In the 19th century, nearly a million Irish emigrated into the U.S., during what became known as the “Irish Potato Famine.” They often arrived sick and weak from lack of food and the hardships of the long journey, and without resources in an unknown land. As a result, they settled in slums that became exclusively Irish, falling prey to sickness and disease due to lack of sanitary conditions and landlords who exploited their desperation. At that time, an Irish adult lived on average just six years after setting foot on American soil. The infant mortality rate among the Irish was one of the highest in the country.

During this time, anti-Irish sentiments became fashionable. Stores and Newspapers often published “NINA” disclaimers: “No Irish Need Apply.”  The Irish were stereotyped as brawling, drunken men with few practical skills. Because of this, Irish men were typically utilized for incredibly dangerous jobs. They would work for less money because they did not make the same demands for reasonable working conditions as other groups.

Irish labor was an invaluable resource for the development of America, where they were most often employed for construction projects, in the course of which thousands of Irish would die. There was an expression among railway men: “an Irishman buried under every tie.” If a worker was injured, he was fired, and if he was killed, his widow and children received no compensation. In the 1840s, Irish men received just under 75 cents a day for 12 hours of work. 

Most Irish women worked in factories or as domestic servants. In Boston, New York and Philadelphia in 1833, Irish women making cotton shirts made six to ten cents a shirt, and could only make nine shirts a week when averaging 14 hours a day (putting the maximum pay at 90 cents per week). Ironically, the Irish were often blamed for causing economic problems, because they would work for lower wages.

We can attribute much of our early infrastructure to the hard work of the Irish. However, they were not welcomed here -- they were taken advantage of, stereotyped, insulted and abused.