Irish Americans: A History

Irish Americans: A History

by Jay P. Dolan


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Jay Dolan of Notre Dame University is one of America's most acclaimed scholars of immigration and ethnic history. In The Irish Americans, he caps his decades of writing and teaching with this magisterial history of the Irish experience in the United States. Although more than 30 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, no other general account of Irish American history has been published since the 1960s. Dolan draws on his own original research and much other recent scholarship to weave an insightful, colorful narrative. He follows the Irish from their first arrival in the American colonies through the bleak days of the potato famine that brought millions of starving immigrants; the trials of ethnic prejudice and "No Irish Need Apply;" the rise of Irish political power and the heyday of Tammany politics; to the election of John F. Kennedy as president, a moment of triumph when an Irish American ascended to the highest office in the land.

Dolan evokes the ghastly ships crowded with men and women fleeing the potato blight; the vibrant life of Catholic parishes in cities like New York and Chicago; the world of machine politics, where ward bosses often held court in the local saloon. Rich in colorful detail, balanced in judgment, and the most comprehensive work of its kind yet published, The Irish Americans is a lasting achievement by a master historian that will become a must-have volume for any American with an interest in the Irish-American heritage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608190102
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/02/2010
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Jay P. Dolan is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame, where he founded the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. He is the author of several books, including his best known work, The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present.

Read an Excerpt

The Irish Americans

A History

Copyright © 2008

Jay P. Dolan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-419-3

Chapter One Here Come the Irish

The Battle of the Boyne was the most Famous of all Irish battles. It took place in July 1690 along the Boyne River, two miles west of Drogheda, where two kings, the Protestant William of Orange and the Catholic James II, fought the decisive battle that would crown the victor king of England and determine who would rule Ireland, Catholics or Protestants.

James had become king of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1685, but three years later, leading English Protestants, fearful of a Catholic dynasty, urged the Dutchman William of Orange to invade England and seize the throne. After fleeing to France, James rallied his forces in Ireland, where he challenged William to fight for the right to be the king of the three kingdoms.

The troops were up at dawn on the first day of July, with William's forces, numbering about thirty-five thousand, controlling the north side of the river, while James's troops, about twenty-five thousand, defended the south bank of the river. At around ten in the morning, after a heavy bombardment of the Irish position from William's artillery, the Dutch Guard, an elite group of infantrymen, marched to the banks of the river with drums beating their cadence. Line after line of soldiers, marching eight to ten abreast, descended into the river, wading in water up to their armpits. Holding their muskets and powder high above their heads, they were eager to take on the best that the Irish and French forces had to offer. By the time they reached the middle of the river, the Irish forces let loose with a hail of shot from behind the hedges and houses and all about. When they reached the riverbanks, the Dutch Guard blazed away with musket fire and slashed furiously with their bayonets. James's Irish cavalry charged, slashing and stabbing whatever was in their way.

For almost an hour fierce fighting raged along the riverbank. Irish musketeers and pikemen supported the charging cavalry. Artillery fire from William's cannons filled the air with dense smoke, creating chaos and forcing the Irish soldiers to retreat and regroup. Counterattacks followed as more of William's troops crossed the river. The firepower of William's Dutch soldiers overwhelmed James's forces. As one regiment leader said, "The truth is that the enemy was stronger and their firepower heavier." More troops followed, forging the river at various points, outflanking and outsmarting James's forces. The rout was on. William's cavalry carried the day, their swords stabbing a path through the Irish forces. King William himself, though wounded, with sword in hand, led several charges during the battle.

By the early afternoon the black smoke and dust began to disappear, and an eerie silence covered the battlefield. William of Orange could claim victory as the Irish troops, disorganized and outnumbered, retreated to the safety of the hills beyond the Boyne. James fled south to Kinsale, where he boarded a ship to France. It was hardly a fight to the bitter end: the number of soldiers killed was comparatively light, about a thousand of James's forces and five hundred of William's soldiers. But the war would continue for another year, laying waste to the countryside of Ireland, leaving death and destruction in its path. When a truce was finally declared in October 1691, the Protestant triumph was complete. A Protestant minority would rule Ireland for the next one hundred years. To this day Protestants in Northern Ireland still celebrate the triumph at the Battle of the Boyne.

