Lessons From the Rise of America’s Irish

They arrived dirt poor and uneducated in the 1840s. After decades of struggle, they achieved prosperity.

The peasants fleeing Ireland had a shorter life expectancy than slaves in the U.S., many of whom enjoyed healthier diets and better living quarters. Most slaves slept on mattresses, while most poor Irish peasants slept on piles of straw. The black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that freed slaves were poor by American standards, “but not as poor as the Irish peasants.”

The Irish who left for America were packed into the unused cargo space of wind-driven ships returning to the U.S., and the voyage could take up to three months, depending on weather. These cargo holds weren’t intended to carry passengers, and the lack of proper ventilation and sanitation meant that outbreaks of typhus, cholera and other fatal diseases were common. Emigrants slept on 3-by-6-foot shelves, which one observer described as “still reeking from the ineradicable stench left by the emigrants of the last voyage.”

In 1847, 19% of the Irish emigrants died on their way to the U.S. or shortly after arriving. By comparison, the average mortality rate on British slave ships of the period was 9%. Slave-owners had an economic incentive to keep slaves alive. No one had such an interest in the Irish.

The 19th-century immigrants from Europe usually started at the bottom, both socially and economically, and the Irish epitomized this trend. Irish men worked as manual laborers, while Irish women were domestic servants. But not all ethnic groups rose to prosperity at the same rate, and the rise of the Irish was especially slow. They had arrived from a country that was mostly rural, yet they settled in cities like Boston and New York, working “wherever brawn and not skill was the chief requirement,” as one historian put it. In the antebellum South, the Irish took jobs—mining coal, building canals and railroads—considered too hazardous even for slaves.

In the 1840s, New York City’s population grew 65%. By midcentury, more than half of the city’s residents were immigrants, and more than a quarter of those newcomers had come from Ireland. At the time, half of New York’s Irish workforce and nearly two-thirds of Boston’s were either unskilled laborers or domestic servants. “No other contemporary immigrant group was so concentrated at the bottom of the economic ladder,” writes Thomas Sowell in his classic work, “Ethnic America.”

It wasn’t just a lack of education and urban job skills that slowed the progress of the Irish in America. So did social pathology and discrimination. The Irish were known for drinking and brawling. Irish gangs were common. When an Irish family moved into a neighborhood, property values fell and other residents fled. Political cartoonists gave Irishmen dark skin and simian features. Anti-Catholic employers requested “Protestant” applicants. Want ads read: “Any color or country except Irish.”