One of the things commonly said about the Irish is that their primary export is people. The Irish have been immigrants for a very long time. One of the most famous reasons is, of course, the Potato Famine. However, this is something of a misnomer, since a blight on the crops alone did not cause the Famine. The English bought most of the food from Ireland, which they used as a breadbasket, and refused to let the Irish have access to their food. Starvation was common because all the good food went to the English and the unfortunate aspect of crops that were not diversified meant that the people doing the farming were unable to keep themselves fed. This was very much genocide by way of famine and is the aspect of the story not often told.

Irish Settlement in the United States

This resulted in mass emigration from the island of Ireland because the riches of that land was in the hands of those who had taken it over. The Irish went looking for a better life across the ocean in America, and sometimes further afield. In the United States, the primary areas of Irish settlement were the cities of Boston, Chicago, and New York. Depending on how or why an Irish person arrived in the States, they may also have been working on the plantations in the South as indentured servants. Irish people were sometimes barbadoed, stolen from their homes and forced to work on the American plantations. Although it is set in Scotland, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped is about this unfortunate practice in the past.

American Reception of Irish People

Some Irish people also owned plantations and found themselves rich for the first time when arriving in America. The land was plentiful after having been taken from the Native Americans, and the Irish were also able to benefit from this aspect. Many of them were servants, but their pale skin gave them more freedom than their Black contemporaries. Still, the hierarchy of class had followed the Irish across the Atlantic, and many businesses refused to hire them; ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs were a common sight, and in political cartoons, they were often compared to black people. The depictions of Irishmen were usually unflattering, with ugly features, tattered clothes, and a nod to the drunkenness that stays with their reputation even today by coloring their cheeks with what we still call ‘the Irish blush.’

Remembering the Past

Today in Ireland, you can still see replicas of the famine ships and monuments to the extreme poverty of their past. There are even statues dedicated to the Choctaw, who was one of the only groups to offer Ireland financial support during the famine. Ireland is also uniquely welcoming of foreigners and immigrants, even in this modern xenophobic climate; they know very well what it was like to have nowhere else to go and seek out new land. From famine to servitude, the Irish have been strong throughout and made their mark on the American psyche as well as its culture.


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