigrants from any particular country to a small percentage of its immigrant population already in the United States. In 1929 a total quota of 150,000 unskilled immigrants, regardless of national origin, was instituted. Although not as severely affected as immigration from southern and Eastern Europe and Asia, Irish immigration dropped 19 percent almost immediately after the initial quota came into effect, and the decline continued through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

After World War II the number of Irish immigrating to the United States picked up again but remained lower than numbers of those arriving from other European nations more directly affected by the war, including Germany, Britain, and Italy. The 1960s saw immigration from Ireland falling further as a result the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Passed during the years of the civil rights movement, the act repealed the inherently racist quota system established forty years prior and opened immigration to all nations with a per-nation quota of 20,000. Furthermore, criteria for visas paid more attention to family connections and certain skills. An overall annual cap of 120,000 immigrants from the Western Hemisphere limited western European immigration somewhat by opening up more immigration from the rest of the world.

Legal immigration from Ireland thus slowed, but economic stagnation in that country in the 1970s and 1980s contributed to an unprecedented influx of undocumented Irish immigrants, especially to such traditionally Irish centers as New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. Many of these immigrants were young and well educated. They left a country with one of the highest rates of unemployment in Page 463  |  Top of ArticleWestern Europe to work largely in Irish American–owned businesses as bartenders, construction workers, nannies, and food servers. This influx slowed during the “Celtic Tiger” years of economic growth in Ireland but picked up again after the financial crisis struck Ireland in 2008. In 2012 Irish authorities reported that emigration had reached the highest level since the mid-nineteenth century. While the United Kingdom received the largest number of Irish emigrants, the United States was a major destination as well, for both legal and illegal immigration. By 2013 advocacy groups estimated that about 50,000 undocumented Irish lived in the United States. Legal Irish immigration remained much lower than in the past; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimated that just under 19,000 new permanent residents arrived from Ireland between 2000 and 2011.


Irish is a Celtic language of Indo-European origin, related to the ancient language of the Gauls. Linguistic scholars usually identify at least four distinct stages in the development of Irish: Old Irish (ca. 600–900); Middle Irish (ca. 900–1400); Early Modern Irish (ca. 1400–1600); and Modern Irish (ca. 1600–present). Three fairly discrete dialects developed through this history: those of Ulster, Munster, and Connaught. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the Irish language—until then widely spoken throughout the country—began a rapid decline, mainly because of the Anglicization policies of the British government. Since the founding of the Irish Free State in 1921, however, the authorities have made great efforts to promote the widespread usage of Irish. The Constitution of the Republic of Ireland names Irish as the official language (though it recognizes English as prevalent), and the native language is still taught in most schools. The result is that competence in Irish language—as well as general interest in the language—is higher today than at any time in the republic's history. Nevertheless, despite all efforts to render Irish a living national language, it is used in daily communication by only about twenty or thirty thousand Irish, most them living in the northern, western, and southern fringes of the island, known collectively as the Gaeltacht, which includes Counties Donegal, Connemara, and the Dingle Peninsula. Only a tiny number of Northern Ireland's population speaks Irish.

Although it was a great loss for nationalistic and cultural reasons, the decline in the usage of Irish and the triumph of English as the first language of Ireland throughout the nineteenth century proved to be a boon to Irish immigrants to the United States. Along with the English and Scottish, most Irish spoke the language of their adopted country, unlike the majority of immigrants. Today, there is a resurgence of interest in the Irish language among many Irish Americans. In cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and San


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Francisco, classes in Irish are extremely popular. A growing number of American colleges and universities now offer Irish language courses.

Greetings and Popular Expressions Dia dhuit (“dee-ah guit”)—Hello; Conas atá tú? (“kunus ah-thaw thoo”)—How are you?; Fáilte romhat! (“fawilteh rowth”)—Welcome; Cad as duit? (“kawd oss dit”)—Where are you from?; Gabh mo leithscéal (“gauw muh leshgale”)—Excuse me; Le do thoil (“leh duh hull”)—Please; Tá dhá thaobh ar an scéa (“thaw gaw hayv air un shgale”)—There's something to be said on both sides; Más toil le Dia (“maws tule leh dee-ah”)—God willing; Tá sé ceart to leor (“thaw shay k-yarth guh lore”)—It's all right; Beidh lá eile ag an bPaorach! (“beg law eleh egg un fairoch”)—Better luck next time!; Buíochas le Dia (“bu-ee-kus leh dee-ah”)—Thank God; Is fusa a rá ná a dhéanamh (“iss fusa ah raw naw ah yea-anav”)—Easier said than done; Go raibh míle maith agat (“guh row meela moh ugut”)—Thank you very much; Slán agat go fóill (“slawn ugut guh fowil”)—Goodbye for the present.


Many, if not most, Irish Protestant immigrants found the transition into mainstream Protestantism in the United States relatively easy. The vast majority of subsequent Catholic immigrants, however, many of whom considered their religion to be an intrinsic part of their Irish heritage as well as a safeguard against the Anglo establishment, held steadfastly to their faith and, in so doing, helped Roman Catholicism grow into one of the country's most populous religions. Since the late eighteenth century, many aspects of American Catholicism have possessed a distinctly Irish character. Past and present American Catholic clergy comprise a disproportionate number of Irish names. Scores of Irish laymen have been at the forefront of American Catholic affairs. The Irish have been particularly energetic supporters of the more concrete manifestations of their church and have established great numbers of Catholic schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, community centers, and orphanages, as well as churches, cathedrals, convents, and seminaries throughout United States.

Until the mid-twentieth century, Catholic Irish American life revolved around the parish. Many children went to parochial schools, and the clergy organized such activities as sports, dances, and community services. Local politics almost always involved the participation of the priests. The clergy knew all the families in the community, and pressure to conform to the norms of the tightly knit parish was considerable. The parish priest, generally the best-educated member of the congregation, was usually the dominant community leader. At a time when there were far fewer social workers, guidance counselors, and psychologists, parishioners flocked to their priest in times of trouble. Religious practice and devotion have declined in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as Irish Americans assimilate more fully into American culture. Although the typical religious community is more loosely organized, many Catholic Irish still identify strongly with their parishes, which can remain considerably distinct from Italian Catholic and other Catholic immigrant groups' parishes.

