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Updated on 1.06.08

The Irish in America

The Irish Memorial This Memorial, a national monument, is dedicated to the memory of more than one million innocent men, women and children who perished during the years 1845 to 1850 and to the millions of Irish immigrants who found here in the United States of America the freedom, liberty and prosperity denied to their ancestors in Ireland. Built in Philadelphia, it was completed in the fall of 2003. Please help financially support this memorial, see how on the above web link.

The 2000 United State Census reports 30,528,492 persons claiming Irish ancestry, 10.8% of the total American population.  This is over 7 times the population of Ireland itself, which was 4 million in the year 2003. 

Irish-Americans are the largest ancestral group in Washington DC, Delaware, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

The states with the largest Irish-American populations are:


1. California- 2,611,449
2. New York- 2,451,042
3. Pennsylvania- 1,981,106
4. Florida- 1,645,585
5. Illinois- 1,511,569

Subject: Irish Diaspora..IT.1/3/'08

Diaspora made up of many shades of green

St Patrick's Day celebrations in New York. Irish
identity in America has become closely associated with the Catholic Irish but It
was not until the 1830s that the majority of emigrants from Ireland to America
were Catholic.
Photograph: Chris Hondros

Brian Walker finds that the definition of Irish among our
diaspora is as varied as what constitutes being Irish on this island.

In recent times the Irish diaspora has been the subject of much renewed
interest. David McWilliams has urged that the energy and enterprise of the 70
million members of the Irish diaspora should be harnessed for the good of
contemporary Ireland. But who exactly are these people?

At a recent debate at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, former
president Mary Robinson faced criticism that her promotion, as president, of the
Irish diaspora as part of the "national family" had the unintended result of
legitimising a concept of Irishness based mainly on blood.

Donald Keough, at the inaugural US-Ireland Forum in New York, has warned that
concern for the Irish diaspora has left out the Scots-Irish in America.

The first point that must be made is that, in her famous speech on the Irish
diaspora to the two Houses of the Oireachtas in 1995, Mary Robinson specifically
rejected a narrow view of Irishness both at home and abroad.

She stressed not only the spread of Irish people in the world but also the
diversity of the country of Ireland that provided this flow of people. She
reminded her listeners of the varied groups, including not only Celts but also
English and Scottish settlers and others, that had inhabited Ireland over the

She then warned that "if we expect that the mirror held up to us by Irish
communities abroad will show a single familiar identity, or a pure strain of
Irishness, we will be disappointed. We will overlook the fascinating diversity
of culture and choice which looks back at us".

The examples of the US, Canada and Great Britain serve to illustrate the
diversity of the Irish abroad, as well as recent changes that have occurred in
the Irish diaspora.

The 1980 census report showed that 40 million Americans claimed to have Irish
ancestry but did not record the religion of these people. For the first time,
however, a series of authoritative opinion polls in the 1970s and 1980s sought
to correlate ethnic background with religious affiliation.

To the surprise of many it was revealed that slightly over 50 per cent who
said their primary ethnic identity was Irish were Protestant. How do we explain
this fact?

The main explanation for the numerical predominance of Protestants today
among the Irish in America lies in the historical pattern of emigration from
Ireland to America.

The first waves of emigration occurred in the 18th century. Most of these
people were Presbyterians and descendants of Scottish emigrants who had settled
in Ulster during the 17th and early 18th centuries.

Between the early 18th century and the American Revolution up to 250,000
people left Ulster for the American colonies. These people called themselves,
and were called by others, Irish, although the term Scotch Irish was sometimes
used (today the term Scots Irish is more commonly employed). Not insignificant
numbers of Protestants would continue to emigrate to America in the 19th and
20th centuries.

It is not until the 1830s that for the first time a majority of emigrants
from Ireland to America were Catholic. Massive emigration would now occur during
and after the Famine and the vast bulk of these emigrants were Catholic who
would create important neighbourhoods in places like New York and Boston.

In common perception Irish identity in America became associated closely with
the Catholic Irish, who were known as Irish-Americans, many of whom developed a
strong religious and political identification with Ireland. The Protestant Irish
population, including the Scotch Irish, were not part of the new Irish community
and identity.

This pattern of emigration is the main reason why today a majority of those
who claim an Irish background are Protestant rather than Catholic. Protestant
emigrants came earlier to the colonies than Catholic emigrants and so, due
primarily to a multiplier factor, more people with Irish ancestry are from a
Protestant than a Catholic background. Analyses of the 1970s found that 83 per
cent of Protestants were at least fourth generation while only 41 per cent of
Catholics had such early origins in America.

Recent decades have seen a shift to a more pluralist view of the Irish
diaspora in America. People today from an Irish-American background are much
less differentiated by the distinctive political and religious features of
earlier decades. Among descendants of the Irish Protestant emigrants there is a
new awareness of their Irish background. There is a growing interest in Scotch
Irish heritage, led by individuals such as Senator Jim Webb of Virginia.

