The Irish came to America in dribs and drabs from the earliest days– at least two Irishmen were in the group of colonists at Jamestown in 1607 — Francis Magnel, sailor, and Dionis Oconor tradesman.
The veritable flood of Irish immigrants came during the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-1852, when over a million Irish died of disease and starvation in their home country, all the while exporting food that could have kept them alive at the command of their English masters. “Thomas Gallagher points out in Paddy’s Lament, that during the first winter of famine, 1846-47, as perhaps 400,000 Irish peasants starved, landlords exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry — food that could have prevented those deaths. Throughout the famine, as Gallagher notes, there was an abundance of food produced in Ireland, yet the landlords exported it to markets abroad.”
One of the early Irish immigrants to Boston is chronicled in the Journal of American-Irish Historical Society:
“There lived in Dorchester or Milton between the years 1640 and 1650 a lad named Teague Crehore, who, it is said, had been stolen from his parents in Ireland. One of his descendants was Benjamin Crehore, who was born in Milton. He was a remarkable genius. He it was who made the first piano-forte in America, manufactured the first bass-viols and invented the artificial leg with joints. And it was Thomas Crehore, a nephew of Benjamin Crehore and the son of William Crehore, a chair-maker, and of the fifth generation of Teague Crehore, who manufactured the first playing cards in America. Thomas Crehore was a native of Dorchester and born in 1769. At the age of thirty-two, he bought the land on which he built his factory and house. The industry continued there (in Milton Lower Mills, on the Neponset River, I believe) until 1846 when the factory was burned down. Mr. Crehore died in the same year, leaving a large estate.”
Some immigrants came as little better than slaves, indentured for four to seven years to pay their passage, treated indifferently on arrival. One man who managed his own passage was John Doyle, who came to America to be with his father in 1818. Landing in Philadelphia, he found the work and wages not as plentiful as he’d been told, and tried his luck in New York, at the invitation of a friend. Even in New York, there wasn’t enough work in the printing trade to keep him employed, and he resorted to being a street vendor.
He tells it this way: “I wrote to poor Lewis who gave me the most pressing invitation to come to New York where I now am, and where I every day experience from them some fresh kindness. My father put every obstacle he could in my way to prevent my going to New York but when he found that all he could do would not change my mind and that his entreaties to stay with him were in vain, he parted with me drowned in tears to such a pitch that he was unable to speak and since my arrival here he is every week writing to me to go back.
I found the printing and bookbinding overpowered with hands in New York. I remained idle for twelve days in consequence; when finding there was many out of employment like myself I determined to turn myself to something else, seeing that there was nothing to be got by idleness. The trifle which I had saved was going from me fast. I drove about accordingly and was engaged by a bookseller to hawk maps for him at 7 dollars a week. This I did much to his satisfaction but when the town was well supplied he discharged me and instead of paying me my entire bill he stopped 9 dollars for maps which he said I made him no return for. I had to look for justice but was defeated for want of a person to prove my account. I lost the 9 dollars which I reckon to be 45 shillings. However, I got such an insight into the manners and customs of the natives whilst going among them with the maps as served me extremely. I now had about 60 dollars of my own saved, above every expense. These I laid out in the purchase of pictures on New Year’s Day, which I sell ever since. I am doing astonishingly well, thanks be to God and was able on the 16th of this month to make a deposit of 100 dollars in the bank of the United States.”
Doyle continues, contrasting the freedom in America with that of his homeland: “One thing I think is certain that if the emigrants knew before hand what they have to suffer for about the first six months after leaving home in every respect they would never come here. However, an enterprising man, desirous of advancing himself in the world will despise everything for coming to this free country, where a man is allowed to thrive and flourish, without having a penny taken out by government; no visits from tax gatherers, constables or soldiers, every one at liberty to act and speak as he likes, provided it does not hurt another, to slander and damn government, abuse public men in their office to their faces, wear your hat in court and smoke a cigar while speaking to the judge as familiarly as if he was a common mechanic, hundreds go unpunished for crimes for which they would be surely hung in Ireland; in fact, they are so tender of life in this country that a person should have a very great interest to get himself hanged for anything!”
In 1820, the notorious Five Points neighborhood in New York City began, a melting pot of poverty and misery of freed African-Americans (New York had gradual emancipation until 1822), Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants. The Irish were not welcomed with open arms. They brought Catholicism, a different culture, and some yet only spoke Gaelic. Crime was rife, and tensions between blacks and Irish made an explosive atmosphere where violence could break out at any time.
“Immediately upon arrival in New York harbor, they were met by Irishmen known as ‘runners’ speaking in Gaelic and promising to ‘help’ their fellow countrymen. Many of the new arrivals, quite frightened at the mere prospect of America, gladly accepted. Those who hesitated were usually bullied into submission. The runner’s first con was to suggest a good place to stay in New York; a boarding house operated by a friend, supposedly with good meals and comfortable rooms at very affordable rates, including free storage of any luggage.
The boarding houses were actually filthy hell-holes in lower Manhattan. Instead of comfortable rooms, the confused arrivals were shoved into vermin-infested hovels with eight or ten other unfortunate souls, at prices three or four times higher than what they had been told. They remained as ‘boarders’ until their money ran out at which time their luggage was confiscated for back-rent and they were tossed out into the streets, homeless and penniless.
During the entire Famine period, about 650,000 Irish arrived in New York harbor. All incoming passenger ships to New York had to stop for medical inspection. Anyone with fever was removed to the quarantine station on Staten Island and the ship itself was quarantined for 30 days. But Staten Island was just five miles from Manhattan. Runners were so aggressive in pursuit of the Irish that they even rowed out to quarantined ships and sneaked into the hospitals on Staten Island despite the risk of contracting typhus.”
Irishmen tended to keep to themselves, not readily assimilating into the population, and the poverty and hopelessness of places like Five Points brought drinking, desperation, prostitution even in children, and moral decline. Anti-Irish sentiment flourished, as Protestants worried about the Papacy taking over America.
The Civil War actually proved a godsend to the Irish, for it gave them employment, and because men were badly needed, it caused them to mix with others of differing European descent, decreasing the Anti-Irish sentiment following the war. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Irishmen began to flex political muscle and force changes in labor and society.
The most extraordinary Famine descendant was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, great-grandson of Patrick Kennedy, a farmer from County Wexford who had left Ireland in 1849. Although other Presidents, including Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson had Irish roots, John Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic. To millions of Irish Catholic Americans, Kennedy’s election in 1960 as the 35th President of the United States signaled an end to the century-long struggle for full acceptance in the U.S.
American-Irish Historical Society. The Journal of the American-Irish Historical Society (Kindle Locations 1126-1132). Boston, Mass. : The Society, 1916
Journal of the American Irish Historical Society 12 (1913), 201–204.
 Paddy’s Lament, Thomas Gallagher, Paperback: 364 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books; First edition (May 13, 1987)