Irish Catholic Americans: From outcasts to All-American

More than most the story of the native Irish, mainly from the counties that make up the modern Republic of Ireland, is a rags to riches tale of a nightmare start turned American dream.

The Irish set the template for mass migration to the United States for others arriving without money and status.

The first thing to do when talking about the native Irish in America is to leave your assumptions at the door. Irish – at least in the American experience- is only Catholic about a third of the time; most Americans who say they’re of Irish ancestry on census forms are Protestant and the majority of their ancestors spent 2-3 generations in Ireland at most.

Why is that? Well it’s a fascinating tale, largely unknown to Americans in general and even many Irish-American families. The short version is that the vast majority of people arriving from Ireland before the revolution were Scots-Irish. Most of their ancestors had lived in Ireland for no more than a century or two; their origins were overwhelmingly southwest Scotland. This group, vastly outnumbered the 10 to 20 thousand Irish Catholics in America at the time of the revolutionary war.

Just to complicate matters, native Irish in this period often married Scots Highlanders who were also Catholic. ‘Scots-Irish’ originally applied to these people; a term first used by England’s Queen Elizabeth I in the late 1500s. Two centuries later, the American experience turned this definition on its head. The Catholic Irish who began to arrive in their droves in the mid 1800s were escaping famine. But the discrimination they faced at home, arrived ahead of them and it would be a very long time before Irish would once again mean simply those with ancestors born in Ireland.

The story of the native Irish in America is one of remarkable achievements of a people who refused to stay down. They had to walk an ugly path – often over others equally mistreated – to find their leading role in America’s story.