The situation in Canada has always been different from that in the US. In
1991 around 3.8 million Canadians claimed full or partial Irish ancestry. It is
believed that some 55 per cent of Irish settlers in Canada were Protestant. A
majority of these Protestant emigrants, among whom members of the Church of
Ireland were predominant, came from Ulster although significant numbers also
came from elsewhere in Ireland.

There was a strong tendency for Irish settlers to congregate among members of
their own faith. For example, Irish Catholics were very numerous in Newfoundland
while Irish Protestants were strongly based around Ontario.

Both Irish communities retained a sense of Irish identity in their own
manner. For Catholics, their sense of Irish identity was encouraged by
organisations such as the Christian Brothers in the separate Catholic schooling
system and by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

For Protestants an important way in which the connection with Ireland was
maintained was through the Orange Order. Orangeism, which was a distinctly Irish
creation, spread significantly not only among Irish Protestants but also other
Canadians, until by the end of the 19th century it is reckoned that one in three
Canadian Protestant males was a member.

By the last quarter of the 20th century, however, denominational differences
mattered little in Canada. Organisations such as the Christian Brothers and the
Orange Order had ceased to have much influence. Members of both Irish
communities are now fully integrated into Canadian society.

There has been constant emigration of people from Ireland to Great Britain
throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The bulk of these emigrants have been
Catholic but it is believed that around 25 per cent have been Protestant.

Again there was a tendency for many of these emigrants to congregate around
members of their own religious background and to create distinct communities in
places such as Liverpool and Glasgow.

Today few such separate communities survive and the vast majority of
Irish-born or descendants of Irish-born people are integrated successfully into
British society.

Clearly then, as Mary Robinson remarked in 1995, the Irish abroad do not
reflect a single familiar identity or a pure strain of Irishness, but a
"fascinating diversity of culture and choice". If we fail to understand this we
"miss the chance to have that dialogue with our own diversity which this
reflection offers us".

The members of the diaspora remain diverse in various ways. Many of the
American descendants of the Scotch Irish of Ulster are enthusiastic republicans
while many of the Irish-born and descendants of Irish-born in Britain are well
integrated British citizens.

In recent years there have been important changes in how the communities of
the diaspora relate to Irish identity. Thanks in large part to a diminution of
divisions in Christianity, the successful integration of most Irish emigrants
into their new countries and a concern for the peace process in Northern
Ireland, there has been a considerable reduction in religious and political
links to Irish identity abroad.

There is now a widespread attempt among the Irish diaspora to see Irish
identity in cultural, non-denominational and non-political ways. The
enthusiastic support in many countries for the Ireland Funds is one example of
new non-partisan identification with Ireland among the members of the Irish
diaspora. Throughout the diaspora there is a strong interest in family and
cultural attachments to Ireland.

The continued concern of many in the diaspora for Ireland should bring some
comfort to David McWilliams's idea of using their support for the future. At the
same time, it should be acknowledged that most of the Irish abroad now play a
full part in their adopted countries and it would not be possible or desirable
to take them from this.

Clearly, the diverse experiences of people in Ireland and overseas have great
relevance for how we view our new immigrants. They are only the latest in a long
line of people to come to Ireland. Millions of Irish people through the
centuries have also faced the many challenges of living in another country.

To paraphrase Kipling: "What do they know of Ireland who only Ireland know?"
Knowledge of the diversity and experiences of the Irish abroad can give us a
special insight into the situation of our new arrivals today.

Brian Walker holds the chair of Irish Studies at Queen's University
© 2008 The Irish Times


Tiara Irish Ancestral Research Association a must site for links

Canadian Association for Irish Studies

United Irish Societies of Montreal. Inc.

Gaelic in the Bay area (San Francisco)

Australian Irish Heritage Association

American Irish Historical Society

Irish America Net

Irish American Unity Conference

Ancient Order of Hibernians in America

Irish Net

Your Irish Roots: Irish Genealogy, Irish Surname & Irish Coat of

The Irish in Canada- the Journal of Gerald Keegan

Irish Identity great site with many facets!!


Irish Surnames and heraldry

Irish Identity great site with many facets!!




Come, let the solemn, soothing Mass be said,
For the soldier-souls of the patriot dead . . .

But if high the praise, be as deep the wail
O'er the exiled sons of the warlike Gael. . . .

Proud beats the heart, while it sorrowing melts
O'er the death-won fame of the truthful Celts.

For the scattered graves, over which we pray
Will shine like stars on their race alway. . .

-- From John Savage's Requiem for the
Fallen of the Irish Brigade (Jan. 16, 1864)