Italian Immigration vs Irish Immigration
This paper will contrast the two dominant populations of immigrants to the United States in the 19th and early 20th century. These two groups of immigrants were from Italy and Ireland. The reasons both of these groups immigrated to the United States are very similar, but their cultures were vastly different, and the marks they left on our society are still felt to this day. At the beginning of the 19th century the dominant industry of Ireland was agriculture. Large areas of the country were under the control of landowners living in England.
Much of this land was rented to small farmers who, because of a lack of capital, farmed with antiquated implements and used outdated methods. The land was unable to sustain the population and many began to look for new lands to live. In 1816 around 6,000 Irish people sailed for America. Within two years this figure had doubled. Early arrivals were recruited to build canals and do other labor intensive jobs. In 1818 over 3,000 Irish laborers were employed building the Erie Canal. By 1826 around 5,000 were working on four separate canal projects.
The peak of Irish immigration occurred in the 1840s, when half of all immigrants to the United States came from Ireland. Ireland had the highest population density in all of Europe during this time period, but the country was unable to sustain its citizens. This resulted in widespread starvation and difficult living conditions, and many Irish immigrants chose to leave their homeland and make their way in America. In 1850 there were 960,000 people in the United States that had emigrated from Ireland. The vast majority lived in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio and New Jersey.
The Irish Immigrant Society tried to persuade immigrants to move to other parts of the United States, but the vast majority were very poor, and had no money for transportation or to buy land. They therefore tended to settle close to their port of entry into the United States. One of the largest factors in the large numbers of Irish Immigrants was a serious disease affecting Irish potatoes, which ruined about 75% of the country’s crop. This was a major disaster because over four million people in Ireland depended on the potato as their main food.
The disease returned in 1846 and over the next year an estimated 350,000 people died of starvation and an outbreak of typhus also decimated the population. Despite good potato crops over the next four years, people continued to die from rampant diseases, and in 1851 the Census Commissioners estimated that nearly a million people had died during the Irish food crisis. The Irish food shortage stimulated a desire to immigrate. By the end of 1854 nearly two million people (about a quarter of the population) had immigrated to the United States. Another major factor for mass immigration was the political situation under British rule.
Many bad political decisions made by the British, affected the quality of life of the Irish citizens and contributed to the massive disease outbreaks and crop failures. The dream of many Irishmen was the chance to own their own land. Freedom and a democratic government that promised a voice in their government also had a romantic appeal to the hordes of Irish Immigrants. Religious freedom was another important factor. Of course it was really tough for new Irish immigrants in the US, but they proved themselves to be a hardy and resilient group of people. Thousands of Irish laborers worked on building the railroads in the United States.
Some were able to save enough money to buy land and establish themselves as farmers along the routes they had helped to develop. This was especially true of Illinois and by 1860 there were 87,000 Irish people living in this state. Other Irish immigrants became coalminers in Pennsylvania. Working conditions in the mines were terrible with no safety requirements, no official inspections and no proper ventilation. When workers were mistreated for trade union activity, they formed a secret society called the Molly Maguires. Named after an anti-landlord organization in Ireland, the group attempted to frighten mine-owners and their supporters.
The group was not broken-up until 1875. The Irish tended to support the Democratic Party rather than the Republican Party. They had little sympathy for slaves as they feared that if they were given their freedom they would move north and threaten the jobs being done by Irish immigrants. However, on the outbreak of the Civil War general an estimated 170,000 men born in Ireland joined the Union Army, whereas only 40,000 were in the Confederate Army. One Irish immigrant, Thomas Meagher, became a highly successful general in the war. Before 1870, there were few Italian immigrants in the United States.
Italy was one of the most populated countries in Europe and many began to consider the possibility of leaving Italy to escape low wages, high taxes and little opportunity to better themselves. Most of these immigrants were uneducated and from rural communities. From 1890 to 1900, around 650,000 Italian immigrants arrived in the United States, of whom two-thirds were men. Most planned to return to Italy once they had built up some savings, but many realized the opportunities that existed in their new country and sent for their families to join them.
The earliest Italian immigrants to the United States were from Northern Italy, who became prominent as fruit merchants in New York and wine growers in California. Later, more and more immigrants came from Southern Italy and the communities and institutions they formed reflected the region’s of Italy they came from. The main push factor for Italians was poor economic opportunities in Italy during this period, particularly in the southern regions, and pull factor of easily obtainable jobs in the United States.
Italians settled in cities and often dominated specific neighborhoods, called “Little Italys”, where they could cooperate with one another and find favorite foods. Most arrived with little cash or education since most had been peasant farmers in Italy. They lacked craft skills, and therefore generally performed manual labor. With a strong interest in food, they became fruit peddlers and gardeners, and opened neighborhood groceries and restaurants that catered to fellow Italians. Most Italians found unskilled work in America’s cities.
There were large colonies in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore and Detroit. From 1900 to 1910 over 2,100,000 arrived. Of these, around 40% eventually returned to Italy. Willing to work long hours on low wages, the Italians now began to rival the Irish for much of the unskilled work available in industrial areas. This sometimes led to hostilities breaking out between the two groups of workers. Italian neighborhoods were typically older areas with overcrowded houses and poor sanitation. Tuberculosis was very common.
Italian immigration peaked from 1900 until 1914. In the American South, Italian immigrants met hostility and violence, sometimes even becoming the victims of violent crimes from other immigrant populations who resented the vast numbers of them invading their communities and taking jobs and resources away. For Italians, like other immigrant groups, politics, entertainment, sports, crime, and especially small business served as ladders for upward mobility. Italian American politicians, however, were hindered by a lack of ethnic organization.
Italian Americans achieved notable success in both classical and popular music. Italian Americans were particularly successful in areas that did not require extensive formal education such as sales and small business ownership. In conclusion, The United States has greatly benefited from the many contributions of both Irish and Italian Immigrants. They have been instrumental in helping to build the infrastructure of the United States during the 19th and 20th century, and both of their cultures have been woven into the basic lifestyles that most of us enjoy today.