The Protestant victory not only shaped the modern history of Ireland, but also laid the groundwork for the emigration of thousands of Irish to North America. The first wave of emigration occurred during the eighteenth century, when, prior to the American Revolution, as many as 250,000 emigrated from Ireland, most from the province of Ulster, in the north of Ireland.

Ulster had long been a citadel of Gaelic Catholic culture, but the English government wanted to change that. To accomplish their goal they began establishing plantations in the province by having loyal Protestants from Scotland and England settle on land confiscated from the native Catholic Irish. In this manner they hoped to civilize the province by establishing in Ulster what they believed to be the true religion. From the early seventeenth century to 1640, as many as one hundred thousand Scots settled in Ulster. They continued to arrive throughout the rest of the seventeenth century, settling mostly in the eastern half of Ulster, carrying with them a distinctive brand of Protestantism, Scottish Presbyterianism.

By 1715 about six hundred thousand people lived in Ulster. About half of them were Catholic, one third were Presbyterian, and the rest belonged to the Church of Ireland (Anglican) or other Protestant denominations. Nevertheless, the Church of Ireland, made up primarily of the elite landowning class, ruled the province. By law the Church of Ireland was the established church in Ireland. All Irish, Protestants as well as Catholics, had to pay taxes to support the Church of Ireland. To curb the growth and power of both Presbyterians and Catholics, the English government also passed a series of laws, known as the Penal Laws, that victimized Catholics as well as those Protestants who did not belong to the Anglican Church.

One such law, the Sacramental Test Act of 1704, required government officials to receive Communion in the Church of Ireland. This barred all Protestant dissenters, those who were not members of the Anglican Church of Ireland, as well as Catholics, from civil and military offices, effectively excluding them from public life. To curb the growth of the Presbyterian Church, the government closed their churches and schools and prohibited their clergy from officiating at weddings or funerals. Such religious intolerance, a bone in the throat for many Ulster Irish, would become a major catalyst propelling thousands of them to leave Ireland for North America.

A group of Protestant ministers, addressing the king, underscored the deep sense of oppression that many Presbyterians felt: "Because of 'hardship and oppressions which the Protestant Dissenters laboured under ... they have in great numbers transported themselves to the American Plantations' where they hoped to enjoy 'that liberty and ease which they are denied in their native country.'" Though religious toleration increased by midcentury, dissenting Protestants and Catholics still remained second-class citizens in a land ruled by the Anglican elite.

The Penal Laws aimed at Roman Catholics were even more draconian. To prevent the growth of the Catholic Church, Parliament passed laws that banned priests and bishops from Ireland, outlawed Catholic schools in Ireland, prohibited Irish Catholics from studying at Catholic schools in Europe, prohibited marriages between Protestants and Catholics, excluded Catholics from the professions (except medicine), and did not allow them to vote. In 1719 Irish legislators, frustrated at their inability to stem the growth of the clergy, sought to have them branded on the cheek. Others even sought to have outlawed priests castrated, though this legislation was never enacted.

To weaken the power of Catholic landowners, Parliament also enacted laws forbidding Catholics to purchase land and forcing those who owned land to divide it up at their death among their sons. In this manner the English sought to destroy the wealth of Catholics, since in those days land was the major source of a person's wealth. In this endeavor they were fairly successful. By the end of the eighteenth century Irish Catholics only owned 5 percent of Ireland's land, whereas in 1703 they had owned 14 percent.

Since the Penal Laws were too difficult to enforce, the Catholic Church survived. In the 1780s and '90s the Irish parliament repealed most of the Penal Laws. Nonetheless, they did have a psychological impact by reminding Catholics of their inferior status in the land of their birth, where they comprised the majority of the population. The Protestant triumph at the Battle of the Boyne had sealed their fate.

