The Untold Story

Data:Part Two

Irish History
by Province

New Brunswick




Shamrock What is Known About the Irish in
North America


Donald H. Akrnson


 The outstanding era for the Irish in North America, the period in which they made up the greater part of the population and made most impact as an ethnic group, was the nineteenth century. This is not to suggest that they have not been of importance and interest since then but merely to suggest that as historians we must maintain a perspective and remember that most recent events, like objects held close to our eyes, are not necessarily larger or more significant than those at a distance.

 What is meant in this paper by the term "Irish"? For our purposes, "Irish" includes all persons who make or made their permanent home in the geographic island of Ireland; this includes Protestants as well as Catholics, Ulsterman as well as Kerryman, descendents of Norman Lords and of Scottish planters as well as of earlier Celtic invaders, speakers of English as well as of Irish Gaelic. When they settled abroad, the term includes all those emigrants and their descendants. One must of course differentiate between the various Irish sub-groups, while remembering that they all stemmed from a common socio-political system. With this definition, one does not have to decide between rival claims of "superior Irishness". Granted that someone in North America who belonged to the Ancient Order of Hibernians or the Orange Order probably had a stronger sense of ethnic identity- felt himself to be "more Irish"- than someone else whose sole act of ethnic identification was to fill in a census form every ten years. But it would be presumptuous to be too subtle in our distinctions. The simple definition has. Moreover, the virtue of inclusiveness.

 In collecting demographic material relating to the Irish and the New World, one must distinguish between the immigrants from Ireland and their descendants. This seems a simple matter, but, alas, modern Canadian and American historians, as well as contemporary nineteenth century observers, often fail to be clear on the point. Frequently, "Irish" is employed to mean immigrants from Ireland; just as often, it is used to refer to all descendents as well. Obviously, if an historian collects data only on the immigrant generation and then writes that "the Irish" in North America behaved in a certain way, his work will be utterly misleading. In this paper, I shall use the term "Irish-born" to denominate the migrant generation or "first generation" North Americans. When the Irish in North America are discussed, the reference is to the multigenerational collective experience of the migrants and their descendants: the chronicle of the immigrant generation is only a part of the story of any ethnic group.

The accepted scholarly interpretation of the Irish in the United States can be summarized in William V. Shannon's oft quoted phase: "The history of the Irish in America is founded on a paradox. The Irish were a rural people in Ireland and became a city people in the United States". Thus, the central question for historians of the Irish in America has been: why did they become an urban people?

In response to this question, a general consensus has emerged among American social historians. First, it is generally accepted that the Irish landed in America so poor that they could not immediately move inland, but had to stay in the Atlantic seaboard cities. Second, it is believed that even when the Irish had accumulated enough cash to move inland to farm, they did not do so, largely because they did not have the technological skills to farm in the New World. Or, to put it less obliquely" they were too technologically backward to be good farmers. Third, it is generally accepted that even had the Irishman possessed both the money and the skills to farm, he would not have chosen to do so because of the ineradicable memory of the Great Famine: "The Irish rejected the land, for the land rejected him" is William Shannon's summation. And fourth, it is generally agreed that the Irish were culturally unadapted to rural American social life. The Irish, it is claimed, needed close and compatible neighbours: the loneliness of a farm or even of the rural hamlet was not for them. Lawrence McCaffrey has suggested that "when the Irish finally did begin to move west, most of them preferred places like Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco to farms".

The term "Irish American", often used by historians of the Irish in the United States to denote the Irish immigrants and their descendants, is a code-word: it actually means "Irish Roman Catholic". Excluded from it are Protestants. In other words, there is an identification in American historical writing between the terms Irish, Irish American and Irish Catholic.

 The validity of this identification is central to most studies of the Irish in the United States. It is presumed:

  1. that the really important events in the story of the Irish in America did not begin until the Great Famine of the mid-nineteenth century.
  2. That after the mid-nineteenth century, migration by Irish Protestants to the United States was virtually nil

These then are the main components of the standard explanation as to why the Irish in the United States became a city people. What has been the interpretation of the Irish in Canada put forward by Canadian historians? The only serious attempt at a general history of the Irish in Canada has been Nicholas Flood Davin's work of 1877,a goldmine of anecdote but not a scholarly work. There has been no modern attempt at a synthesis. Instead, there are a few deplorable works of ethnic piety and numerous incidental references in regional histories that indicate that the Irish in Canada seem to have settled everywhere, both in the cities and in the country. Until recently, there were only two analyses of the process of assimilation of the Irish into Canadian society- by John Mannion, H. Clare Pentland and Kenneth Duncan. Of these, two (Pentland and Duncan), widely circulated and highly influential, began with the assumption that the Irish in Canada in the last century were a city people.

 Two recent studies, however, have established that the Irish in nineteenth century Canada were not a city people. In the most important of these, Professors A. Gordon Darroch and Michael D. Ornstein drew a large random sample from the heads of households recorded in the 1871 census (approximately 10,000 cases) and found that the Irish were more likely to support themselves by farming than any other occupation: 58.3% of Protestants of Irish origin and 44.3% of Catholics. When one takes into account the fact that farmers were only part of the rural economic structure, it is clear that persons of Irish origin in Canada lived in small towns and in the countyside, and that both Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, immigrants and their descendants, settled overwhelmingly in the countryside. For example, in 1871, approximately 66.3% of Irish descended Catholics and 83.2% of Irish Descended Protestants were living in rural areas. Both Protestants and Catholics were able to stand the loneliness of pioneering life and were equally able to meet the technological requirements of farming.


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