The American Catholic Church has undergone great changes since the 1960s, largely because of the innovations introduced by the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), which aimed to bring the church into the modern era. Some Catholic Irish Americans, wishing to preserve their inherited church practices, have been dismayed by the transformation. Some, alienated by the modernization of the liturgy—with respect to the introduction of the vernacular, new hymns, and guitar playing at services—have been offended by what they consider a diminution of the mystery and venerability of church ritual. Some have attempted to preserve the traditional liturgy by joining conservative breakaway sects such as the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, founded by Father Leonard Feeney in Boston.

Most Irish American Catholics have embraced these recent developments, however. Many are now far more inclined than non-Irish Catholics to question doctrine and take issue with teachings on such subjects as abortion, contraception, divorce, priestly celibacy, and female priests. The number of Irish Americans entering the clergy has also declined, and, overall, the number of Catholic priests in the United States has dropped by as much as 10 percent in the last decade. Like other European American Catholics, the numbers of Irish Americans receiving the sacraments and attending mass have also substantially dropped, and many have abandoned traditional attitudes toward lifestyle issues, especially sex. Nevertheless, most Irish American Catholics are still faithful to many teachings of their church and continue to identify as Catholics despite some disagreements with Vatican teachings.

Although Catholicism is the denomination most commonly associated with Irish Americans, surveys in the late twentieth century found that just over half of Irish Americans identify as Protestant. The early Irish Protestant immigrants came from Northern Ireland and belonged to the Methodist or Presbyterian churches. Unlike their Catholic counterparts, Irish American Protestants have largely melded into the mainstream of American Protestantism; thus their religious practices are less visible overall.


Because the Irish have been present in the United States for hundreds of years, Irish Americans have had more opportunity than many other ethnic groups to assimilate into the wider society. Each successive generation has become more integrated with the dominant culture.

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Although the eighteenth-century Protestant Irish became acculturated and were socially accepted relatively easily, the vast numbers of Catholic Irish who flooded into the United States in the postfamine decades had far more difficulty coalescing with the mainstream. Common negative stereotypes, many imported from England, characterized the Irish as pugnacious, drunken semisavages. Cartoons depicting them as small, ugly, simian creatures armed with liquor and a shillelagh (a cudgel) pervaded the press; and such terms as “paddy-wagons,” “shenanigans,” and “shanty Irish” gained popularity. The prejudices endured for at least the rest of the nineteenth century.

Despite the effects of these offensive images, compounded by poverty and the lack of formal education, the Irish Catholic immigrants possessed important advantages. They arrived in great numbers, most were able to speak English, and their Western European culture was similar to American culture. These factors allowed them to blend in far more easily than some other ethnic groups. Their Catholicism still aroused hostility amid the dominant culture as late as 1960, however, when it was a major issue during John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. Over the decades it has been accepted and has became an important part of American culture.

It is now more difficult to define Irish American ethnic identity. Particularly in younger generations, intermarriage has played a major role in the blur-ring of ethnic lines. In recent decades a great Irish American migration from their ethnic enclaves in the cities to the suburbs and rural regions has facilitated the process of assimilation. Greater participation in the multicultural public school system and a corresponding decline in parochial school attendance has played a significant role as well. Another major factor has been the great decrease of immigrants from Ireland as a result of immigration laws disfavoring Europeans.

Today, with more than 34 million Americans claiming Irish ancestry, American society as a whole associates few connotations—positive or negative—with this group. Irish immigrants and many of their descendants still take great pride and feel a certain prestige in being Irish. Nevertheless, some non-Irish persist in the belief that the Irish are less cultured, less advanced intellectually, and more politically reactionary and even bigoted than some other ethnic groups. Particularly around such major festivals as Saint Patrick's Day, the image of Irish Americans as heavy drinkers persists. The results of numerous polls show, however, that Catholic Irish Americans are among the best educated and most liberal in the United States. Moreover, they are well represented in law, medicine, academia, and other prestigious professions, and they continue to be upwardly socially mobile. Traditionally prominent in the Democratic ranks of city and local politics, many, especially since the John F. Kennedy presidency, have now attained high positions in the federal government. Countless more have become top civil servants. Irish acceptability has also grown in line with the greater respect many Americans accord the economic advances made by the “Celtic Tiger.”

Dances and Songs Ireland's cultural heritage, with its diverse customs, traditions, folklore, mythology, music, and dance, is one of the richest and most distinctive in Europe. Rapid modernization and the extensive homogenization of Western societies, however, have rendered much of this heritage obsolete or, at best, only vaguely evoked in contemporary Ireland. With Irish Americans' widespread assimilation into American culture, the continuity and appreciation of the domestic cultural heritage has waned. Nevertheless, many elements in Irish American culture are truly unique and lend the group a distinct cultural character.

Irish music and song brought to the United States by generations of immigrants have played a seminal role in the development of American folk and country music. Elements of traditional Irish ballads introduced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are easily discernible in many American folk songs. Irish fiddle music of this period is an important root of American country music. This earlier music became part of an American rural tradition. Much of what was carried to the United States by the great waves of Irish immigration during the nineteenth century, on the other hand, became an important facet of the American urban folk scene. With the folk music revival of the 1960s came a heightened appreciation of Irish music in both its American and indigenous forms.

Today, Irish music is extremely popular not only among Irish Americans but among large sectors of the general American public. Many learn to play such Irish instruments as the pipes, tin whistle, flute, fiddle, concertina, harp, and the bodhrán. Many also attend Irish céilithe (festive gatherings) and dance traditional reels and jigs to hornpipes. In the 1990s Riverdance, an Irish step dance performance created in Ireland by Michael Flatly, drew huge crowds of Irish Americans and Americans in general, playing to sold-out audiences at Radio City Music Hall and on national tours. Irish music has also influenced other musical genres. Some musical groups, such as Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys, have become popular in the United States with an energetic, Irish-influenced punk rock.

