Saturday, March 23, 2013

Have You Researched Your Irish Heritage?

A great majority of those in America are descended from or have at least some Irish blood.  Many of them, regardless of how little they really possess, are vehemently proud of their Irish ancestry.  But how many of them really know what that truly means, what it is their ancestors endured to be here and survive?  If you are among them, have you researched your ancestry and found out where it is you really come from?

I am one of those millions of people.  I grew up hearing about our Irishness from my mother’s side of the family.  My Great Grandparents, James and Sarah McGowan, immigrated to America in the 1890’s via New York.  They lived in New Jersey the rest of their lives.  My Grandfather, William Francis McGowan was born in 1924.  But my mom always referred to our being half Scottish and half Irish— which was not the impression had gotten from my Grandfather.  And yet of the Scottish part, I never heard anything else about.  So, it was all a bit confusing.  Where exactly did that come in?

So, a couple years ago, I finally buckled down and researched my ancestry, something my mother had never done (In part, my inspiration for my Celtic book series).  And what I found was interesting, indeed.  As it turns out, the records show my Great-Grandfather James McGowan (red hair and blue eyes) came from ‘The Irish Free State’, and my Great-Grandmother Sarah Fallon, came from Scotland.  However, as I continued looking back in the family tree, I found that her grandparents— on both sides— were, in fact, actually from Ireland, and had only migrated to Scotland in the 1850’s.   So we were just Irish after all.  But what catalyst was it that occurred in the 1850’s?  I hope you already know, but if you do not, here is a little history lesson.


The Irish were the one of the largest nationality groups to immigrate to America, second only to Germany.  There were two major immigration periods for the Irish: the Colonial period of the 1700’s and from the mid 1800’s to around 1900. In the Colonial Period, the Irish entered America through either New York, Philadelphia or Charleston.  During the Civil War and Industrialization Periods, from 1850-1900, the common ports of entry were New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Canada.

First Irish immigration during the colonial era of the 18th century.

Referred to as the Scotch-Irish— 250,000 left Ireland for North America and most arrived in New York or Philadelphia.  Most were Protestants of Scotch decent and were farmers, laborers, military and religious dissidents, as well as deported political prisoners.

In colonial times, the Irish population in America was second in number only to the English.  Pushed out of Ireland by religious conflicts, lack of political autonomy and dire economic conditions, these immigrants were pulled to America by the promise of land ownership and greater religious freedom.

Second Irish Immigration during The Great Irish Famine 1845-1900

One of many Famine Graveyards in Ireland I visited.
In the mid to late 19th century Irish immigration peaked.  This was largely due to dire poverty and a starvation epidemic in their homeland.  Between 1846 and 1900 approximately 2, 873,000 Irish came to America.  Irish immigrants of this period were predominantly Catholic.

The Irish diet consisted mainly of potatoes that are able to grow on poor land.  In 1845 fungus decimated the potato crops of Ireland, resulting in a devastating famine which plagued the country. Within five years, a million Irish were dead from starvation and disease while another half a million had immigrated to America in search of a better life.  The only mode of escape was emigration. Starving families that could not pay landlords faced no alternative but to leave the country in hopes of a better future.  

However, living conditions in Ireland were deplorable long before the Potato Blight of 1845, and a large number of Irish had begun to leave their homeland as early as the 1820s.  Consequently, the steadily scaling number of Irish who entered the U.S. between 1820 and 1830 skyrocketed in the 1840s, nearly 2 million came in that decade alone.  Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish had constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States.  In the 1840s, they comprised nearly half of all immigrants to this nation.

The potato crop failures continued until 1852.  As a combined result of death and emigration, the population of Ireland dropped from 10 million in the year 1840 down to only 5 million in 1880.  In just four decades, the population of Ireland was reduced by half!

Life in America

Though life in Ireland was bleak, emigrating to America was not a joyful event.  It was referred to as the American Wake for these people knew never would they see their Ireland again. Those who pursued this path did so only because they understood their future in Ireland would only be one of more poverty, disease, and English oppression. America became their dream. They left in droves on ships that were so crowded, with conditions so terrible, that they were christened ‘Coffin Ships’.

Even as the boat was docking, these immigrants to America discovered that life in America was going to be a battle for survival.  As the poor immigrant had no means of moving on, they settled in the port of arrival.  Almshouses were filled with these Irish immigrants.  They begged on every street.  No group was considered lower than an Irishman in America during the 1850s.

One honest immigrant wrote home at the height of the potato famine exodus, "My master is a great tyrant, he treats me as badly as if I was a common Irishman."  The writer further added, "Our position in America is one of shame and poverty."  

For most of the immigrants, emigrating to the U.S. wasn't the magical solution they had hoped. Peasants arrived with little resources.  Furthermore, very few of them ever accumulated the resources to make any meaningful choice about their way of life.  The immigrants from Ireland were among the most impoverished who came to America.  Many Irish came as indentured servants for cost of the voyage, followed by about four years of servitude.  

Poor Irish were illiterate and faced considerable discrimination.  They were considered best suited to manual labor.  While some Irish spoke English, unlike other immigrants, some spoke only their native Gaelic.  The Irish who were not impeded by a language barrier found easier employment.

