St. Patrick’s Day is March 17. It was originally a religious holiday that has evolved into a celebration of all things Irish. On that day, a parade is held each year in New York City that has roots going back to 1762, when Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through the streets. In 1948, President Harry Truman attended the parade, an act that emphasized the celebration's importance in American culture. In 1991, Congress dedicated March as Irish American Heritage Month to commemorate the millions of Irish citizens who immigrated to America and their descendants, many of whom contributed to the building of the United States. Read on for glimpses of Irish American history and culture, as well as recommendations on how to look for Irish ancestors.
The Irish in America
People from Ireland started immigrating to America while it was still a colony of Great Britain. The first Irish arrivals in the 1600s were mainly indentured servants or redemptioners, whose passage was paid in return for a certain number of years of work. By the 1700s, Protestants, Catholics, and Quakers were coming to the United States to start new lives without religious discrimination and the draconian laws against the Celtic heritage of the Irish.
While many of the Irish immigrants in the early 1800s were skilled workers, by the middle of the century, most were simply fleeing the famine and poverty of their homeland. Not enough land and the Great Famine of the 1840s resulted in millions emigrating to the United States in search of a better life. Instead of finding farms in their new country where they had lived in their former homeland, many settled in big cities, including Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. These unskilled workers were part of the foundational workforce for increasing industry and manufacturing in the United States. They also helped build roads and canals throughout the country, such as the Erie Canal in New York.
Making a Place for Themselves
Although they often faced discrimination from other American citizens, the bravery and fierce loyalty of the 69th New York Infantry Regiment, also known as The Irish Brigade, opens a new window, in the Civil War soon won them a place of honor in the making of America. This brigade also served honorably in World War I and World II and is now a part of the New York National Guard.
As conditions in Ireland improved, the new immigrants tended to be more skilled, and the schools, charitable societies, workers’ organizations, and social clubs established by earlier Irish immigrants smoothed their entry into American society. While some discrimination against these immigrants lingered, having the support systems in place allowed the new families to prosper and succeed more quickly in their new homes.
Along with contributing their backbreaking work in building much of the country’s infrastructure and manufacturing plants in the 1800s, Irish immigrants brought their strong social structures with them to support each other and the Americans around them. America continued to be the country of choice for many young Irish people wanting to improve their lot throughout the 20th century.
Over the years, many Irish Americans rose to places of power and influence in our country, and, as of 2019, 30.4 million, or 9.2%, of the American population claimed Irish ancestry, including 700,000 residents of Virginia.
The Sounds of Ireland
Perhaps your family is Irish, and you want to learn more about the language and culture of your ancestors. Mango Languages, opens a new window and Transparent Language each have an Irish course. Lessons include names, culture, places, numbers, and more.
Listen to the folk songs of Ireland with Celtic Thunder, opens a new window.
Irish American women are known for their strength of character. Discover some of their contributions in this National Book Festival interview with novelist Alice McDermott, opens a new window, Pennsylvania Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, opens a new window, and CBS News’ Margaret Brennan, opens a new window. The Library of Congress selected items in its collection to accompany the 2020 program.
More to Explore:
Glimpses of Ireland's St. Patrick’s Festival
Although the in-person St. Patrick's Festival returned to Dublin in 2022, the festival organizers have shared clips of many of the events for those who couldn't travel to Ireland. The 2023 St. Patrick’s Festival presented contemporary and traditional Irish arts, culture, and heritage, to connect families, friends, and communities across Ireland, as well as the 80 million Irish around the world. Go to the St. Patrick Festival's YouTube Channel to see clips from the many events. For information on the 2024 St. Patrick's Festival, check the festival website.
Intrigued? Continue your rambles with our Irish American book list:
Books, audiobooks, films, and web resources featuring Irish and Irish American stories and history full of poignancy for all ages.
Delve further into the Irish American saga with these online museums and archives, rich in Irish culture and history:
Researching Irish Family History
Due to the fire and destruction of many of Ireland’s records during its civil war in 1922, when the Public Record Office in Dublin caught on fire in an explosion, it can sometimes be difficult to connect your family heritage with that of your Irish ancestors. However, there are many resources you can access to help you fill in those gaps. Tracing your Irish Ancestors, by John Grenham, along with the Irish records on FamilySearch.org, will get you started. Then, check out these record depositories in Ireland:
Whether your heritage is Irish American or you are simply interested in learning about the important contributions these people have made to our country, enjoy these resources during Irish American Heritage Month--and throughout the year.