Holidays One of most important holidays of the year for Irish Americans is the feast of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, on March 17. Little is known about his life except that he was a Romano-Briton missionary, perhaps from Wales, who spread Christianity throughout Ireland in the fifth century. Although Irish Americans of all creeds are particularly prominent on St. Patrick's Day, the holiday is now so ubiquitous that individuals of many other ethnic groups participate in the festivities. Many cities and towns hold St. Patrick's Day celebrations, parties, and, above all, parades. One of the first major observances of the holiday in the United States was organized in Page 466  |  Top of Article1737 by Protestant Irish in Boston under the auspices of the Charitable Irish Society. Boston, especially the districts of South Boston, still holds great celebrations each year, though the holiday is now more closely identified with Catholic Irish. The largest and most famous parade is in New York City, which held its first St. Patrick's Day parade in 1762. In the early years the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick organized the event; in 1838 the Ancient Order of Hibernians took over and still holds the sponsorship today. New York's main cathedral is dedicated to St. Patrick.

Most people celebrating St. Patrick's Day wear green, Ireland's national color. Green dye is often put in food and drink. The mayor of Chicago regularly has the Chicago River dyed green for the day. If people cannot find a shamrock to wear, they carry representations of the plant. According to legend, the shamrock, with its three leaves on the single stalk, was used by St. Patrick to explain the mystery of the Christian Trinity to the pagan Irish. In Ireland, however, while St. Patrick's Day is celebrated with enthusiasm, festivities tend to be more subdued than in the United States because of a greater appreciation of the feast's religious significance.

Cuisine Although distinctive Irish cuisine is not prominent in Irish Americans' daily diet, many cook Irish dishes at home or eat them in Irish pubs and restaurants, which are common and serve a large clientele in American metropolitan areas. American shops that sell such Irish favorites as rashers (bacon), bangers (sausages), black and white pudding (whole or sliced sausage traditionally made with and without pig's blood), and soda bread (made from flour, soda, buttermilk, salt, and sometimes currants or raisins) find a thriving market. Potatoes are still a staple of the Irish American diet, as well as butter, milk, and cheese in large quantities. Many eat oatmeal stirabout or porridge for breakfast. Irish stew is a favorite, and smoked Irish salmon, imported from Ireland, is a popular delicacy. Other traditional foods include coddle, a dish originating in Dublin that is prepared with bacon, sausages, onions, and potatoes; and drisheens, made from sheep's blood, milk, bread crumbs, and chopped mutton suet. Corned beef and cabbage, sometimes served with juniper berries, is a traditional Easter Sunday meal in many parts of Ireland and is consumed by many Irish Americans on this and other days, including Saint Patrick's Day.

Boxty bread, a potato bread marked with a cross, is served on Halloween or the eve of All Saint's Day. Also on the table at Halloween is colcannon, a mixture of cabbage or kale and mashed potatoes with a lucky coin placed inside; and barmbrack, an unleavened cake abundant with raisins, sultanas, and currants with a ring inside. It is said that whoever receives the slice containing the ring will be married within the year. Tea, served at all times of the day and night, is probably the most popular Irish beverage. Irish coffee—whiskey mixed into coffee—is an Irish American invention not drunk much in Ireland. Although scotch and whiskey are made in many other countries, the Irish believe that their whiskey, uisce beatha (the water of life), is a finer drink. Irish stout, particularly the Guinness variety, is well known and distributed throughout the United States and the world.

Irish step dancers perform at New York City's 251st Annual St. Patrick0027_lasonsemis Day parade. Irish step dancers perform at New York City's 251st Annual St. Patrick's Day parade. KEVIN DOWNS / DEMOTIX / CORBIS

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Traditional Dress True folk costume is rarely worn in Ireland nor by Irish Americans. The brat, a black hooded woolen cloak, is sometimes seen on old women in County Cork. During the nineteenth century many women found the shawl to be a cheaper substitute for the cloak, and even today older rural women may be shawled. The heavy white báinín pullovers, traditionally worn in the west and northwest of Ireland by fishermen whose sweaters each bore a unique and identifiable cable pattern, are now frequently seen throughout the nation and have been popular at times in the United States. Aran Islander men still sometimes wear traditional home-spun tweed trousers flecked with colors found in the Irish landscape, and the weave has been consistently used in American fashion. Although assimilated in their daily dress habits, modern-day Irish Americans make an exception for the kilt, which members of céilí bands and traditional Irish dancers sometimes wear. This plaid skirt is actually Scottish, however, and was adopted in the early twentieth century during a period of resurging interest in Irish culture and language known as the Gaelic Revival.

Health Care Issues and Practices The health of Irish Americans is influenced by the same factors affecting other ethnic groups in the Western world: old age, pollution, stress, excessive use of tobacco and alcohol, an unhealthy diet, employment and other economic problems, discord in marriage and personal relationships, and so on. Heart-related diseases, a chief cause of death, are exacerbated by the Irish fondness for a rich diet traditionally high in fat and caloric content. Alcohol plays a strong role in Irish American social life, and alcohol-related illnesses are common. The rate of alcoholism in Irish Americans is relatively high; a 1997 survey found that 40 percent of Irish Americans reported that alcoholism had existed in their homes when they were children. George Vaillant, a Harvard medical professional and alcoholism expert, wrote in 1995 that Irish Americans in his research were seven times more likely to be alcoholic than Italian Americans. Other researchers have suggested that heavy drinking amid Irish Americans remains a stereotype, and still others believe it is the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. They note that the alcoholism rate in Ireland is moderate. Irish Americans also have an above-average rate of mental health diseases, with organic psychosis and schizophrenia being particularly prevalent. In the twentieth century Irish males were found to have a 4 percent chance of being schizophrenic, roughly four times the rate among the general American population, a prevalence that persists in the twenty-first century. Irish American Patrick Tracey explored these trends among Irish Americans and his own family tree in Stalking Irish Madness, published in 2008.

In the earlier days of immigration the Irish, like numerous other groups, brought their folk medical remedies with them. Most of these, especially the

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3 pounds lamb, cubed

2 pounds russet potatoes, thickly sliced

½ bunch parsley, finely chopped

1 pound onions, thinly sliced

salt and pepper to taste



Preheat oven to 250ºF.

