It was the potato famine that began driving large numbers of Irish to leave home in the late 1840s. This migration, along with mass starvation and disease, would eventually cost Ireland around a third of its population. Some went to Great Britain, but the overwhelming majority came to America.
Jason Riley states that the peasants fleeing Ireland had a shorter life expectancy than slaves in the U.S., many of whom enjoyed healthier diets and better living quarters. The black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that freed slaves were poor by American standards, “but not as poor as the Irish peasants.”
They Irish had arrived from a country that was mostly rural, yet they settled in cities like Boston and New York, working “wherever brawn and not skill was the chief requirement,” as one historian put it. In the South, the Irish took jobs—mining coal, building canals and railroads—considered too hazardous even for slaves. “No other contemporary immigrant group was so concentrated at the bottom of the economic ladder,” writes Thomas Sowell in his classic work, “Ethnic America.”
It wasn’t just a lack of education and urban job skills that slowed the progress of the Irish in America. The Irish were known for drinking and brawling. Irish gangs were common. When an Irish family moved into a neighborhood, property values fell and other residents fled. Anti-Catholic employers requested “Protestant” applicants. Want ads read: “Any color or country except Irish.”
Yet none of these obstacles proved insurmountable. Temperance societies formed to address alcoholism. The Catholic Church took a leading role in tackling poverty, illiteracy and other social problems through the creation of orphanages and hospitals and schools. For millions of Irish immigrants, the church was not simply a place of worship. It was the focal point of the community.
The phrase “the luck of the Irish” is commonly thought to mean “extreme good fortune.” But it was not luck that caused them to rise out of poverty. Faith, the Judeo/Christian worldview and the economic opportunity provided by free market capitalism began to penetrate the curse of poverty.
They arrived dirt poor and uneducated in the 1840s. After decades of struggle, they achieved prosperity. According to the Census Bureau, today’s Irish-Americans boast poverty rates far below the national average and median incomes far exceeding it. The rates at which they graduate from high school, complete college, work in skilled professions, and own homes are also better than average.
Lessons From the Rise of America’s Irish By Jason L. Riley. Wall Street Journal March 13, 2018