There were frequent violent confrontations in the cities between the Irish and the so-called ‘Nativists’.

As with almost all immigrant groups, religion was fiercely important to the Irish immigrants.  The church provided important support.  While the earliest Irish settlers were usually Protestant those who came in the second immigration wave were predominantly Catholic.

In reality the Irish arrived at a time of need for America.  The country was growing and it needed men to do the heavy work of building bridges, canals, and railroads.  With no machinery yet in existence at the time, the pick and the shovel were the only earth-moving equipment at the time. And the Irish laborers were the mainstay of the construction gangs that did this grueling work.  It was grueling, dangerous work; a common expression heard among the railroad workers was "an Irishman was buried under every tie."  Desperation drove them to these jobs.

Not only the men, but the women worked, as well.  They became chamber maids, cooks, and the caretakers of children.  Early Americans disdained this type of work, fit only for servants, the common sentiment being, "Let Negroes be servants, and if not Negroes, let Irishmen fill their place…" The Blacks hated the Irish and it appeared to be a mutual feeling.  They were the first to call the Irish "white nigger."

In towns along the sites of work, groups of Irish formed their small communities to live in.  Irish policemen and firemen are not just stereotypes: Irish all but monopolized those jobs when they were being created in the post-Civil War years, and even today Irish names are clearly over-represented in those occupations (Daniels, 1990).  Irish workmen not only began laying the horsecar and streetcar tracks, but also were some of the first drivers and conductors.  My great grandfather James, in fact, earned his living as a meager chauffer.  

In the years after 1860, Irish Immigration persisted.  More than 2.6 million more Irish came in the decades after 1860.  Though larger numbers of immigrants from elsewhere masked the inflow of Irish people.  Those Irish who did continue to flow into the U.S. tended to settle in the already existing Irish communities, where Catholic churches had been built, their cultural traditions in place.  However materialistically poor they were, the Irish were rich in cultural resources, developing institutions that helped them face hardship without despair.

All major cities had their "Irish Town" or "Shanty Town" where the Irish clung together.  Our immigrant ancestors were not wanted here in America.  Ads for employment often were followed by "NO IRISH NEED APPLY."  They were forced to live in cellars and shanties— in part due to poverty, but also because they were considered bad for the neighborhood— they were unfamiliar with plumbing and running water.  These living conditions bred sickness and early death.  It was estimated that 80% of all infants born to Irish immigrants in New York City died.  

Their brogue and dress provoked ridicule; their poverty and illiteracy provoked scorn.  Instead of apologizing for themselves they united and took offense.  Insult or intimidation was often met with violence.  Solidarity was their strength, they helped each other survive city life.  They prayed and drank together.

The Irish were unique among immigrants.  They fiercely loved America, though they never rescinded their allegiance to Ireland— and they retained their hatred of the English.  Twice they attempted to invade Canada, believing that they could trade Canadian land for Ireland's freedom.  They ambushed mine bosses, beat, and even killed them in their homes.  

The Irish used brutal methods to fight an equally brutal oppression.  They loved America and gladly fought in her wars.  During the Civil War they were fierce warriors, forming among other groups, the infamous "Irish Brigade".  Their faith guided them.  They felt that while the English might have a better life on earth, they were assured to have a better life after death.

From their Catholic religion also sprang two holiday traditions that are now widely practiced in the United States— St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween.  St. Patrick’s Day is of course, the celebration of Saint Patrick, the patron saint if Ireland, and on that day it is often said that "everyone" is Irish.

Cultural events such as St. Patrick's Day were regarded by most Americans as evidence of the separateness of these immigrants, but helped hold the Irish culture together. Their desire for self-expression showed that the Irish understood their group identity. Poor as they were, they drew strength from a culture that explained their situation in the world and provided spiritual resources to face if not to solve the problem.

Fortunately, the days of "No Irish Need Apply" passed.  St. Patrick’s Day parades replaced violent confrontations.  The Irish not only won acceptance for their day, but persuaded everyone else to become Irish at least for St. Patrick's Day.  

The appearance of large numbers of Jews, Slavs, and Italian immigrants led many Americans to finally consider the Irish an asset; their Americanization was at last recognized.  Hostilities shifted from the Irish to the new nationalities. Through poverty and subhuman living conditions, the Irish tenaciously clung to each other.  With their ingenuity for organization, they were eventually able to gain power and acceptance.

Among the earliest immigrants to the United States, the Irish are today assimilated in all aspects of this nation, and yet they still retain pride and identity in their Irish heritage.  Something I can certainly attest to myself!  I am a third generation Irish-American, and still, I identify fervently with the culture of my ancestry.

Resources Used:

Oracle Educational Foundation, Think Quest
University of Delaware Study, “Irish Immigration”

© 2013 Rosalind Scarlett


  1. Wow! Impressive job. With how much research you've done, I can't wait to read your book! My step grandma was full blooded Irish and went back every year, she would have loved reading this.

  2. Thank you grandly! Oh to go there every year... if only plane fares were not so incredibly outrageous! I have only been the once, but I surely intend on returning, hopefully soon. My little boy, Aidan, is fascinated with Ireland, and has made me promise to take him there.