Layer lamb into a heavy oven-proof casserole with potatoes, parsley, and onions. Season generously with salt and pepper. Add 2 cups water. Heat to a simmer over low heat (do not boil). Cover, put in oven. Cook 2½–3 hours. Add water if needed.

Serves 6

preparations involving herbs, are unknown to the majority of contemporary Irish Americans; however, a number of traditional medical beliefs survive. In order to maintain good health and prevent illness, Irish Americans may recommend wearing holy medals and scapulars, blessing the throat, never going to bed with wet hair, never sitting in a draft, taking laxatives regularly, wearing camphor about the neck during influenza season, taking tonics and extra vitamins, enjoying bountiful exercise and fresh air, and avoiding physicians except when quite ill. Some traditional treatments are still used, such as painting a sore throat with iodine or soothing it with lemon and honey, putting a poultice of sugar and bread or soap on a boil, drinking hot whiskey with cloves and honey for coughs or colds, and rubbing Vicks on the chest or breathing in hot balsam vapors, also for coughs and colds.

Death and Burial Rituals Traditionally, the Irish generally treated death in a boisterous and playful manner. The two or three days during which the dead person was laid out prior to burial were filled with storytelling, music, singing, dancing, feasting, and playing of games specific to wakes, such as Hide the Gulley. These activities may owe something to pre-Christian funeral games and may also have stemmed in part from a welcoming of death by an exploited and destitute people. Today, Irish Americans wakes are much more sedate and respectable and generally last only one night. The main purpose of a wake is for relatives, neighbors, and friends to visit and pay their respects to the dead person and to offer condolences to the family. Although food and drink are still invariably provided to visitors, the once-customary overindulgence rarely occurs. Also traditionally, the body was

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Sceitheann fíon fírinne

Wine reveals the truth.

Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin

There's no fireside like your own fireside.

Más maith leat tú a cháineadh, pós

Marry, if you wish to be criticized.

Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí

Give praise to the young and they will flourish.

An té a bhíos fial roinneann Dia lei

God shares with the generous.

Is maith an scáthán súil charad

The eye of a friend is a good mirror.

Is fada an bóthar nach mbíonn casadh ann

It's a long road that has no turn.

Giorraíonn beirt bother

Two people shorten the road.

laid out on a bed in the person's home, whereas today the wake often takes place in a funeral home with the body in a casket. Catholic dead frequently have rosary beads entwined in their crossed hands. Flowers and candles usually surround the casket. A constant watcher stands beside the dead person, these days out of respect but traditionally to guard bodies from the predations of “body-snatchers”; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the theft of dead bodies for use in medical schools was rife in Ireland. Women no longer practice the caoine or keening over the corpse in this country or in Ireland except on rare occasions. Visitors at a wake commonly offer a short silent prayer for the soul of the dead person.


It is difficult to discuss the Irish American family in isolation from the broader society. Irish assimilation into American culture has been occurring over a long period and has been quite comprehensive. That said, aspects of Irish American life remain distinct for some, particularly in regards to marriage, gender roles, child rearing, and education. Even in these respects, however, most Irish Americans are generally indistinguishable from the greater American society.

Marriage During the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, Irish Americans married later than their counterparts in many other ethnic groups. People delayed getting married, wishing first to attain a sufficient economic level. Many men did not marry until their mid-thirties; women often waited until their late twenties, well behind women in other immigrant groups. Large numbers did not marry at all, deciding to remain celibate, respecting strict Irish Catholic teachings that celibacy was a higher moral calling than even marriage. Today delayed marriages are less common, and there is probably less sexual dysfunction both within and outside marriage than before. Furthermore, those Irish whose families have long been established in the United States tend to have a more accepting attitude towards divorce than do the more recently arrived Irish. Many young Irish Americans are more inclined than their elders to look favorably on divorce. The negative attitude of the Catholic Church on the topic still affects perceptions, however. Many Irish Americans, even those who obtain a civil divorce, seek to procure a church annulment of their marriages so that they may remarry within Catholicism. Although Irish Americans frequently intermarry with other ethnic groups, a strong leaning toward marrying within the same religion remains.

Gender Roles The traditional Irish American mother remained at home to take care of the household. Female dominance of domestic life was common, and mothers generally played a dominant role in raising children. Not all Irish women were tied to the house, however. Many were also active in community-oriented projects, such as charity activities, parochial work, and caring for the old and sick. In addition, many women fleeing the famine and terrible conditions in Ireland in the nineteenth-century immigrated to the United States alone, displaying particular independence and resolve for women of the period. This boldness and determination remains one of the most dominant character traits of contemporary Irish American women. Few today are content to devote their lives to traditional housework, with the majority working in either part-time or full-time jobs. Great numbers have thrived in such professional spheres as academia, law, business, politics, and a variety of other occupations.

Children Irish American families have traditionally been large. This is partly a result of the continued adherence of many to the Catholic Church's teachings against contraception. Yet, like most Americans, Irish Americans have had considerably smaller families in recent years. A family's socioeconomic background largely determines its child-rearing practices. As in many Western cultures, the mother often cares for the children and imparts foundational values while the father is frequently a distant figure. Overt parental affection is not as prevalent as in some other ethnic groups, perhaps because of stricter views on authority rooted in the Catholic hierarchy. Negative reinforcement, such as shaming, can be as common as positive reinforcement. There has always been a tendency to imbue children with a strong sense of public respectability, and some have even argued that the desire to be Page 469  |  Top of Articlethought respectable has deterred many Irish Americans from taking chances and has impeded their success.

Education In earlier generations of Irish Americans, more attention was paid to the education of sons than of daughters. Girls were generally expected to become homemakers, and if some did have a job, such work would be considered secondary to their household duties. Today, while some Irish American parents—particularly mothers—still indulge their sons, the education of daughters is a major focus.

Irish American families encourage achievement in school. The traditional respect of the Irish for education dates back to the fifth through eighth centuries, when Ireland attained the name of “Island of Saints and Scholars”; Irish monks helped preserve Latin and Greek learning in Europe, as well as the English language itself, by copying manuscripts. In addition, Irish Americans well understand that academic success facilitates achievement in wider social and economic spheres. The result is that Irish American Catholics are among the highest-achieving groups in the United States in terms of education. They are more likely than any other white gentile ethnic group to go to college and are also more likely than most other ethnic groups to pursue graduate academic and professional degrees.

