The Irish were unfortunately divided during much of the nineteenth century and was therefore helpless in the face of its grave problems. The Act of Union of 1803 incorporated the island into British polity, but was useless in easing the difficult situation of the people.. With an overly large population as the result of the Napoleanic Wars, the Irish soon became impoverished. And with the religious prejudice of Protestant Masters to the Catholic Irish, plus political subordination, many had no alternative by to emigrate to the United States for relief. Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish were never less than a third of all immigrants. The British Passenger Acts attempted to deflect the immigration from the British Isles to Canada instead of the U.S., making the fare a cheap 15 shilling compared to the 4 or 5 pound fare to New York. Many Irish soon found it convenient to take the affordable trip to Canada, where they could buy cheap fares to the U.S., or cheaper yet, they could walk across the border. By 1840, the Irish constituted nearly half of all entering immigrants, and New England found it self heavily foreign born. By 1950, the Irish consisted of one fifth of all foreign born in the originally homogenous region.
In 1845, the great potato rot touched off a mass migration. The disaster eliminated the sole subsistence of millions of peasants, thrusting them over the edge of starvation. For five weary years, the crops remained undependable, and famine swept through the land. Untold thousands perished, and the survivors, destitute of hope, wished only to get away (Handlin, 1972).
The only mode of escape was emigration. Starving families that could not pay landlords faced no alternative but to leave the country in hopes of a better future. And thus the steadily scaling number of Irish who entered the U.S. between 1820 and 1830 skyrocketed in the 1840s, nearly 2 million came in that decade. The flow persisted increasingly for another five years, as the first immigrants began to earn the means of sending for relatives and friends. The decade after 1855 showed a subside in the movement, but smaller numbers continued to arrive after the Civil War. Altogether, almost 3.5 million Irishmen entered the U.S. between 1820 and 1880.
Emigrating to the U.S. wasn't the magical solution for most of the immigrants. Peasants arrived without resources, or capital to start farms or businesses. Few of them ever accumulated the resources to make any meaningful choice about their way of life. Fortunately for them, the expansion of the American economy created heavy demands for muscle grunt. The great canals, which were the first links in the national transportation system were still being dug in the 1820s and 1830s, and in the time between 1830 and 1880, thousands of miles of rail were being laid. With no bulldozers existing at the time, the pick and the shovel were the only earth-moving equipment at the time. And the Irish laborers were the mainstay of the construction gangs that did this grueling work. In towns along the sites of work, groups of Irish formed their small communities to live in. By the middle of the nineteenth century, as American cities were undergoing rapid growth and beginning to develop an infrastructure and creating the governmental machinery and personnel necessary to run it, the Irish and their children got their first foothold- on the ground floor. Irish policemen and firemen are not just stereotypes: Irish all but monopolized those jobs when they were being created in the post-Civil War years, and even today Irish names are clearly over-represented in those occupations (Daniels, 1990). Irish workmen not only began laying the horsecar and streetcar tracks, but were some of the first drivers and conductors. The first generations worked largely at unskilled and semiskilled occupations, but their children found themselves working at increasingly skilled trades. By 1900, when Irish American mend made up about a thirteenth of the male labor force, they were almost a third of the plumbers, steamfitters, and boilermakers. Industry working Irish soon found themselves lifted up into boss and straw-boss positions as common laborers more and more arrived from southern and eastern Europe- Italians, Slavs, and Hungarians.
In years after 1860, Irish Immigration persisted. More than 2.6 million Irish came in the decades after 1860. However, larger numbers of immigrants from elsewhere masked the inflow of Irish people. Those Irish who did continue to flow into the U.S. tended to settle in the already existing Irish communities, where Catholic Churches had been built, and cultural traditions were carried out. However materialistically poor they were, the Irish were rich in cultural resources, developing institutions that helped them face hardship without despair. Cultural events such as St. Patrick's Day were regarded by most Americans as evidence of the separateness of these immigrants, but helped hold the Irish culture together. Their desire for self-expression showed that the Irish understood their group identity. Poor as they were, they drew strength from a culture that explained their situation in the world and provided spiritual resources to face if not to solve the problem. Aside from the church, the most important media of that culture were the press and the stage. All Irish newspapers had either a nationalistic or a religious base, some published as church organs, other drawing support from patriotic societies. Their newspapers interpreted news, accommodated information, and printed popular poems and stories. The stage was even more appealing because it did not demand literacy, presenting to attentive audiences dramas as real as life but not as painful. By the late 1800s, the painful initial Irish transplantation into American society had ended. Second and third generation born and educated in the U.S. replaced the immigrants, but their heritage still stemmed from the peasants' flight from Ireland and of the hardships of striking new roots in the New World.