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Irish Catholics in Canadian and American Historiography

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2001 16 Seiten

Geschichte - Amerika



- Introduction

- The Irish Catholics in American Historiography

- The Irish Catholics in Canadian Historiography

- Conclusion

- Bibliography


“Tir na-Og,” the land of eternal youth, lying far out in the ocean, is a part of Irish mythology since the day the ancient legends were told for the first time. Judging from the numbers, the Irish as a people seem to have found this land on the North American continent. Between 1800 and 1920, the time frame for this paper, almost five million people left Ireland for the United States alone, while the 1871 Canadian census shows that about one quarter of all Canadians were of Irish ethnicity.

Looking at the literature covering that particular period of time, it becomes clear that there are two ideas about the Irish in North America in circulation. The first one is that most Irish immigrants were Catholics, who had to leave Ireland because they were suppressed by an English, that is, Protestant government, and later on because of the Great Famine. They were poor, uneducated, and unskilled and had a tendency to drinking and violence. Once in North America, they went mostly to the United States, where they were a suppressed minority. They settled in the cities, where they lived in Irish “ghettos” and found jobs mostly as unskilled or semiskilled labourers. This idea is argued in history books that were published between the late 1930s and mid-1980s, and their authors are mostly American. Two names appear regularly: Lawrence McCaffrey and Patrick Blessing.

The other idea about the Irish in North America goes like this: In most cases they left their island out of economic hardship, were either farmers or belonged to the working or lower middle class. The religious affiliation of the first to come was Protestant, they went to Canada, where they blended in with the rest of society. Later on, the Irish immigrants were mostly Catholics who went to the United States, where they partly made the ghetto-experience. Historians suggesting this approach to the Irish immigrants published from the early 1980s to the end of the 1990s, and are for the most part Canadian. And here also two names appear regularly: Mark McGowan and Donald Akenson.

In the course of this essay I will compare the two different historical traditions. The points along which this comparison is made will be: The situation in the homeland prior to emigration; the reasons, push and pull factors for emigrants and the role their religion played therein; the argument whether or not the immigrants settled in rural or urban areas and why; the influence of the Church in the success of acculturation within the host society; the relationship between the Catholic and Protestant groups themselves in Canada and the United States.

What becomes clear is that the historiography is split between the respective countries, that is, there is an amount of literature on the Irish in Canada as well as on the Irish in the United States. So this paper has to follow that lead and distinguish between the countries in trying to find out what historians think has happened after the Irish Catholics had left Ireland. There are dissenters in both camps of historians as they are outlined above; they will be mentioned briefly at the end of the respective chapters.

The Irish Catholics in American Historiography

The American colonies saw the first Irishmen as early as the mid-17th century; but the bulk was to come with the Great Famine migration post-1845. For the American historians, everything starts with the Famine, it is the watershed in American Irish history. As stated earlier, the main idea about the Irish immigrants in American historiography is that they were Catholics, who had to leave Ireland, first because they were suppressed by an English government, and later on because of the Great Famine. Patrick Blessing[1] makes the argument that “under Cromwell [1640s] the trickle of indentured servants developed into a tide as thousands of involuntary Catholic emigrants – political and military prisoners and their dependents – were sold into servitude.”[2] This tide continued in the 18th century, when the Anglo-Irish government imposed sentences of transportation for a variety of reasons. Lawrence McCaffrey[3] lists other circumstances as well: Protestants owned ¾ of arable land on the island, while Catholics were completely banned from any sort of social life by the Penal Codes of the 17th century. The Codes in effect did: exile Catholic bishops, outlaw religious orders, forbid the entry of priests into the country, ban the establishment of Catholic schools and law practices, prevent Catholics from gaining commissions in the government or in the armed forces and make it illegal for them to hold weapons or to purchase (land) property.[4] In short, especially Catholics were forced to leave Ireland because they were suffering under a Protestant government, so Billington[5].

As to the push and pull factors for the Irish to leave their homeland, next to the religious ones there were economic reasons as well. It has to be said that economic problems hit Protestants and Catholics equally hard, though. Blessing[6] describes them as follows: The expansion of pastures as opposed to the former habit of having large tracts of land under tillage combined with the custom of primogeniture and a rapid population growth (from 6.8 million in 1821 to 8 million in 1841) resulted in a massive shortage of available land. Several potato failures followed each other in short distance, with the big one to come in 1845. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 resulted in a drastic drop of wheat prices (of about 50 per cent), and the collapse of the textile industry sent large numbers of workers into unemployment. (And this in a country where the Industrial Revolution took place only in the area around Belfast.)

As mentioned before, the bulk of the Irish immigrants to the United States came with and after the Great Famine. And the picture of the Famine migrants became the general perception of the Irish in the US. They were poor, uneducated and unskilled. They settled in the cities, where they lived in Irish “ghettos” and found jobs mostly as unskilled or semiskilled labourers. According to McCaffrey, by 1870 72 per cent of the American Irish were concentrated in seven urbanised/industrialised states: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois,[7] where they made the ghetto-experience. And they were not always welcome in the Land of the Free: “This would be a grand land if only every Irishman would kill a negro, and be hanged for it. I find this sentiment generally approved,” as one contemporary historian put it.[8] As to why they settled foremost in the cities, Kerby Miller delivers the argument that the Irish could not adjust to farm life in the United States and therefore preferred the urban areas. Generally, they felt that they were living in exile, according to Miller, which forced them to live in tight communities in order to create a sense of kin and home again, thereby creating the ghettos themselves.[9] He even goes as far as to ascribe a certain fatalism to the immigrants, in essence saying that they were not able to comprehend the new situation and to deal with it appropriately:


[1] Blessing, Patrick J. “Irish” in: Stephan Thernstorm (ed.) Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge (MS), 1980.

[2] ibid., p. 525.

[3] McCaffrey, Lawrence. The Irish Diaspora. Bloomington (IN), 1976

[4] ibid., p. 21.

[5] Billington, Ray A. The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860. Chicago, 1938.

[6] Blessing, Patrick J. “Irish Emigration to the United States, 1800-1920: an overview” in: Drudy, P.J. (ed.) The Irish in America: Emigration, Assimilation and Impact (Cambridge (UK), 1985), p. 15f.

[7] McCaffrey, Diaspora, p. 60.

[8] Edward Augustus Freeman in 1881, cited after: McCaffrey, Diaspora, p. 103.

[9] Miller, Kerby. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York, 1985.


ISBN (eBook)
367 KB
Institution / Hochschule
York University – Graduate Programme in History
A (1,3)
Irish Catholics Canadian American Historiography Graduate Seminar



Titel: Irish Catholics in Canadian and American Historiography