“People imagine if they were in America it would be all sunshine. There is rain, snow, and frost too, so that it is a foolish idea to think when you get to America it is only to make money.”
Said James Chamberlain from Boston to his mother and brothers back in Mitchelstown, Co Cork in the early 1890s. James arrived in 1888, and he was one of the 4 million Irish who emigrated to the United States in the post-Famine era (1850 to 1929).
The Irish-born people in America reached their peak in 1890 at nearly 1.9 million. In addition to that there was the second generation with Irish-Americans, which totalled 4.8 million people, 13 per cent of the population. They settled mostly in urban centres in the northeast of the country and as the west opened up many sought opportunities there.
“Immigration has killed the country,” Chamberlain said in another letter. He punished those who exploited the new arrivals as well as their own people. He realised the American dream would disappear because of the employers who refused to give them fair wages.
An excellent new interactive map from the Pew Research Center marks the changing origin of America’s immigrants, and the effects of legislation over a period of time. Throughout the Famine, nothing stopped hundreds of thousands of Irish from settling in the US. The first limitations stopped the flow from Asia in the late 19th century, which explains the disappearance of the Chinese as the main foreign-born group on the west coast from the year 1880 to 1900. Instead, industrialists and farmers began looking to Mexico for labourers.
From the 1920s onwards, Congress increased its pressure, exceeding the total number of immigrants and establishing quotas depending on nationality. This system was constitutionally discriminatory, giving migrants from northern and western Europe preference. An act in 1965, called the Hart-Cellar Act, abolished the quotas and welcomed an increasingly globalised flow based on family reunification and skills, as well as the admission of refugees. By 1990, less than ten per cent of all immigrants going into America came from Europe.
Emigration from Ireland kept happening during the 20th century, but the Great Depression, the second World War, and US legislation moved it towards other destinations, particularly England. The Irish-born population in America grew older and declined and, as Ireland developed, the nature of the new immigrants changed. In the 1980s they were more inclined to being better educated than their predecessors, but also undocumented.
Each generation had its impact in America and today roughly 40 million Americans claim Irish ethnicity. If the way that identity sometimes seems – whether green beer or green shamrocks – seems strange to people in Ireland, that is due to it being as much a reflection of America as it is of Ireland.
The population of the US today mainly constitutes immigrants and their descendants. A mythology has developed around their origins, based on the idea that once upon a time immigrants were hard working and set on achieving success. Irish America has its own idea of how it happened: from poverty-based, starving Famine migrants dealing with anti-Catholic discrimination, they and their descendants ascended to positions of power, epitomized by the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.
However, the very same mythology depends upon an amnesia that lets people view recent arrivals as lazy or threatening. In the 19th century many Irish began arriving in America impoverished and unskilled, and the society they were entering believed them to be ignorant and dangerous. Their rise up the social ladder had more to with than just overcoming stereotypes and finding opportunity; it also meant enacting prejudice, especially against African-Americans and other immigrant groups.
While global migration today may happen on an unprecedented scale, we must remember that its reasons and discourses have not changed much.
Main reason for Irish emigration to America
Although the Irish potato infestation decreased in 1850, the effects of the famine continued to impulse Irish emigration into the 20th century. Still facing poverty and disease, the Irish went to America where they met up with relatives who had fled at the peak of the famine.
Between the years 1845 and 1850, a horrible fungus destroyed Ireland’s potato crop. Throughout these years, starvation and other diseases took as many as one million lives, when perhaps twice that number of Irish immigrated — 500,000 of them immigrants to the United States, where they were more than half of all immigrants in the 1840s. Between the years 1820 and 1975, 4.7 million Irish settled into the United States. In 2002, over 34 million Americans considered themselves to have Irish ancestry, making Irish Americans the country’s second-largest ethnic group.