How Irish Immigrants Overcame Discrimination in America

Alienating other minority groups helped the Irish advance

St. Patrick's Day parade on Fifth Avenue in NYC
Ted Russell/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

The month of March isn’t just home to St. Patrick’s Day but also to Irish American Heritage Month, which acknowledges the discrimination the Irish faced in America and their contributions to society. In honor of the annual event, the U.S. Census Bureau releases a variety of facts and figures about Irish Americans and the White House issues a proclamation about the Irish experience in the United States.

In March 2012, President Barack Obama ushered in Irish American Heritage Month by discussing the “indomitable spirit” of the Irish. He referred to the Irish as a group “whose strength helped build countless miles of canals and railroads; whose brogues echoed in mills, police stations, and fire halls across our country; and whose blood spilled to defend a nation and a way of life they helped define.

Defying Famine, Poverty, and Discrimination

"Defying famine, poverty, and discrimination, these sons and daughters of Erin demonstrated extraordinary strength and unshakable faith as they gave their all to help build an America worthy of the journey they and so many others have taken.”

History of Discrimination

Notice that the president used the word “discrimination” to discuss the Irish American experience. In the 21st century, Irish Americans are widely considered to be “white” and reap the benefits of white privilege. However, this was not always the case in previous centuries.

As Jessie Daniels explained in a piece on the Racism Review website called “St. Patrick’s Day, Irish-Americans and the Changing Boundaries of Whiteness,” the Irish faced marginalization as newcomers to the United States in the 19th century. This was largely because of how the English treated them. She explains:

“The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as ‘white negroes.’ The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.”

Immigrating to the U.S. Didn’t End the Hardships

But immigrating to the U.S. didn’t end the hardships the Irish experienced across the pond. Americans stereotyped the Irish as lazy, unintelligent, carefree criminals and alcoholics. Daniels points out that the term “paddy wagon” comes from the derogatory “paddy,” a nickname for “Patrick” widely used to describe Irish men. Given this, the term “paddy wagon” basically equates being Irish to criminality.

Competing for Low-Wage Employment

Once the U.S. ceased to enslave its African American population, the Irish competed with them for low-wage employment. The two groups did not join together in solidarity, however. Instead, the Irish worked to enjoy the same privileges as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a feat they accomplished partly at the expense of Black people, according to Noel Ignatiev, author of How the Irish Became White (1995).

Subjugating Black Americans to Move up the Socioeconomic Ladder

While the Irish abroad opposed enslavement, for example, Irish Americans supported the peculiar institution because subjugating Black Americans allowed them to move up the U.S. socioeconomic ladder. After enslavement ended, the Irish refused to work alongside Black people and terrorized them to eliminate them as competition on multiple occasions. Due to these tactics, the Irish eventually enjoyed the same privileges as other whites while Black people remained second-class citizens in America.

Richard Jenson, a former University of Chicago history professor, wrote an essay about these issues in the Journal of Social History called “‘No Irish Need Apply’: A Myth of Victimization.” He states:​

“We know from the experience of African Americans and Chinese that the most powerful form of job discrimination came from workers who vowed to boycott or shut down any employer who hired the excluded class. Employers who were personally willing to hire Chinese or Blacks were forced to submit to the threats. There were no reports of mobs attacking Irish employment. On the other hand, the Irish repeatedly attacked employers who hired African Americans or Chinese.”

Advantages Used to Get Ahead

White Americans often express incredulity that their ancestors managed to succeed in the United States while people of color continue to struggle. If their penniless, immigrant grandfather could make it in the U.S. why can’t Black Americans, Latinos, or Native Americans? Examining the experiences of European immigrants in the U.S. reveals that some of the advantages they used to get ahead—white skin and intimidation of minority laborers—were off-limits to people of color.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "How Irish Immigrants Overcame Discrimination in America." ThoughtCo, Mar. 7, 2021, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, March 7). How Irish Immigrants Overcame Discrimination in America. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "How Irish Immigrants Overcame Discrimination in America." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).