Both my full-length published romances, Erin’s Rebel and Confederate Rose feature Irish immigrants at the time of the Civil War, and many Irish fought on both sides of this conflict, I’ve done research into why so many left Ireland both before and during the war years.
Both England and America experienced a large influx of Irish immigrants during the Victorian era. While some of this was due to the potato famine, a great deal of the problem began back in the mid-17th century, when Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland. Landowners who refused to give up Catholicism had their property confiscated and given to members of the English Army.
“Between 1841 and 1851, Ireland’s population of 8 million had dwindled down to 6 million. An estimated half of these people left the country while the other million died.”
One million emigrated to England and America, overwhelming both countries. American saw this surge of immigration between 1815 and 1845. The Irish had few technical skills, but were healthy and strong. They became a much needed source of cheap labor.
In England “. . . The Irish lived on the absolute fringes of Victorian society . . .” They became unskilled day laborers and street peddlers.
” . . . Thomas Malthus, noted English economist explained the earlier famines and starvation in Ireland as God’s answer to overpopulation of those who refuse to show constraint . . .”
” . . . emigrating to America was not a joyful event . . . They left in droves on ships that were crowded, with conditions so terrible, that they were referred to as Coffin Ships.” http://www.kinsella.org/history/histira.htm
English oppression had made their country unlivable for them. Their only hope was to escape. Poor immigrants were forced to settle in their port of arrival, having no means of moving on.
The offers of free land out west during this time period meant little to the Irish. The land back in Ireland had failed them, so they looked to other means of making a living in their new country.Although the Irish immigrants arriving in America had come to escape hunger and oppression, they found that life for them didn’t change all that much.
By the height of the potato famine, an Irish immigrant wrote home saying that, “My master is a great tyrant, he treats me as badly as if I was a common Irishman. Our position is one of shame and poverty.” http://kinsella.org/history/histira.htm
Signs for employment were often followed by: “NO IRISH NEED APPLY”. The new immigrants had to live in cellars and shanties. Their brogue and dress were ridiculed. They were also held up to scorn for their poverty and illiteracy.
The Irish held together and met intimidation with violence. Prayer and drink solidified them, helping them to survive life in the city. One newspaper was led to say about them, “The Irish have become more Americanized than the Americans.” http://www.kinsella.org/history/histira.htm
“The Church played an integral part in their lives. It was a militant Church who fought not only for their souls but also for their human rights.” http://kinsella.org/history/histira.htm
America needed the Irish. Men were needed for the heavy work of building bridges, canals and railroads. Women worked as maids, cooks and child caretakers. Irish immigrants needed these jobs to survive and they proved to be hard workers.
Although they never forgot their homeland, the Irish loved America. But they never lost their hatred of the English. This led them to rebel against anything they saw as oppression on the part of their new country. “In New York City during the Civil War, they rioted against the draft lottery after the first drawing showed most of the names were Irish.” http://www.kinsella.org/history/histira.htm http://www.civilwarhome.com/draftriots.htm
The Irish, who’d suffered brutality back in Ireland at English hands were fierce warriors. They used brutal methods to fight back against the oppression of mine owners in Pennsylvania, forming a secret organization called the Molly Maguires. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molly_Maguires They also formed their own Irish Brigade during the Civil War. http://www.civilwarhome.com/irishbri.htm http://irishvolunteers.tripod.com/irish_brigade_history.htm
As new immigrants of other nationalities later came to American shores, the Irish were finally hailed as an asset. They were fully Americanized. Hostility shifted to these new immigrants. The Irish finally found power and acceptance.
“In 1850 at the height of the Potato Famine, Orestes Brownson, a celebrated convert to Catholicism, stated, ‘Out of these narrow lanes, dirty streets, damp cellars, and suffocating garrets, will come forth some of the noblest sons of our country, whom she will delight to own and honor.’ ” http://www.kinsella.org/history/histira.htm