Irish American Heritage Month: Celebrating And Strengthening Resilience

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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March is Irish American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the many contributions and achievements of Irish Americans and their descendants in the U.S. Irish American Heritage Month can serve as a time for people of all backgrounds to learn more about Irish Americans and their rich history and culture.

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Immigration has been a defining quality of the United States. For nearly two and a half centuries, the U.S. has received people from diverse cultures all around the world. Coming to a new country, many immigrants live with strong memories of the country they left as well as a hope and drive to learn about their new home. Celebrating the heritage of these Americans is a way to show appreciation for diversity, learn about culture and contributions, and bring awareness to a rich history.

What is Irish American Heritage Month?

In 1991, the United States Congress designated March as Irish American Heritage Month. Each year since then, the president has issued a proclamation to commemorate the month. The month of March was chosen because St. Patrick’s Day is March 17th. St. Patrick’s Day is both a Catholic religious holiday and a national holiday in Ireland. St. Patrick is credited with introducing Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century.

Who are Irish Americans?

Irish Americans are people who were born in Ireland and moved to the U.S. as well as their descendants.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 10% of Americans claim Irish American ancestry. That’s approximately 31.5 million residents.

Those with Irish ancestry are part of the second most common ancestral group in the U.S. (German ancestry is the most common). Irish Americans have made and still make significant contributions in virtually all walks of life in the U.S.—including industry, organized labor, religion, education, literature, music, art, and politics. 

Where are Irish Americans?

Irish Americans live all over the U.S. The states with the greatest overall general population are also the states with the highest number of Irish Americans. These include California, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Texas. The states with the highest percentage of Irish Americans are all in New England and are geographically connected: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Maine.

What is the history of Irish immigration to the U.S.?

Below are some key facts about the history of Irish immigration to the United States:

Colonial times

When the U.S. was in its infancy, the population of Irish people in the U.S. was second in number only to those who came from England. Irish immigrants during this time came to the U.S. for many reasons, including a desire to escape from religious and political conflicts as well as severe economic conditions. Many of these people were educated, skilled workers. Most settled in the middle colonies, including North Carolina and South Carolina.

The potato famine (and before)

Ireland’s Potato Blight of 1845 sparked a wave of immigration to the United States. In Ireland, a fungus killed potato crops and caused a devastating famine, resulting in widespread starvation and malnourishment. Within five years, a million Irish people had died, and half a million had arrived in the U.S. looking for better living conditions.

Between 1820 and 1860, an influx of Irish residents

The Irish made up over one-third of immigrants in the United States between 1820 and 1860. Many Irish people began arriving in 1820, even before the Potato Blight. In the 1840s, Irish immigrants constituted nearly 50% of all immigrants to the United States. The pre-famine immigrants from Ireland were predominantly male; during the famine years and after, entire families left the country. In later years, most immigrants from Ireland were women. 

Irish immigration in the 20th and 21st centuries

After World War I, immigration to the U.S. from Ireland was widespread. However, in the 1920s, Congress passed laws with immigration limits, so the number of Irish immigrants to the U.S. declined. In the subsequent decades, numbers ebbed and flowed.


Adapting to life in the U.S.

Many people who moved from Ireland and came to the U.S. in the 19th century left rural areas in Ireland and arrived in a place that was more industrialized and urban. Many were left with only enough money for the fare to travel across the ocean. People who could not afford the fare weren’t able to leave at all.

When ships arrived in major ports such as New York City, many immigrants who had little or no money to go further stayed where they disembarked. Housing tended to be cramped with poor living conditions. A lack of running water and adequate sewage made cleanliness nearly impossible in some cases.

Serious diseases and illnesses were common and included cholera, tuberculosis, and various mental health disorders. Immigrants from Ireland often faced hostility from others in the U.S. For example, Irish immigrants were frequently wrongly accused of spreading disease and being unsanitary.

Finding work in the U.S.

In America, many male Irish immigrants who could find work took jobs that were dangerous and therefore avoided by other workers. For example, they often worked in coal mines or built railroads and canals. Irish American women often found jobs cleaning or working as domestic workers. Immigrants were frequently discriminated against in the workplace and were paid low wages. 

Second- and third-generation Irish Americans tended to obtain more education and earn better wages than their immigrant parents and grandparents. As Irish Americans climbed occupational and social ladders, they began to find employment as teachers, firefighters, police officers, and more.

Religious conflict and discrimination

In the U.S., there was tension between Protestants and Catholics, as there was in Ireland. Catholic churches were burned. Riots occurred. A political party called the American Party was formed on anti-immigrant policies. A the time, there was propaganda openly discriminating against the Irish.

Irish American political influence

By the end of the late 19th century and the beginning of the early 20th century, Irish-American political forces were formed in many cities. These political groups created many social services to help people, but the groups were also accused of corruption. Growing political power helped more Irish Americans get jobs, citizenship, and better living conditions.

Remembering and celebrating the resilience of Irish Americans

Remembering challenges and celebrating resilience: Irish American Heritage Month can be a time to remember Irish American history. Many Irish people who came to the United States faced adversity—even starvation—in Ireland, but persevered and made it to the U.S. under challenging circumstances. When they arrived, many faced physical disease, mental health concerns, poverty, joblessness, poor living and working conditions, and religious and cultural discrimination.