While many Irish Americans attend public schools, colleges, and universities, numerous others attend Catholic educational institutions. During the nineteenth century, Irish parochial schools provided a route for Irish Americans to “protect” their children from being seduced by what many felt to be the Protestant ethos of the public schools. There is strong evidence that attendance at today's Catholic educational institutions, many of which have high standards, facilitates elevated levels of educational achievement and upward social mobility. Contrary to some beliefs, a Catholic education is not a deterrent to either academic or economic success. Among the most renowned Catholic universities are Boston College and the University of Notre Dame.


In the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries, the great majority of Catholic Irish immigrants languished at the bottom of the U.S. economic ladder as unskilled laborers. Although some were farm workers, many more worked in such areas as mining, quarrying, bridge and canal building, and railway construction. So many Irish were killed building railroads that a common saying was “there is an Irishman buried under every tie.” Others were dockworkers, ironworkers, factory-hands, bartenders, carters, street cleaners, hodcarriers, and waiters. Irish women generally worked in menial occupations. Multitudes were employed as domestic servants in Anglo-Protestant households, while others worked as unskilled laborers in New England textile mills. Some Irish became quite successful, but their numbers were few. The handful who attained white-collar status were frequently shopkeepers and small businessmen. An exceedingly meager number of Irish Americans were professionals. Those Irish who made the long trip to the Western States tended to have somewhat more prestigious jobs than their compatriots in the East and North, in part because of the large numbers of Chinese in the West who did much of the manual labor. Many Irish participated in the California Gold Rush.

In the years after the Civil War, the occupational lot of Irish Americans began to improve. More entered skilled trades; many moved into managerial positions in the railroad, iron, construction, and other industries; and some went into business for themselves, especially in the building and contracting sectors. Numerous others became police officers, firefighters, streetcar conductors, clerks, and post-office workers. Irish Americans held many leadership positions in the trade union movement. They also began to achieve greater recognition in the entertainment industry and in athletics. Far fewer opportunities existed for women in general at the time; still, many Irish American women attained upward occupational mobility by becoming teachers, nurses, and secretaries. Many Irish American nuns held positions of responsibility in hospitals, schools, and other Catholic social institutions.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Catholic Irish Americans were clearly ascending the occupational ladder. Although most remained members of the working class, large numbers moved into the ranks of the lower middle classes. This improvement in socioeconomic status has continued. Today, Irish Americans are well represented in academia, medicine, law, government service, politics, finance, banking, insurance, journalism, the entertainment industry, the Catholic clergy, and most other professions.


The vast majority of Irish Catholic immigrants to the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were politically progressive, a stance instilled by years of oppression at the hands of the British. Not surprisingly, most favored the policies of Thomas Jefferson, and their vote greatly assisted his election over the federalist John Adams to the presidency in 1800. They demonstrated their political inclinations again in 1829, supporting the populist politics of Democrat Andrew Jackson, the seventh American president and the nation's first of Irish descent (though a Protestant).

The clear understanding that they would be unable to match the Anglo-Protestant establishment in the world of business and economics, Irish American Catholics, many of whom entered the United States with fundamental political experience gained through mass agitation movements at home, realized that politics would provide them with a potent vehicle for attaining influence and power. In the years after the Civil War, the Irish American talent for political activity Page 470  |  Top of Articlewas increasingly evident. Irish American control of New York's Tammany Hall, the center of the city's Democratic Party in the nineteenth century, remains a resolute symbol of their powerful and sometimes dubious involvement in American urban politics. Although graft, cronyism, and corruption were once an integral part of many of their political “machines” in New York and other cities, Irish American politicians were frequently more successful than their Anglo-Protestant counterparts in reaching the people, feeding the poor, helping the more unfortunate obtain jobs, and organizing other practical social welfare activities. The Irish American political machine generally had a strong democratic, reformist, and pragmatic agenda, and it often included American Jews, Italians, Germans, Poles, and other immigrant groups.

Despite the notable twentieth-century presence of such influential Catholic Irish American reactionaries as the demagogue Father Charles Coughlin and the communist-baiter Senator Joseph McCarthy, members of the group are among the most likely to advocate the right of free speech. They also tend to be more supportive of liberal issues than many other white ethnic groups. For example, they have traditionally promoted such causes as racial equality, welfare programs, environmental issues, and gun control. Irish Americans, including the Kennedys and Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have been and still are among the most stalwart supporters of the Democratic Party. Beginning in the late twentieth century, however, there has been a movement by some toward the Republican Party, particularly among more socially conservative Irish Catholics for whom abortion is a major concern.

Armed Forces Either as regulars or as volunteers, Irish Americans have served in all U.S. military involvements. They fought with distinction in the Revolutionary War, most siding with Washington. It is estimated that as many as 38 percent of Washington's army was composed of Irish Americans, even though they made up only 10 percent of the population. Of his generals, twenty-six were Irish, fifteen of them born in Ireland. In the Civil War most Irish Americans sided with the Union, and great numbers of them fought in Union armies. “The Fighting 69th” was probably the most famous Irish regimental unit, though thirty-eight Union regiments actually had “Irish” in their names. The contribution of the Irish to the Confederate cause was also significant. As many as 40,000 Confederate soldiers were born in Ireland, and numerous others were of Irish ancestry. Irish Americans continued to fight in the U.S. armies in subsequent wars and were particularly prominent, with many gaining decorations, in the two World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Their ready and distinguished participation in U.S. military conflicts has helped the Irish to gain respectability in the eyes of generations of other Americans and to assimilate into mainstream American life.

Labor Movement The Irish have contributed greatly to the labor movement in the United States. Their struggle for American workers' rights began as an outgrowth of their fight against oppression in Ireland. American capitalist injustice in industry was not much different in principle from persecution by English landlords at home. Even in the antebellum years, Irish Americans were active in workers' organizations, many of which were clandestine, but it was during the second half of the nineteenth century that their involvement in labor activities became especially prominent. Particularly well known are the activities of the “Molly Maguires,” anthracite coal miners of Pennsylvania who in the 1860s and 1870s violently resisted the mostly English, Scottish, and Welsh mine bosses. Found guilty of nine murders, ten Mollies were hanged in 1876. This did not deter Irish involvement in American labor activities, however. Terence V. Powderly (1849–1924), the son of an Irish immigrant, was for years leader of the Knights of Labor, the first national labor organization, which was founded in 1869. He later became commissioner general of immigration under President William McKinley. Peter James McGuire (1852–1906), a carpenter, was another leading union activist. A founder of the American Federation of Labor, he was its secretary and first vice president. He is perhaps best known today as the “Father of Labor Day.”

