Faced with bouts of extreme poverty and famine over centuries, the Irish saw America as a new land of opportunity. And while it is important to note that immigrant populations in general tend to be great contributors to any nation, we can learn a lot about American immigration (and future reform) by tracing the Irish ascent in America.
Immigrants are by nature ambitious risk takers, entrepreneurs willing to depart the security of known circumstances in search of a better life. There is certainly nothing uniquely ‘Irish’ in that. Yet Irish-Americans today have higher rates of university-level education and home ownership and lower rates of poverty than most other Americans. Their success is surprising if all that one recalls from history class are waves of famine-led immigration and window placards declaring “No Irish Need Apply.”
The first wave of Irish immigrants to the United States was composed largely of Scotch-Irish Protestants who had immigrated to the northern region of Ireland as part of the English government’s socially engineered ‘plantations.’ At the time they came to America they had often lived in Ireland for decades—or even centuries—and considered themselves Irish, as did everyone else. This earliest wave was often well funded by their families and established themselves in the Cumberland Gap and Appalachians. It’s why you can hear similarities between traditional Irish music and bluegrass.
Those immigrants who didn’t follow this path settled in East Coast cities and became educated professionals and merchants. They climbed America’s economic ladder before the poor and destitute of the famine. No doubt part of the reason for their early, continued success is the well-recognized, perhaps legendary, work ethic of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians.
During the second half of the 19th century, the Land League Movement began in Ireland, which provided very low interest loans over very long payback periods. Suddenly, huge tracts of land confiscated by the English were returned to the descendants of native Irish and they gobbled it up. Their pent-up appetite for land ownership is still apparent. To this day, Ireland has a larger percentage of homeowners than most of Europe. Their U.S. descendants continue this high rate of home ownership even today.
But life was not easy. This second wave was mistreated almost upon their arrival, as were subsequent groups of immigrants. Yet when the waves of southern, central, and eastern European ethnic groups arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Irish were already assimilated. Having a bit of a lead in climbing the ladder to economic success is always an advantage, sometimes a very significant one.
Arguably, the Irish adapted better than others, at least initially, to the U.S. political system as well. After all, they shared a British colonial legacy. Certain administrative and political institutions, as well as judicial systems, had common features. Any group that can be effective in the political arena is likely to derive economic benefits.
In the mid-to-late 20th century, when the Irish were emigrating due to a poorly performing domestic economy, these emigrants were often very well educated. This remains true today. While the largest portion of Irish emigration during the 20th century left for England, there was always a steady stream to the U.S. Our workforce was frequently a beneficiary of Ireland’s lack of prosperity.
During the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period, between roughly 1995 and 2005, Ireland’s domestic economy boomed. The result, in a reversal to historical trends, was a wave of net immigration to Ireland, mostly from Eastern Europe. This period also witnessed, though, a significant degree of re-immigration of ex-patriot Irish and their descendants. It was impossible not to notice how these returning Irish brought with them skill sets acquired by having lived, been educated, and worked elsewhere.
Ireland suffered, by most accounts disproportionately, in the recent global financial crisis by a bursting property value bubble in 2007-08. The Irish government chose to nationalize the toxic debt of its banking system and the result has been austere domestic public finances and the resumption of large-scale emigration among highly educated young adults.
But a most interesting phenomenon appears to be taking place in Ireland. The government has remained committed to investing in its program to support a “knowledge economy.” And though many of the beneficiaries are finding jobs elsewhere, there appears a genuinely enlightened perspective among the Irish people that things will get better, and when this happens, many of these individuals will likely return home, bringing with them an enhanced skill set. It is impossible to visit Ireland and know its people without perceiving a palpable confidence in this regard.
The history of Irish immigration is a long and complex one, but it seems to have resulted in an understanding—and appreciation—among the Irish people of the holistic dimensions of labor migration in the modern economic world. And this indeed comprises a lesson well learned—one that might well inform the current immigration debate in the U.S.