Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Green with Envy: How the Irish Succeeded In America

Faced with bouts of extreme poverty and famine over centuries, the Irish people were one of the first to see America as a new land of opportunity. Today, Irish-Americans have higher rates of home ownership and lower rates of poverty than most other Americans.  Lehigh’s Vincent Munley explains how some little-known factors helped the Irish move out of America’s first ghettos into the middle class and, eventually, the White House.

Vincent Munley, professor of economics and deputy provost for faculty affairs:

It is important to note, first and foremost, that immigrant populations in general tend to be great contributors to any country’s economic engine. Immigrants are by nature ambitious individuals, often risk takers with an entrepreneurial spirit. Most are willing to depart the security of known circumstances in search of a better life.  There is certainly nothing uniquely ‘Irish’ in this regard.

Still, it is surprising to see Irish success if all one recalls from history textbooks are the waves of immigration that followed the potato famines of the mid- to late- 19th century. But in fact there was an earlier wave, historically significant though not as large in numbers, mostly in the 18th and very early part of the 19th centuries.

The First Wave
This earlier wave was comprised largely of Scotch-Irish, Protestants who immigrated to the northern (Ulster) region of Ireland as part of socially engineered ‘plantations’ by the government of England. At the time they immigrated to America, they had often lived in Ireland for decades—or even centuries—and considered themselves Irish, as did everyone else.  This earliest wave was often well resourced by their families for their departure and establishment in the new world.  (A large segment of this immigrant population migrated through the Cumberland Gap and then down the Appalachians, which accounts for the strong ties that have always existed between Traditional Irish music and Bluegrass music.)

Those who didn’t’ follow this early migration path settled in east coast cities and were educated, becoming professionals and merchants. They started climbing America’s economic ladder long before the poor and destitute of the famine.  No doubt part of the reason for their early, continued – and in some instances, spectacular – economic success is the well-recognized, perhaps legendary, work ethic of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians.  Only the most astute observers would be inclined to parse the distinction in family names as ‘Scotch-Irish’ versus ‘Irish’, especially after having for generations become ‘Irish-Americans’.

The Second Wave
As for the second, more familiar wave of migration that took place in the mid-to-late 19th century, there are some not widely recognized historical factors that may provide insights into why they also met with success, if not immediately upon arrival then at least after a couple of generations.

During the 2nd half of the 19th century, the Land League Movement began in Ireland, led in part by Charles Stuart Parnell and Michael Davitt.  A result of this movement, accomplished through British legislation that provided for very low interest loans over very long payback periods, was the return of large tracts of land that had been confiscated by the English over the past few centuries to the descendants of native Irish who had largely become a class of tenant farmers for absent landlords.  The pent- up appetite for land ownership that manifested itself in this aggregate transaction is still apparent. To this day, Ireland has a larger percentage of home-owners than most of Europe.  It seems plausible that the many Irish who immigrated to America during this period shared this pent –up appetite for land, and it now manifests itself in a high rate of home ownership by their U.S. descendants.

The History of broad-based education. The U.S. and Ireland experienced surprisingly similar populist movements toward universal education.   In America the story begins in the early 19th century with education reformer Horace Mann and the spread of publically provided elementary and then secondary education in all states.  In Ireland the story begins (perhaps just a bit later) with education reformer Catholic Cardinal Paul Cullen.  The primary providers of education in Ireland were religious groups rather than local governmental units, and complete access to full second level education came to fruition later in Ireland, but the movements had similarities.  An important result was that Irish immigrants to the U.S. in the late 19th century were not as uneducated as popular perception often seems to infer.  And, because of the populist ‘universal’ dimension of both populations’ educational levels – low, no doubt, by today’s standard but the norm at the time – there likely existed a better ‘educational fit’ between Irish Immigrants and the existing U.S. workforce than may have been the case for immigrants from other countries which had less egalitarian educational systems at the time.

The second wave of Irish Immigrants had another distinct advantage that is not always recognized.  They were no doubt in many ways mistreated upon their arrival.  But so were subsequent groups of immigrants.  When the waves of southern, central, and eastern European ethnic groups arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many immigrants from other parts of the world later, the Irish were already assimilated because they were here earlier.  Having a bit of a lead in climbing the ladder to economics success is always an advantage, sometimes a very significant one.

Arguably, the Irish as an ethnic group adapted better than many others, at least initially, to the U.S. political system as well.  After all, they shared a British colonial legacy.  Certain administrative and political institutions, as well as judicial systems, had common features.  Any group that can be effective in the political arena is likely to derive economic benefits.

The Third Wave
A third wave of immigration that is typically overlooked probably also deserves some mention.  There is general perception that, up until very recently, Irish immigrants found it easier than many other ethnic groups to enter the U.S. and obtain VISAs legally.  Popular wisdom was known to suggest: ‘The U.S. Congress showered Green Cards upon the Irish’.  In the mid-to-late 20th century, during many periods when the Irish were emigrating due to a poorly performing domestic economy, these emigrants were often very well educated.  Emigrants in the modern world economy can often be a country’s best and brightest.  While the largest portion of Irish emigration during the 20th century was to England, there was always a steady stream to the U.S.  Thus, the U.S. workforce was frequently a beneficiary of Ireland’s lack of prosperity.

During the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period from roughly 1995 – 2005, Ireland’s domestic economy boomed.  The result, in a reversal to historical trends, was a wave of net immigration to Ireland, mostly from eastern Europe.  This period also witnessed, though, a significant degree of re-immigration of ex-patriot Irish and their descendants.  It was impossible not to notice how these returning Irish brought with them skill sets acquired by having lived, been educated, and worked elsewhere that afforded incredible potential for Ireland’s own economic engine.  Ireland suffered, by most accounts disproportionately, in the global financial crisis derived in large part by a bursting property value bubble in 2007-08.  The Irish government chose to nationalize the toxic debt of its banking system, and the result has be austere domestic public finances and the resumption of large scale emigration among highly educated young adults.  But a most interesting phenomenon appears to be taking place in Ireland through this.  The government has remained committed to investing in its program to support a ‘knowledge economy’.  And though many of the beneficiaries of this investment are emigrating to find jobs elsewhere, there appears a genuinely enlightened perspective among the Irish People that things will get better and when this happens many of these individuals will likely re-immigrate home and bring with them an enhanced skill set acquired by their experience abroad.

The history of Irish immigration is a long and complex one, but it seems to have resulted in an understanding – and appreciation – among the Irish People of the holistic dimensions of labor migration in the modern economic world.  And this indeed comprises a lesson well learned.

Story by Jordan Reese

Posted on Thursday, March 14, 2013

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