Irish women have also been prominent in the American labor movement. The Cork-born Mary Harris (“Mother”) Jones (1830–1930), after losing all her possessions in the Chicago fire of 1871, began a fifty-year involvement in organizing labor unions and in striving to improve workers' conditions and wages throughout the United States. Today, a nationally circulated magazine devoted to liberal issues bears her name. Another famous Irish woman in the labor movement was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890–1964), who cofounded the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920 and later became head of the United States Communist Party.

Kerry-born Michael Joseph Quill (1905–1966) founded the Transport Workers Union of America in 1934 and was its first president. In 1937 Irish American Joe Curran became the National Maritime Union's first president. George Meany (1894–1979), grandson of an Irish immigrant, was president of the combined American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) from 1955 to 1979. Irish American participation in the U.S. union and labor movement has been and continues to be of vital importance and benefit to the well-being of American society.

Northern Ireland The attention of many Irish Americans from all generations has been sharply focused on Irish political affairs since the creation of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom in 1921 and especially since the Catholic civil rights movement began in the late 1960s. The movement Page 471  |  Top of Articleresponded to decades of institutionalized and private discrimination against Catholics by the Protestant majority in the region in such spheres as voting, housing, and employment. Throughout the late twentieth century, Northern Ireland was convulsed by political upheaval, the frequently controversial tactics of an occupying force of British soldiers, Protestant and Catholic paramilitary activity, riots, killings, bombings, hunger strikes, internment without trial, and patent violations of human rights. The reactions of numerous Irish Americans have been forceful.

In 1970 the Irish Northern Ireland Aid Committee (NORAID), an American-based organization, was formed to provide material help to Catholics in Northern Ireland. The Irish National Caucus, a Washington-based lobbying group, has been vociferous in its call for a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and for a reunification of the nation. Many Irish American politicians and lobbying groups have campaigned intensively to demand a solution to Northern Ireland's problems, consistently exerting pressure on successive administrations to use their influence with London, Belfast, and Dublin to help amend human rights abuses in Northern Ireland and to aid in the provision of social and economic justice in that region. Even after the Good Friday agreements of 1998, Irish Americans continue to be deeply concerned about the status of Northern Ireland and of the potential for further conflict there.


A vast number of Irish Americans have attained distinction over the past few centuries. The following sections list only a fraction of them and their achievements.

Art Many Irish Americans have achieved prominence in the arts. In the fine arts, for example, the following three achieved particular fame: Mathew Brady (1823–1896), Civil War photographer; James E. Kelly (1855–1933), sculptor; and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986), painter.

Commerce and Industry Numerous Irish Americans have made their mark in the world of business and finance. Among them are William Russell (1812–1872), founder of the Pony Express; William Russell Grace (1832–1904), entrepreneur and first Roman Catholic mayor of New York; Andrew Mellon (1855–1937), banker, art collector, and philanthropist; Samuel S. McClure (1857–1949), leading journalist and newspaper publisher; Henry Ford (1863–1947), auto manufacturer; Howard Hughes (1905–1976), wealthy and eccentric industrialist, aerospace manufacturer, and moviemaker; and Jack Welch (1935–), noted General Electric CEO from 1981 to 2001.

Education John R. Gregg (1867–1948), inventor of the Gregg system of shorthand, and William Heard Kilpatrick (1871–1965), philosopher and leader in the progressive education movement, are among prominent Irish American educators.

Irish American author Frank McCourt is best known for his memoir, Angela's Ashes. Irish American author Frank McCourt is best known for his memoir, Angela's Ashes. JAMES LEYNSE / CORBIS

Literature Irish Americans have made a major impact in American literature since the early nineteenth century. Among the most notable Irish American literary personalities are Mathew Carey (1760–1839), author, book publisher, and political economist; Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), one of the greatest figures in American literature; Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953), one of the most eminent American playwrights; F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), internationally popular novelist and short story writer; James T. Farrell (1904–1979), an author whose work, notably his Studs Lonigan trilogy, centers on working-class Irish American families on Chicago's South Side; Mary McCarthy (1912–1989), novelist and critic; Flannery O'Connor (1925–1964), novelist and short story writer of the American South; William F. Buckley (1925–2008), editor, critic, commentator, and novelist; Frank McCourt (1930–2009), whose memoir Angela's Ashes is a classic of Irish American experience; Cormac McCarthy (1933–), Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist; and Billy Collins (1941–), U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003.

Music Irish Americans have found success in both traditional and popular musical arenas. Well-known Irish American music groups include the punk bands Dropkick Murphys, founded in Massachusetts in 1996 and led by Ken Casey (1969–); and Flogging Molly, founded in Los Angeles in 1997 and led by Dublin-born Dave King (1961–). Popular American musicians of Irish descent who play non-Celtic music include singer-songwriter Tori Amos (1963–); John Page 472  |  Top of ArticleFogerty (1945–), lead singer of Creedence Clearwater Revival; Mandy Moore (1984–), singer-songwriter and actress; Christina Aguilera (1980–), popular singer; and Bruce Springsteen (1949–).

Government The fields of politics and law have featured more than their share of eminent Irish Americans. Among the earliest prominent immigrants was Sir Thomas Dongan (1634–1715), Irish-born governor of New York in 1682. Two extremely influential and powerful figures were James Michael Curley (1874–1958), mayor of Boston for four terms, and Richard J. Daley (1902–1976), mayor of Chicago from 1954 to 1976. Irish American involvement in both state and national politics also gained prominence in the twentieth century. Alfred Emanuel Smith (1873–1944), the grandson of Irish immigrants, was the first Irish American Catholic to receive the nomination of a major party (Democratic) in a presidential election; he was defeated by Herbert Hoover in 1928. An Irish American Catholic finally reached the White House in 1960 with the election of John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), who was assassinated in 1963. His brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968), another prominent Democratic politician (he had served as attorney general in the Kennedy administration), was assassinated in 1968 while campaigning for president. A third brother, Edward (Ted) (1932–2009), was one of the most liberal and effective champions of social reform in the history of the U.S. Senate until his death in 2009 from natural causes.