Many developed tremendous resilience in the face of adversity. They continued moving forward. Eventually, many of their children, grandchildren, and further generations had more opportunities for education and employment. This resilience is celebrated during Irish American Heritage Month.

Celebrating contributions of Irish Americans in the U.S.

Irish Americans have made tremendous contributions to the economy, culture, health, and lifestyle of the United States. Many Irish-American workers helped the country industrialize by building railroads, canals, and cities. The workforce of immigrants and their descendants helped build the country.

People of Irish-American heritage work in virtually all professional areas now. Like other cultural groups in the United States, they have influenced art, literature, science, medicine, politics, education, sports, food, music, and more. Just a few well-known Irish Americans whose accomplishments continue to hold great influence in the U.S. include President John F. Kennedy, author F. Scott Fitzgerald, actress Grace Kelly, boxing great Muhammad Ali, teacher-astronaut Krista McAuliffe, entertainment mogul Walt Disney, President Barack Obama, singers Bruce Springsteen and Kurt Cobain, automaker Henry Ford, and artist Georgia O’Keefe.

Ways to celebrate Irish American Heritage Month

Whether you are of Irish American ancestry or not, there are many ways to celebrate Irish American Heritage Month. The following are just a few:

Attend St. Patrick’s Day celebrations 

While St. Patrick’s Day is a religious feast day and national holiday in Ireland, in the U.S., it tends to be a celebration of all things Irish. Parades in March honoring St. Patrick’s Day are common in the United States and have a rich history. Records show that the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in 1602 in what is now St. Augustine, Florida. 

In 1772, homesick Irish soldiers serving in the British military marched in a parade on St. Patrick’s Day in New York City. Today, the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City is the largest parade in the U.S. and the world’s oldest civilian parade. Thousands of people participate in the tradition of St. Patrick’s Day parades across the United States.

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Try Irish American recipes

Traditional, well-known Irish American dishes include corned beef and cabbage and Irish soda bread, but there are also many more Irish American recipes as well as authentic Irish recipes.You might try Irish lamb pies (Dingle pies), Irish potato boxty, or Irish fish pies. 

Listen to Irish music

Irish music has a deep history that spans centuries. Popular Irish bands include U2, The Cranberries, and the Chieftains, but there are also many other influential musicians. Some play traditional Celtic music or folksongs, while others put their own spin on music.

Read Irish writers

Irish literature and poetry have deep roots. During Irish American Heritage Month, you might dive into a book by one of the great Irish writers, such as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Roddy Doyle, W.B. Yeats, Bram Stoker, Maeve Binchy, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Beckett. 

To learn about life for Irish Americans, you might also look for Angela’s Ashes, a memoir by Irish American writer Frank McCourt. This book tells his family’s story about their Irish American experience in the U.S. beginning in the 1930s. The book has won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize.

Find out more about Irish Americans contributions in the U.S. and the Irish-American experience

Irish American Heritage Month can be a great time to learn more about Irish Americans and their contributions to society. Learning more about Irish Americans can lead to a deeper understanding of their experience with discrimination and assimilation in the U.S. Irish American contributions are woven into the fabric of America.

Learn about the shamrock

The shamrock is an iconic Irish-American symbol. It’s also a national emblem in Ireland. Irish legend says that St. Patrick used the shamrock when teaching religion to the Irish. He may have used the three leaves to explain the religious concept of the holy trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Many Irish have also worn the shamrock on their clothes for adornment. The tradition of wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day supposedly came from a devotion to the color of the shamrock.

Strengthening resilience

When immigrants arrive in the United States, they may face adversity in several ways. In addition to missing their countries of origin and the people there, immigrants must often learn to navigate many unknowns in their new country, including housing, employment, medical and social services, legal documentation, language, cultural barriers, and discrimination. Resilience—strength in the face of adversity—can help immigrants manage these challenges and move forward.

Getting support for mental health concerns

Some immigrants and their descendants may experience mental health concerns. Mental health can be affected by individual factors as well as historical, cultural, or intergenerational trauma, the effects of which can be passed on from generation to generation.

If you are experiencing a mental health challenge, whether related to family trauma or personal concerns, you may benefit from speaking to a licensed therapist. If you don’t feel comfortable with traditional in-office therapy, you might consider online therapy. With online therapy, you can receive support from the comfort of your home. It also tends to be more convenient than in-person therapy since you can schedule appointments at any time of day or night. 

Research shows that online therapy is just as effective as in-office therapy. One meta-analysis published in the Journal of Technology in Human Services found that there was no difference in effectiveness between online therapy and in-office therapy. 


Irish American Heritage Month can serve as an excellent way to learn more about Irish-American history and celebrate the accomplishments of Irish Americans in numerous areas of life. It can also be a good time to consider the challenges faced by the Irish-American community over the years, including social, cultural, and mental health challenges. 

Also, if you’re experiencing mental health concerns of your own, you may benefit from connecting with a licensed counselor, whether in person or online. With BetterHelp, you can with a licensed therapist who has knowledge of Irish American culture and experience treating any mental health concerns you’re facing.  Take the first step toward getting support and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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