What is Known About The Irish in North America: Part Three
Given that the Canadian data proved beyond dispute that in the nineteenth century the Irish in Canada were not a city people, what is the evidence that the Irish in America were? The matter reduces itself to a further question: is the nineteenth century American census data as good as the Canadian?
There is no positive evidence available either for the existence of the fundamental "fact" of the history of the Irish as an ethnic group in America-that they were a city people-or of the secondary "facts": that the Irish in America became an important phenomenon only after the famine and that Protestants migrated to the US in such small numbers in the nineteenth century to be virtually negligible. Notice ( in a comparison of early census data from the 1800's!) that there are no demographic data whatsoever on the religion of the Irish in America, that there never has been a satisfactory enumeration of the Irish as a multigenerational ethnic group, and that it is not the story of the Irish that began in 1850, but merely the run of data on Irish immigrants in the United States. An extraordinary amount of ingenuity, not to say guile and creativity, has been expended by historians of the Irish in America in explaining a set of demographic "facts" for the existence of which there is no affirmative evidence.
Consider the 1870 US census, the first one for which cross tabulation of Irish birth and place of residence are easily done. A standard definition of a city employed by urban historians of the period is that it has a concentration of 25,000 or more persons. In 1870, 44.5% of the Irish born in the US lived in the fifty largest cities, the smallest of which had a population of 26,766. Certainly that is a significant degree of concentration among Irish immigrants. It is also true, however, that well over half of the Irish immigrants to the US did not live in cities.
Actually, though, even the statistic that, roughly 55% of Irish immigrants did not live in cities in 1870 considerably overstates the matter. First, 1870 is a relatively late date in the process of urbanization in the US. The nation was roughly 75% rural in 1870 but had been 85% in 1850 and 91% in 1830. Second and more important, the 1870 residence data are only for the immigrant generation and not for the entire ethnic group. The children and grandchildren of Irish immigrants who had arrived earlier this century are excluded from these figures .and they would have had a much higher propensity to live outside of cities than would the immigrant generation of 1870. This holds, in part, because the parents and grandparents of the second and third generations had arrived at a time when the US was more rural and thus were more likely to be absorbed into a rural economy and in part because by the second and third generations, resources would have been accumulated, enabling the children and grandchildren of Irish immigrants to participate in the geographic mobility that characterized nineteenth century American society.
Mention of the second, third and subsequent generations calls attention to the existence in American census data of a demographically invisible majority among the nineteenth century Irish in America. One can obtain occupational and residential tabulation of the Irish born only from 1870, a time when there were approximately 1.85 million Irish born in the U. However, between 1820 and 1850 there has been roughly a minimum of 1.04 million Irish immigrants into the US (the precise number cannot be ascertained). For each Irish immigrant of, say, 1830, one can expect offspring by 1850 and a third generation by 1870. Even the famine immigrants could have had children and in some cases, grandchildren, by 1870. Precisely what the "multiplier" was cannot be determined, but strong indirect evidence suggests that by 1870 there were considerably more second and later generation individuals in the Irish ethnic group than there were immigrants. Yet there are no residential or occupational data on this, the larger portion, and these are the very people who were less likely to be trapped in large urban ghettos.
Having suggested that an unprejudiced look at the US demographic data provides positive evidence that the Irish in America were not a city people and also that their collective history began before mid-century, one must confess that there is no American census data indication that there was a large number of Protestants in the US-Irish ethnic group, nor can there be, given the American government's refusal to ask people what their religion is. Irish population data, however, indicate that in the nineteenth century the Protestant population, both Presbyterian and Anglican declined significantly in absolute numbers, although proportionately less than did the Catholic. Moreover, given that, in all probability, the Protestants, being better off than the Catholics, did not suffer as high a mortality rate, one may conjecture that the Protestants had an emigration rate equal to that of the Irish Catholics.
This point forces the traditional historian of the Irish in the US into a cleft stick. He can agree that the Protestants were as likely to emigrate from Ireland as the Catholics, but that this had no influence on American history, for the assumption is that all Protestants went to Canada. This is highly unlikely, and even if it were true, a central part of the traditional interpretation would have been surrendered: that is, it would mean that the data which show that the Irish in the US were not a city people would have necessarily meant it was the Irish Catholics who were not a city people. Alternatively, a defender of the traditional view could admit that there was a significant Irish Protestant migration into America, but that the Protestants were the ones who settled in non-city areas and, thus, the idea of the Irish Catholics as a city people remains.
In sum, not only is there no affirmative demographic evidence for the traditional view of the Irish in nineteenth century America, there is some positive evidence that the traditional ideas are not merely unproven but are directly contrary to the truth.