Numerous other Irish American politicians have gained national attention in recent decades. Two twentieth-century presidents, Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) and Ronald Reagan (1911–2004), both Republicans, were of Irish Protestant background. President Clinton (1946–) also claimed Irish descent, though no firm evidence surfaced. President Obama (1961–) has Irish Protestant roots on his mother's side; he visited his ancestral village in County Moneygall in 2011. Vice President Joe Biden (1942–) strongly identifies with his Irish Catholic roots. In addition, Irish Americans are well represented in the U.S. Congress. The Republican candidate for President in 2008, Senator John McCain (1936–), is of Scotch-Irish descent. Thomas “Tip” O'Neill (1912–1994) and Thomas S. Foley (1929–2013). Speakers of the House of Representatives, and Supreme Court Justices William J. Brennan (1906–1997) and Sandra Day O'Connor (1930–) the first woman on the court, all came from an Irish background.

Religion Famous Irish American religious leaders include Archbishop John Joseph Hughes (1797–1864), first Roman Catholic archbishop of New York; John McCloskey (1810–1885), first American cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church; James Gibbons (1834–1921), Francis Joseph Spellman (1889–1967), Richard J. Cushing (1895–1970), and Terence Cooke (1921–1983), all Roman Catholic cardinals; Archbishop Fulton John Sheen (1895–1979), charismatic Roman Catholic Church leader; and Father Andrew Greeley (1928–), priest, sociologist, and novelist. Two famous humanitarians are Father Edward Joseph Flanagan (1886–1948), a Roman Catholic priest who worked with homeless boys and founded Boys Town in Nebraska; and Thomas A. Dooley (1927–1961), a medical doctor who performed great humanitarian work in Southeast Asia.

Sports Many Irish Americans have been eminent in sports, among them John L. Sullivan (1858–1918), James John “Gentleman Jim” Corbett (1866–1933), Jack Dempsey (1895–1983), and Gene Tunney (1898–1978), all heavyweight boxing champions; Babe Ruth (1895–1948), baseball player; Ben Hogan (1912–1997), golfer; Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly (1934–1969), a tennis star who won the U.S. women's singles championship three times; John Elway (1960–), two-time Super Bowl–winning quarterback; and Jason Kidd (1973–), talented National Basketball Association point guard.

Stage and Screen A great number of Irish Americans have attained distinction in the entertainment industry, including Will Rogers (1879–1935), humorist and actor; Buster Keaton (1895–1966), famous silent film comedian; James Cagney (1899–1986), movie actor; film director John Ford (born Sean Aloysius O'Feeny; 1895–1973); Spencer Tracy (1900–1967), movie actor; Ed Sullivan (1901–1974), television personality; Bing Crosby (1901–1977), singer and movie and radio actor; John Huston (1906–1987), film director; John Wayne (1907–1979), movie actor; Errol Flynn (1909–1959), movie actor; Maureen O'Sullivan (1911–), movie actor; Gene Kelly (1912–1996), dancer, actor, and singer; Tyrone Power (1913–1958), movie actor; Mickey Rooney (1920–1998), movie actor; Maureen O'Hara (1920–), movie actor; Carroll O'Connor (1924–2001), television actor; Grace Kelly (1929–1982), movie actor and later princess of Monaco; Jack Nicholson (1937–), movie actor; Mia Farrow (1945–), movie actor; Alec Baldwin (1958–), movie and television actor; Sean Penn (1960–), actor, director, and screenwriter; Ben Affleck (1972–), actor, director, and screenwriter; Jennifer Connelly (1970–), movie actor; and Macaulay Culkin (1980–), movie actor. Irish Americans have also been particularly successful as comedians and comedic actors. Examples from the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries include George Carlin (1937–2008), Bill Murray (1950–), Will Ferrell (1967–), Conan O'Brien (1963–), Denis Leary (1957–), Bill Maher (1956–), Kathy Griffin (1960–), and Janeane Garofalo (1964–).


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Boston Irish Reporter

Founded in 1990, this monthly newspaper is sold at newsstands in Boston and eastern New England. The paper includes profiles of Irish Americans and news and culture items of interest to the Irish American community.

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William P. Forry, Managing Editor
150 Mt. Vernon Street
Suite 120
Dorchester, Massachusetts 02125
Phone: (617) 436-1222
Fax: (617) 825-5516

Irish America Magazine

Established in 1985, this bimonthly magazine publishes information about Ireland and Irish Americans, including interviews and book, play, and film reviews.

875 Avenue of the Americas
Suite 201
New York, New York 10001

Irish Echo

Established in 1928, this nationally distributed weekly periodical bills itself as the oldest and most widely read Irish American newspaper. It contains articles of interest to the Irish American community.

Ray O'Hanlon, Editor
11 Hanover Square
New York, New York 10005
Phone: (212) 482-4818
Fax: (212) 482-6569

Irish Herald

Established in 1962 and reestablished in 1996, this free monthly newspaper covers Irish American interests from a west coast perspective. The paper is distributed to metropolitan areas from Seattle to San Diego.

John J. Gallagher, Managing Editor
1201 Howard Avenue
Suite 203
Burlingame, California 94010
Phone: (650) 344-3765
Fax: (650) 344-3056

This website, launched in 2009, bills itself as the largest Irish American media site on the Internet and features news about Irish Americans, Ireland, and Irish culture throughout the nation. The site is also home to Irish America and Irish Voice magazines.

Kate Hickey, Editor
875 Sixth Avenue
New York, New York 10001
Phone: (212) 871-0111


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WFUV-FM (90.7)

This public radio station, based at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, features three popular shows for Irish Americans and others of Celtic descent, including Míle Fáilte, a show about Irish language and culture presented by Séamus Blake; A Thousand Welcomes, a Celtic music show presented by Kathleen Biggins; and Ceol na nGael Music of the Irish, an Irish music, news, and sports program presented by Tara Cuzzi and Megan Scully. Shows are available online for download.

