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4.5: Irish Immigration

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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In the \begin{align*}1840\mathrm{s}\end{align*}, a disease killed most of the potato plants in Ireland, leaving the Irish without enough food to eat. To escape the so-called Irish Potato Famine, many Irish immigrated to the United States. Once there, however, they faced strong anti-Irish discrimination. The Irish had long been oppressed and looked down on by neighboring Britain, and many Americans were of British ancestry. Most Irish were Catholic, and most Americans were Protestants with a strong anti-Catholic prejudice. Most Irish were poor and entered American life at the bottom of the social ladder. Today, it seems obvious that people of Irish descent are racially ‘white,’ but this was not so clear to the people of the 1840s. Examine the following documents and try to determine whether the Irish were considered ‘white’ in the \begin{align*}19^{\mathrm{th}}\end{align*} century.

Black vs. Irish - Thomas Nast

Source: A cartoon drawn by Thomas Nast for the cover of Harper’s Weekly, December 7, 1876.(Figure below).


  1. The man in the “white” scale is supposed to be Irish. What is the message of this cartoon?
  2. Thomas Nast, the cartoonist, drew for Harper’s Weekly. Based on this cartoon, what sort of people do you think read Harper’s Weekly?

Cartoon in a Newspaper, 1883

Source: Political cartoon published in Puck humor magazine on May 9, 1883.(Figure below).



  1. The angry woman in the cartoon is supposed to be Irish. Describe what she looks like and how she’s acting.
  2. Based on this cartoon, what job do you think many Irish women had in the 1880s? What were some stereotypes about Irish women?

Excerpt from The Know-Nothing and American Crusader – July 29, 1854

Source: An item that ran in The Know-Nothing and American Crusader, a nativist, anti-Catholic newspaper published in Boston.


Providence, July 22, 1854

  1. They HATE our Republic, and are trying to overthrow it.
  2. They HATE our Flag, and they grossly insulting it.
  3. They HATE the liberty of the Press.
  4. They HATE the liberty of speech.
  5. They HATE our Public School system.
  6. They HATE the Bible, and would blot it out of existence if they could!
  7. They HATE Protestants, and are sworn to exterminate them from our country and the earth.
  8. They HATE all rulers that do not swear allegiance to the Pope of Rome.
  9. They HATE to be ruled by Americans, and say ‘WE WILL NOT BE RULED BY THEM!'
  10. They HATE to support their own paupers and they are left to be supported by the tax paying Americans.
  11. They HATE, above all, the ‘Know-Nothings’, who are determined to rid this country from their cursed power.



  1. Why did the ‘Know-Nothings’ hate the Catholics so much?
  2. According to the ‘Know-Nothings’ could the Irish ever be true Americans? Why or why not?

New York Times Advertisement, 1854

Source: An advertisement that ran in the New York Times on March 25, 1854.(Figure below).

Jensen, Richard. “No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of Victimization.” Journal of Social History 36.2 (2002) 405-429

Modified Transcript:


They are in good condition.

One chestnut horse, \begin{align*}3 \;\mathrm{years}\end{align*} old, is also for sale. Excellent saddle horse; can be ridden by a lady.

Also, young man wanted, from \begin{align*}16\end{align*} to \begin{align*}13 \;\mathrm{years}\end{align*} of age, able to work. No Irish need apply.

CLUFF & TUNIS, No. 270 Washington St., corner of Myrtle Ave., Brooklyn.


  1. What does the advertisement mean when it says: “No Irish need apply?”
  2. Based on this advertisement, how do you think the Irish were treated when they looked for jobs? Why might this be the case?

Wages of Whiteness – David Roediger

Source: Excerpt from the book Wages of Whiteness, written by historian David R. Roediger and published in 1991.

Irish-Americans were sometimes used as substitutes for slaves in the South. Gangs of Irish immigrants worked ditching and draining plantations, building levees and sometimes clearing land because of the danger of death to valuable slave property (and, as one account put it, to mules) in such work. One Southerner explained the use of Irish labor as follows: ‘n-----s are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies (Irish) are knocked overboard... nobody loses anything.’

Irish youths were likely to be indentured servants from the early 1800s through the Civil War. In that position they were sometimes called ‘Irish slaves’ and more frequently ‘bound boys.’ In New York City, Irish women made up the largest group of prostitutes, or as they were sometimes called in the 1850s, ‘white slaves.’


  1. Why were Irish used to do difficult labor in the South?
  2. Based on this document, do you think the Irish were treated like slaves?

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