As powerful as religious oppression was in persuading thousands of people to leave Ireland, the main reason for emigration still remained economic. The first sizable exodus began in 1718 and ended in 1729, the chief reason being crop failure. This occurred in 1717 through 1719; the harvest failed again in 1726-28. Such misfortunes led the lord primate of Ireland, Archbishop Hugh Boulter, to remark that "Ireland experienced little less than a famine every other year." The number of starving beggars increased while hard winters killed much of the cattle. Famine was especially acute in 1740-41, when as many as 480,000 people died. Among the Irish this period is still remembered as the Year of the Slaughter, a time when one of every five Irish died, a ratio that was much higher than in the Great Famine of the 1840s.

Adding to the misery of hunger, rents were rising. In the early years of the century people could lease land at bargain prices. But over time land became more scarce and thus more valuable. Leases also began to expire. As this occurred, Anglican landowners, many of whom were absentee landlords who seldom visited Ireland, raised the rents on their land. Rents were rising as crops were failing. One Irishman, writing to his sister in New Jersey, complained about the hard times: "This hath been avery hard yeere amongst the poore people, for Corn failed very much and now wheat is at twenty shillings abarell and other Corne proporsianable lands is got to an Extrame Rate heree so that any person who rents land [at these high rates] will likely be ruined financially." As their standard of living declined, many Irish considered emigration to America, where, as one put it, "there are no Rents, no Tithes," and no lack of affordable land.

The decline of the linen industry was another major catalyst for emigration. The manufacturing of linen had replaced farming as the mainstay of the economy. So complete was this that linen made up one half of all the exports from Ireland to England by 1720. Entire families grew the flax, spun the yarn, and bleached the cloth. They rented the land they lived on, doing just enough farming to sustain themselves while concentrating on the production of linen. As the English demand for linen lessened and competition from European manufacturers increased, trade weakened.

In 1729 a slump in the linen trade along with a poor harvest sparked a rush to America. In this one year "between five and seven thousand men, women, and children-most from Ulster and most Presbyterian-headed for America, the vast majority to Pennsylvania." From 1730 to the eve of the French and Indian War in 1754, another fifty thousand Ulster Irish sailed for America. Then, in the 1770s the linen industry collapsed, sparking a major exodus.

One Irishman, writing in 1773 to his brother who had emigrated to Pennsylvania, described these woeful times. Your family and "all your Acquaintance in this place," he wrote, "are very happy to hear of your safe Arrival with your Family out of A Land of Slavery into A Land of Liberty and freedom, and the more so as this Kingdom is much worse than it was even when you left it; Trading of all sorts and in all Branches Growing worse; and every day opens a new prospect of woe and misery; I need not tell you that Land is out of measure in high Rents and Tyths." He also noted that when "the Linnen Manafacture" was flourishing, rents would rise. "While Trade flourished the poor would Easily pay." The landlords came to expect these rents. But "Trade is now Sunk to A Very Low Ebb." Nonetheless, rents remained high. Thus, squeezed by high rents and a meager income, many Irish chose to emigrate to what one Irishman described as "a land of peace and plenty, ... the garden spot of the world: a happy asylum for the banished children of oppression."

Failed harvests and economic depression were not new to Ireland. Such misfortunes plagued Ulster in the seventeenth century. But they did not result in a massive exodus. Migration took place in the early eighteenth century, however, because by this time Ireland and America were closely linked. Though an ocean apart, America was well-known to Ulster's Irish. The major link was through a lively transatlantic trade between Ulster and the American colonies. The trading of flaxseed from America for linen from Ulster had transformed the river town of Derry into a major center of trade. Another connection between the two colonies was the work of Presbyterian missionaries who traveled back and forth across the Atlantic. By establishing religious ties between Ulster and America, they promoted the idea of emigration from a "Land of tireney" to "a land of Liberty" where people could worship freely.

