The Irish were among the United States’s first great wave of immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These newcomers lived in extreme poverty at the lowest rungs of American society, often enduring fervent anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic discrimination.
Today, more than 33 million Americans proudly claim to have at least some Irish ancestry. People of Irish heritage are so deeply entrenched in America that about half of all the U.S. presidents had some Irish ancestral origins.
The Irish influence in America is so keen that March has been designated as Irish-American Heritage Month and millions of Americans happily celebrate St. Patrick’s Day every March 17.
About 4.5 million Irish people arrived in the United States between 1820 and 1930, according to the Library of Congress.
By 1850, the Irish were the nation’s largest immigrant group, settling primarily on the East Coast and in Southern states. Today, more than 1 in 10 Americans claims Irish ancestry, far more than the experts who keep track of these things predicted.
For example, during the 1980 U.S. Census — the first to contain subjective questions about ethnic identity — far more Americans than could be explained by immigration and birth patterns claimed Irish heritage.
“In 1980, there should have been about 20 million descendants of these Irish immigrants in the United States and then they looked at the data from the 1980 census that first asked about ancestry and it turned out there were 40 million people claiming some Irish ancestry in the census,” said Stephen Trejo, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin. “People of multiple backgrounds tended to report Irish more than other things maybe because it was more fun with St. Patrick’s day or for other reasons, they felt more attached to that, so they reported that.”
A 1994 paper in the American Sociological Review concluded, “an unexplained subjective “closeness” to Ireland contributed to the size of the Irish American population in 1980.”
Today’s Irish Americans are faring far better than the earliest Irish arrivals.
The median income for households headed by an Irish American is $62,141, higher than the median household income of $53,657 for all U.S. households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Forty-two percent of Irish Americans work in management, business, science and arts occupations, 24 percent are in sales or office occupations, while 15 percent are in service occupations.
Today, 10 percent of Americans claim some Irish heritage, but there’s a saying in the United States that, on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish.
On March 17, many Americans will happily drink to that.
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