In my most recent release, Work of Art, the main character is an Irish immigrant. I had to do a bit of research to familiarize myself with her plight and found some very interesting information. It turns out that the Irish—including Americans of Irish descent—have played an astonishing role in the shaping of the modern U.S., indeed the transformation of a few paltry English colonies into an independent nation. Let’s take a look.
1. It is estimated that 250,000 Irish made their way to America during the Colonial period. In the mid 1600’s, Irish left their homeland in droves to avoid the heated battles between Catholics and Presbyterians when the two groups—with opposing views on how Christianity should be practiced—were forced into close proximity by the Plantation of Ulster. King James I of England implemented the plan intending to pacify and civilize Ulster, and reward his fellow Scotsmen for their loyalty. He granted large plots of acreage to his countrymen with only one major complication; the local Gaelic chieftains still regarded the lands as their own. In 1639 the resentment boiled over, culminating in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. To avoid the slaughter, many Irish in search of a more peaceful existence made the journey to the New World, eventually settling in the back country of the Appalachian Mountains. They contributed such large numbers to the American Revolution that one British general was prompted to speculate that “half the rebel Continental Army were from Ireland.”
2. Also of note is the large number of Irish who participated in the U.S. Civil War. The Union Army recorded slightly less than 150,000 native Irishmen, with a comparable number of Irish-American soldiers, among their forces. Thirty-eight confirmed regiments bore the distinction “Irish” in their titles. The Confederate Army employed a lesser number but still enough to warrant the formation of their own units. These divisions carried symbolic Irish banners and names, and upheld traditional practices such as attending mass before heading into battle. One notable brigadier general for the Confederate States Army, General John McCausland, was the son of an Irish immigrant.
3. Irish manpower played a major role in shaping the cities of the Northeast. Due to advancing technological developments and westward expansion, there was a huge demand for workers during the industrial boom of the 19th century. Irish immigrants stepped up to fill the need. The labor was utilized in lumbering, the steel industry, and construction in the big cities building canals, roads, and railways. Approaching the midpoint of the century, jobs became scarce, and many advertisements for employment began to specify “No Irish.” But because of their willingness to work cheaply, often at a fraction of the cost of other laborers, wages were driven so low that eventually it became an unwise business decision not to hire them. Fortunately, the industrial revolution experienced a second wave and the economical workforce was again put to good use.
4. Today, the number of Americans of Irish descent is approximately six times the population of Ireland. In the years between 1845-1852, Ireland was ravaged by the Great Famine, a disaster of epic proportions. Faced with few options, again the Irish people headed for more welcoming lands. It is reported that one million Irish emigrated to Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and the U.S., many of them finding refuge in the port cities of New England. At one time, as many as 300 Irish nationals per day disembarked in New York seeking a better life in the New World. By 1855 a quarter of the population in Manhattan was of Irish descent, that proportion growing to over half by the turn of the century. There are similar numbers for other major American cities most notably Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Providence. Irish-American population continued to grow exponentially until it reached the staggering aforementioned ratio.
5. Irish Americans have played prominent roles in the U.S. government. Eight of the signatures on the Declaration of Independence came from Americans of Irish descent. Matthew Thornton, George Taylor, and James Smith were actually native born Irishmen while Charles Carroll, Thomas Lynch Jr., Thomas McKean, George Read, and Edward Rutledge, were first or second generation Irish-Americans. In addition, Charles Thompson, the secretary at the Congress, also signed. Similarly, six out of the thirty-six delegates who had a hand in creating the Constitution also had Irish roots. There have been too many notable Irish-Americans to name in positions of government from local to the national level, but they even managed to climb all the way up to the highest elected seat in the land. From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama, twenty-two American Presidents—half of the forty-four men who have held the title of Commander in Chief—can claim some degree of Irish ancestry.