Irish Americans are one of the most vocal and a proud ethnic group in the United States. Over 35 million Americans (over 12% of the population) report to be from Irish stock. A surprising number given that the population of Ireland is just shy of 6 million. Irish Americans have made names for themselves in all facets of American society. From politics to the arts to sports and beyond, and their history in this country goes back to the very beginning.
The first Irish Americans came to America before there was even a United States, arriving in the colonies primarily as servants. By the 1820s, many Irish men began arriving in the US to fulfill migrant labor roles, such as building the canals that crisscrossed the Northeast industrial areas, as well as other manual labor roles. Pockets of Irish communities began springing up in the major cities of the East Coast, Boston, and New York.
But it was in the 1840s that Irish immigration in the United States took off, thanks to the terrible famine that was sweeping through Ireland at the time. The so-called Great Potato Famine caused the potato crops – which served as the staple of the Irish diet at the time – to die in the ground, leading to widespread starvation and disease. While many died on the passage, millions of Irish arrived in America’s shores in a space of a few years. In 1840, nearly half of all immigrants arriving in the United States had come from Ireland.
While these immigrants received a cool reception from a xenophobic America at first. Irish Americans began to thrive in every facet of this country. They have a great tradition of political service, with notable examples being John F. Kennedy, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, and Al Smith, the first major party Catholic presidential candidate.
The Irish are also known for their contribution to the arts, specifically the written word, with great authors including F. Scott Fitzgerald, playwright Eugene O’Neill, and short story writer Flannery O’Conner. Famous athletes of Irish descent include Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, legendary heavyweight champions John L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, and James J. Braddock, and tennis great Jimmy Connors.