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 people—almost 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.


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