It was in the 18th century that the Irish began to come to America
in large numbers. Many of them were Presbyterians from Ulster; driven
by hard times at home, they settled on the rocky farmlands of New
Hampshire and the mountain slopes of Virginia and the Carolinas. The
Irish Palantines of German descent came from the Limerick
area and established the first Methodist Church in New York. Adventurers
like William Johnson and George Croghan made their fortunes as Indian
agents. Merchants, lawyers and physicians formed Irish fraternal and
charitable organizations from Boston to Baltimore. Immigrants of the
bolder sort left the security of the coastal colonies to press inland,
into what would later be Kentucky and Tennessee. Most of these early
settlers were Protestants, for there was little incentive for Catholics
to experience in British America the same discriminatory laws that
they endured at home. Of course, there were clearly some Catholics,
particularly in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The real influx of Irish began in the early 1800s. By this time the
Catholics were starving and had little choice about their future.
Between 1820 and 1840, some 300,000 Irish immigrants, mostly Catholic,
arrived in the United States, in search of economic opportunities.
They found a demand for their labor building roads, canals and the
first stage of the railroad network, as well as in urban construction
and mill work. But their growing numbers and cultural distinctiveness
were causing concern in a country of barely 13 million peoplealmost
entirely of British stock. The second wave of Ulster Protestants
who came to America during this period understood the negative implications
of being identified as mere Irish, and they began referring
to themselves using the distinguishing label of Scots-Irish.
This was but a prelude to the flood of Irish immigrations and the
crises that it created during the decades surrounding the Great Famine.
From 1840 to 1860 approximately 1,700,000 men, women and children
from Ireland entered the United States. While not all of them were
fleeing starvation and disease, most of them were poor, uneducated,
unskilled and ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of an expanding
frontier. Irish slums and shantytowns, prevalent in most Eastern cities,
became swollen ghettos. Nevertheless, it was during this period that
the American Irish formed or consolidated many of their basic community
institutions, ranging from Catholic schools and infirmaries to militia
companies and political clubs.