A third reason for the attraction of the American colonies was that the colonies promoted emigration. South Carolina and Georgia offered "cheap land, free tools and seed" to entice Irish Protestants to settle in their colony. As one Irishman put it in a letter to his American cousin, "The good bargains of your land in that country doe greatly encourage me to 'pluck up my spirits and make redie for the journey.'" Shipping agents also promoted travel to America by advertising it as the "garden spot of the world." Letters back home to Ulster singing the praises of America, where there were "noe Tythes nor Tythe mongers," were especially instrumental in influencing people's decisions to abandon Ulster. A government official noted that in their letters the emigrants often described America as "a good poor mans country where there are noe oppressions of any kind whatsoever."

Although Irish emigration in the eighteenth century was heavily Presbyterian, a good number of Catholics did leave Ireland for North America. They were part of an Irish exodus to British colonies in the Caribbean and North America that had begun in the seventeenth century. As much as one fifth of the population of Barbados by 1666 was Irish, and throughout the West Indies their numbers continued to grow. In North America, Irish settlers could be found in "every mainland colony, particularly Virginia and Maryland, where tracts of land named 'New Ireland' and 'New Munster' were set aside for Irish settlers and their servants." But as a slave-based economy took hold in the West Indies, these colonies provided fewer opportunities for Irish workers with the result that during the 1700s most Irish Catholic emigrants went to the North American colonies. They comprised about one fourth to one fifth of the Irish migration prior to the American Revolution. Many came as indentured servants from Ulster as well as from the south of Ireland, where large numbers of Catholics lived. Mired in a life of poverty in Ireland because of rent gouging, victims of poor harvests as well as famine, thousands of Irish Catholics abandoned the land of their birth. Like their Presbyterian countrymen, they dreamed of a better life across the sea.

Nonetheless, despite harsh Penal Laws and severe economic distress, relatively few Catholics chose to emigrate. The historian Kerby Miller attributes this anomaly to their Gaelic tradition. As he put it, "Throughout this period the great majority of Catholics were Irish-speakers, largely insulated from the impulse to emigrate by the provincialism of Gaelic culture; by its secular, religious, and linguistic biases against individual initiative and innovation; and by literary modes which stigmatized emigration as deorai, or involuntary exile." This tradition of viewing emigration as exile "scarcely predisposed Irish-speakers to regard emigration with favor, especially if they enjoyed at least a subsistence living in traditional communities which remained intensely localistic and family oriented." In addition, the Catholic Irish traditionally tended to be more oriented to Catholic Europe than to Protestant America. Irish merchants were scattered across Europe, and thousands of Irish served in the armies of Catholic countries on the Continent.


Excerpted from The Irish Americans by JAY P. DOLAN Copyright © 2008 by Jay P. Dolan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Part 1 A Forgotten Era, 1700-1840