Chuck Singleton, General Manager
Fordham University
Bronx, New York 10458-9993
Phone: (718) 817-4550

WGBH-FM (89.7)

This Boston-based public radio station broadcasts The Celtic Sojourn, a Celtic music program presented by Brian O'Donovan. The station also maintains a permanent online Celtic music stream.

Marita Rivero, General Manager
One Guest Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02135
Phone: (617) 300-5400

WPNA-AM (1490)

This Chicago-based international music station carries programs of interest to the Irish American community, including the Hagerty Irish Hour and the Mike O'Connor Show. Both of these long-running shows feature music, news, and culture from Ireland and Chicago's Irish American community.

Phone: (708) 848-8980
Fax: (708) 848-9220

Find information about the Hagerty Irish Hour at

and the Mike O'Connor Show at

408 South Oak Park Avenue
Oak Park, Illinois 60302


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Ancient Order of Hibernians in America (AOH)

AOH is the oldest Irish Catholic fraternal organization in the United States. It was founded in Pennsylvania's coal mining regions and New York City in 1836. With more than 80,000 members throughout the United States, Canada, and Ireland, AOH is the largest Irish American organization, with divisions throughout the country. Originally founded to protect the Catholic faith of its members, the AOH works today to assist Irish immigrants to the United States with social programs and advocacy. Membership is confined Page 474  |  Top of Articleto men over the age of sixteen. The organization also seeks to promote awareness throughout the United States of all aspects of Irish life and culture. It publishes a bimonthly newspaper, the National Hibernian Digest.

Thomas D. McNabb, Secretary
31 Logan Street
Auburn, New York 13021
Phone: (315) 252-3895

Irish American Cultural Institute (IACI)

Founded in 1962, this membership-driven nonprofit foundation, whose purposes are apolitical and nonreligious, fosters the exploration of the Irish experience in Ireland and the United States. Among its programs are the Irish Way, which takes American high school students on a summer educational tour of Ireland; lectures featuring Irish and Irish American writers and scholars; grants and fellowships for Irish American researchers; and traveling exhibits about Irish American history and experience. IACI publishes Éire-Ireland, a semiannual scholarly journal of Irish studies. The organization has fifteen chapters throughout the United States.

Carol Buck, Director of Operations
1 Lackawanna Place
Morristown, New Jersey 07960
Phone: (973) 605-1991
Fax: (973) 605-8875

Irish American Partnership

This nonprofit organization was founded in 1986 with seed money from the Irish Parliament to promote stronger cultural ties between the United States and the Republic of Ireland. The partnership encourages Irish Americans to participate in exploring their Irish heritage and supporting education and economic development in Ireland.

Joseph Leary, President
33 Broad Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02109
Phone: (617) 723-2707
Fax: (617) 723-5478


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American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS)

Founded in 1962, ACIS is a multidisciplinary scholarly organization with more than 800 members in the United States, Canada, and abroad, who do research in a wide variety of Irish Studies. ACIS organizes a national annual conference as well as regional conferences at which scholars share their work with each other and the general public, alongside literary readings, performances, and Irish films. ACIS also organizes fellowships in Irish Studies and administers a grant program.

Sean Farrell, President
Department of History
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, Illinois 60115
Phone: (815) 753-0131
Fax: (215) 545-3015

American Irish Historical Society (AIHS)

Founded in New York in 1897, the AIHS promotes awareness among Americans of Irish descent of their history, culture, and heritage and “inform[s] the world of the achievements of the Irish in America.” The society presents lectures, readings, musical events, and art exhibitions at its headquarters in New York. Members make an annual contribution to the organization to support its programs. Each year the AIHS awards a gold medal to an Irish American or Irish individual who best reflects the society's ideals. Its annual journal, the Recorder, contains articles on a wide range of Irish American and Irish topics with a primary focus on the contribution of the Irish in American history. The AIHS library contains more than 10,000 volumes together with major manuscript and archival collections, including an extensive collection of historical newspapers documenting the Irish American experience, personal papers of leading Irish Americans, and works by Irish American artists. The library is open to the public by appointment.

Christopher Cahill
991 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10028
Phone: (212) 288-2263
Fax: (212) 628-7927

The Celtic Arts Center of Southern California

Founded in the mid-1980s, the center organizes events, classes, and workshops to celebrate and deepen understanding of Celtic and Gaelic—as well as Irish American—cultures. Offerings include Irish language classes and dance workshops, the Los Angeles County Irish Fair, and an annual Samhain (Celtic New Year) festival.

Douglas R. Dean, President
5062 Lankershim Blvd. #3003
North Hollywood, California 91601
Phone: (818) 760-8322

Irish American Heritage Museum

For more than twenty years, the Irish American Heritage Museum has featured exhibits and programs to “preserve and tell the story of the contributions of the Irish people and their culture in America.” Its new building opened in January 2012 in downtown Albany, New York, and features year-round exhibits, special programs, and the Paul O'Dwyer Library.

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Jeff Cleary, Executive Director
370 Broadway
Albany, New York 12207-2969
Phone: (518) 427-1916

John J. Burns Library, Boston College, Special Collections and Archives

The Irish collection at Boston College's Burns Library is considered one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind outside of Ireland. The library also administers the Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies Chair and maintains a significant Irish music collection.

Robert K. O'Neill, Burns Librarian
140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts 02467
Phone: (617) 552-3282
Fax: (617) 552-2465


Barrett, James R. The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City. New York: Penguin Press, 2012.

Dezell, Maureen. Irish America: Coming Into Clover. Norwell, MA: Anchor Press, 2002.

Dolan, Jay P. The Irish Americans: A History. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

McCourt, Frank. Angela's Ashes: A Memoir. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

Meagher, Timothy J. Columbia Guide to Irish History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Miller, Kerby A. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: A Novel. New York: Harper, 1943.

Tracey, Patrick. Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia. New York: Bantam, 2008.

Waters, Maureen. Crossing Highbridge: A Memoir of Irish America. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300097