Irish Immigration to America

Why did your Irish ancestors emigrate? The majority of Irish came to America during the Irish Potato Famine and in the years afterward. However, the reasons for the immigration was more complex than the starvation conditions they were suffering in Ireland before they left. Their reasons were based on conditions caused by British Penal Laws passed in the 1600s and 1700s. These laws set the stage for conditions that made possible the devastation the Irish suffered during and after the Potato Famine of the late 1840s.

The answers to why they left differ and are related to the sharp religious divisions between Irish Catholics, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and the Anglican English. These tensions seem to be the cause of many to begin leaving Ireland in the 1700s and early 1800s and appeared to magnify the well-known effects of the Irish Famine.

Religious and political freedom were among the early reasons. However, poverty, especially at the time of the Great Famine, was also high on the list of reasons to leave. The religious divisions and tensions in Ireland go back to the conflicts between Catholic Irish and their English Protestant rulers. The end of the Nine Years War in 1603 added another factor to the tensions when King James gave Irish lands to Scottish Presbyterian.

When the Irish lost the war, King James VI of England confiscated the land on the rebellious Irish lords. King James then recruited Scottish clansmen to populate the confiscated land. In 1609, he began the systematic resettlement of the Plantation of Ulster with recruited English and Scottish Protestant settlers. However, the English did not honor their early promises to the Scots, and soon the Presbyterian Scots felt the discrimination that the Catholic Irish felt. They began leaving Ireland for America and other countries about 1730.

The leading cause of the tension among the Presbyterian Scots and the Irish Catholics was the pressure from the English to support the Anglican Church. Only Anglicans could own land and be members of the local government. This situation produced much of the poverty that both groups suffered, and felt the need to leave. Over time the difference in economic levels became more extensive with the English or descendants of the English being very wealthy and all others suffering marginally to extreme poverty. The English landowners also encouraged growing of the potato, and it became the major food crop throughout Ireland. When the potato blight began, the English government did not bring in an economical substitute causing much of the starvation felt by the poor. Also, the fail of the potato crops gave the landlords reason to evict many of their tenants and convert the lands to pastures or larger fields that they harvested using farm implements.

Remember that each immigrant has a unique story. Our challenge is to dig out as many details of their immigration saga as we can for our family history. This search includes matching when they came and where they left for possible reasons occurring around them.

Our immigrant ancestors laid the foundation of our roots in the United States. Our lives would be much different if they did not endure the challenges of emigration from Ireland. Do not underestimate their contributions. They performed vital roles in the development of America. Many of them cleared fields on the frontier and worked on the farms. Many of the Irish were unskilled and toiled constructing the canals and railroads or in factories. Their lives became building blocks in the growth of their new country.

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