Interesting Facts About the Irish American Experience

What makes Irish-Americans distinct from other ethnic groups in the United States? The U.S. Census Bureau has collected a variety of information about Irish-Americans that point out their uniqueness. The Irish, for example, are older, wealthier and more educated than the average American is. These facts belie the experience of discrimination Irish immigrants endured in the U.S. when they arrived in waves in the 19th century. While the Irish faced prejudice, books such as How the Irish Became White indicate that the immigrant group also took part in anti-black discrimination. However, when President Barack Obama visited Ireland in 2011 he inadvertently put a spotlight on connections between blacks and the Irish.

St. Patrick's Day Parade in 2012
St. Patrick's Day Parade in 2012. Michelle Lee/

Like other immigrant groups, the Irish faced many hardships upon their arrival in the United States. Particularly, Americans stereotyped the Irish as unintelligent, lazy and unlawful. In fact, the term “paddy wagon” derives from “paddy,” a nickname for the common Irish name Patrick. Due to these stereotypes and few connections when the Irish began to arrive to the U.S. in large numbers in the 1800s, the Irish struggled to make ends meet as menial laborers and often lived in tenements. Some employers specifically excluded Irish workers as applicants.

Much of the oppression the Irish suffered in the U.S. was rooted in the English’s maltreatment of them in the United Kingdom. The Irish would eventually overcome the low opinions Americans had of them, but some argue that they did so by marginalizing other groups. For example, Noel Ignatiev, author of How the Irish Became White, says the Irish partook in the oppression of African-Americans. Former University of Chicago professor Richard Jenson argues that the Irish actively worked to keep both black and Chinese laborers out of their workplaces, effectively eliminating them as competition and keeping them at the bottom of the U.S. socioeconomic ladder. More »

Irish Flag
Irish Flag. Wenzday/

Second to German, more Americans claim Irish heritage than any other ethnicity. Despite this distinction, many Americans don’t realize that the United States celebrates Irish-American Heritage Month in March or the unique characteristics of the Irish-American demographic. Each March, the U.S. Census Bureau releases information about the Irish-American population. For example, New York is the state with the highest percentage of Irish-American residents. New York was also the first location of a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Most Irish Americans work in management professions and boast household incomes that are $6,000 higher than the average U.S. household. The average Irish American is also about two years older than Americans generally.

Although the first large wave of Irish immigrants arrived in the United States in the 19th century, the Irish continue to relocate to the U.S. Tens of thousands of Irish immigrants become naturalized U.S. citizens each year. Andrew Jackson stands out as the only U.S. president with both parents born in Ireland, arguably making him the “most Irish” of all American presidents. More »

British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama in Ireland.
David Cameron and Barack Obama at Lough Erne in Northern Ireland for the 2013 G8 Summit. G8 UK/

Barack Obama made history on Nov. 4, 2008, after being elected the first U.S. president of African descent. Americans of all racial backgrounds tend to forget that Obama is biracial and grew up mostly with his white relatives. When the president visited Ireland in May 2011, the entire world took an interest in his Irish heritage. During the trip, Obama visited the town of Moneygall—home of his great-great-great grandfather—and met distant cousins for the first time. But would displaying his Irish roots shut the birthers up for good and expand the president’s fan base in the Irish-American community?

Biographer Stephen MacDonogh thought the trip marked the perfect opportunity for the president to exploit his Irish heritage for political gain. But the birthers didn’t disappear after Obama’s trip to Ireland. Instead, conservatives blasted the president for drinking Guinness on his Irish holiday when tornadoes ravaged the Midwest. African-Americans responded to Obama’s trip to the Emerald Isle by trying to track their own Irish lineage. More »