1 Here Come the Irish 3

2 A Time of Transition 30

Part 2 The Famine Generation and Beyond, 1840-1920

3 The Great Hunger 67

4 From Paddies to Patriots 84

5 The Catholic Irish 107

6 Born to Rule 135

7 Scrike 164

8 Nation Among Nations 182

Part 3 Becoming American, 1920-1960

9 Up from the City Streets 209

10 Irish Catholicism's Golden Age 229

11 City Hall and the Union Hall 245

Part 4 Irish and American, 1960-2000

12 The Triumph of the Irish 271

13 It's Chic to Be Irish 303

Acknowledgments 309

Notes 313

Index 337

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Irish Americans 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Paul1963 More than 1 year ago
Obviously the Irish American experience has been discussed at length in this country. When it hasn't been discussed as factual hitory it has served as background for untold fictional stories. So, how can it be rehashed again? When it is thoroughly investigated and retold the way J. P. Dolan has done in his book The irish American. Professor Dolan has reached back to the very beginning of our country's history and has shown how The Irish have impacted the American experience and how that has effected American and Irish history. The story of two countries, the United States and Ireland, is told here as you see how entwined these countries became as the stream of Irish flowed across the Atlantic flooding America. He explores, the impact on religion, politics and culture. His book uncovers the both the glorious and imperfect sides of the Irish story. He celebrates all the characters who define what being Irish American was and is from the political boss, politicians, the unskilled laborer, Catholic Bishops, nuns, priests, pubowners and patrons. You're on a journey following the early Scotch Irish to The Famine Irish into the 20th century where the Irish Americans moved from being "Shanty" to Steamheat/Lace Curtain" and eventually claiming their rightful and respected palce as Americans while remaining uniquely Irish.
Rudi0511 More than 1 year ago
I am a german resident at Hanover/Germany and have incidently come across with J.P. Dolan's book. After I read this book - which depicts quite captivatingly the history of people with irish ancestry - I had the impression that this books should be translated into German. In many ways the story Dolan tells about Ireland and the devastating conditions in which irish people had to live in the 19th century affects to a great extent european history as it also deals with the clash of two different very strong religious denominations - the anglican church and irish catholizism. Dolan describes thoroughly and precisely the initial persecution Irish settlers were exposed to in America. This was actually the incentive for me to ask Dolan's publisher Bloomsbury Press at New York to grant me the right of translating this most captivating and thrilling book into German. As yet, however, it does not seem as though there is a vital interest on the part of the publishing house to have this book also published in a foreign language. This book is worth reading it and I am convinced this the content of this book should also be made available to german readers who are interested in irish-american history. Irrespective of the outcome of my request to the publisher I have made a private and non-authorized translation of the book into German hoping it will find a corresponding publisher in Germany some day. Rudi Eifert Niederrader Allee 21 D-30853 Langenhagen/Germany e-mail: Phone: +49-511-731995
Undercover101 More than 1 year ago
If you want to know the history of famous Irish Americans, I would suggest reading this one. It goes in detail of many different lives and their coming to America. It also features some information on the Kennedy's. Pick this one up this St. Patrick's Day and you are guaranteed the luck of the Irish!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book, for me, holds many things as an Irish, Catholic American woman who grew up, knowing she was of Irish descent, but never really knew the remarkable values, the historical significance, the real “wealth” of emigrants and the importance of ancestry. The heart of Chicago was my backyard. St. Thomas Aquinas on the west side of the city was my grammar school parish and, then, throughout high school years, we loved to the suburbs, especially Oak Park and continued our Catholic upbringing at St. Giles Parish in Oak Park, IL and Catholic education at a private girls’ school, Trinity High School in River Forest, IL. What this book awakened in me was the strict adherence to ethnically divided neighborhoods, the solidity of Irish emigrant communities and the bonding of the parishes in each community. Coupled with that were the neighborhood bars, saloons which were centers of both comradority and festiveness. The Irish Americans is a “reread” book for me. There is a lot of content to assimilate on the “first blush” of the read. It is important enough for this “colleen” to take another look once again at the political issues, the religious issues and the national issues, dreams and rebirths this non-fictional work brought to the table of Irish ancestors. Thank you, Mr. Dolan, for your tremendous work and dedication.
Meals More than 1 year ago
very dry read.
Shilo2 More than 1 year ago
This information is great. It is an easy read and fun. If you're Irish you may need to face some facts about us. The only problem I have is that he repeats information and it drives me a bit wonky!
ForeignCircus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you are looking for a fairly comprehensive look at the contributions of the Irish to American politics and public life, then this is the book for you. A detailed study of the history of prominant Irish Americans, this book is a must-read for any Irish American.The book does read a lot like a college textbook, and I can easily see it being used as such. Despite my high level of interest in the topic, the book was hard to sink into, and certainly required breaks to cleanse the palette. There is a certain amount of repetition which detracted from the reading experience, and I would have appreciated a less dry tone throughout much of the text. Regardless, the book was an excellent effort to record the historical contributions of a powerful minority population in the US, and I would recommend this book to others interested in this history.
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Exhilirating, unparalled study of the Irish Americans.
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Started reading this and did learn alot about the Irish, but he repeated some information throughout the book. Didn't need to be as long as it was.
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