March is Irish American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of Irish Americans. Many Irish Americans faced adversity with resilience.
Immigration has been a defining quality of the United States. Throughout its nearly two and a half centuries, the U.S. has been seen as place of hope, freedom, and opportunity for many people from around the world. Coming to a new country, immigrants may live with strong memories of the country they left, as well as a hope and drive to learn about living in 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 17. St. Patrick’s Day is both a Catholic religious holiday and a national holiday in Ireland. St. Patrick introduced Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century.
March has become a month to celebrate achievements and contributions of Irish Americans and their descendants in the U.S. and a special time to welcome all people to learn more about Irish Americans.
Who Are Irish Americans?
Irish Americans are people who were born in Ireland and moved to the U.S., as well as their descendants. About one in ten Americans has 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. (In fact, approximately half of the U.S. presidents have roots that trace to Ireland.)
Where Are Irish Americans?
Irish Americans live all over the U.S.. The states with the greatest overall general populations are also the states with the highest number of Irish Americans. These include California, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Texas. But 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 wanting to escape from religious and political conflicts and severe economic conditions. Many of these people were educated, skilled workers. Many 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 causing widespread starving and malnourishment. Within five years, a million Irish people had died, and half a million had arrived in the U.S. looking for new living conditions.
Between 1820 And 1860, An Influx Of Irish Residents: The Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States between 1820 and 1860. A large number of Irish people began arriving in 1820, before the potato blight. In the 1840s, Irish immigrants comprised nearly half of all immigrants to the United States. The pre-famine immigrants from Ireland were predominately male, while during the famine years and after, entire families left the country. In later years, the majority of Irish immigrants were women. Many of them left Ireland because they had lost husbands or other families to death during the famine. They hoped to find work in the U.S. and be able to send money back to relatives in Ireland.
Irish Immigration In The 20th And 21st Centuries: After World War I, immigration to the U.S. from Ireland was high. But in the 1920s, Congress passed laws with immigration limits, so numbers of Irish immigrants to the U.S. declined. In the subsequent decades, numbers ebbed and flowed. There are now both documented and undocumented Irish immigrants living in the United States.
Adapting To Life In The U.S.
Many people who moved from Ireland and came to the U.S. in the 19th century left a rural country and arrived in one that was more industrialized and urban. Many 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, with 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 mental health disorders.
Immigrants from Ireland often faced hostility from others in the U.S.; for example, Irish immigrants were frequently 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 so were avoided by other workers. They often worked in coal mines or building railroads and canals. Irish American women often found jobs cleaning or as domestic workers. Immigrants were frequently discriminated against in the job place and paid low wages. They were often antagonized by organized groups such as the Ku Klux Klan who believed they had “taken” jobs from non-immigrants.
Second and third generation Irish Americans tended to be more educated and earned better wages than their immigrant parents and grandparents. As Irish Americans climbed occupational and social “ladders,” they began to find employment as teachers, firefighters, on police forces, and in other roles.
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. There was propaganda 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 help with 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 America 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.
But many also developed tremendous resilience in the face of adversity. They continued moving forward. Eventually, many of their children, grandchildren, and further generations had opportunities for education and earning more livable incomes. 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 America, 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 scion 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.
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. It can be a celebratory day to honor Irish American heritage in the United States.
Go To A Parade: Parades in March honoring St. Patrick’s Day are common in the United States and have a rich history. In fact, 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.
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.
Listen To Irish Music: Irish music has a deep history that spans centuries. Popular Irish bands U2 and the Chieftains are both famous around the world. But there are also many other influential musicians. Some play traditional Celtic music or folksongs; 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. Angela’s Ashes, a memoir by Irish American writer Frank McCourt, tells his family’s story about their Irish American experience in the U.S. beginning in the 1930s. The book won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autography.
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. Irish Americans have been deeply involved in building the infrastructure of the U.S., as well as in politics, business and finance, education, the arts, and more. Learning more about Irish Americans immigrants can lead to a deeper understanding of their experience with acculturation, assimilation, and discrimination in the US. Irish Americans contributions are woven in 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—God as one in three: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The 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.
Adversity And Resilience: When immigrants arrived (and continue to arrive), in America, they may have faced or still face adversity. In addition to missing their countries of origin and people there, immigrants often must 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.
Mental Health Concerns: Some immigrants and their descendants may experience mental health concerns. Mental health can be affected by individual, personal factors. It can also be affected by historical or cultural trauma or intergenerational trauma, effects of which can be passed from generation to generation.
Help, Support, And Treatment: There are very effective treatment options for mental health disorders. If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health concern, please reach out for help. BetterHelp can be an excellent resource for connecting with a licensed mental health professional who will be a good fit for you. They can help you develop an individualized treatment plan so that you can feel better and live a happier, more productive life. BetterHelp offers online therapy from the comfort of your own home—or wherever you choose to connect. Research shows that online therapy can be very effective and can help you make meaningful progress to support and strengthen your emotional health. Through therapy, better mental health and wellness and a strong sense of resilience can be a reality.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Why is Irish American Heritage Month important?
Irish American Heritage Month is important because it acknowledges and celebrates the history and contributions of Irish Americans in the United States. Learning about heritage—whether your own or that of other cultural groups—can lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of who people are as individuals, a culture, and a nation.
What culture did the Irish bring to America?
Irish immigrants brought religious diversity, customs, celebrations, and skills that made and continue to make significant impacts on the culture and economy and growth of the United States. Irish Americans made contributions in literature, art, language, music, politics, industrial growth, and more.