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Irish-Catholic Immigration to New Jersey
November 29, 2004
New Jersey History 418-60
Professor S. Bowles
M 4:15 - 6:50 p.m.
Throughout New Jersey's history, immigration has always played an important
role in shaping the state's image and traditions. The Irish-Catholics are just one of the
many groups that have done just that. Faced with great difficulties because of their
religion and ethnicity, these immigrants struggled to find their place in their new home.
And once they found it, they never let go. Whatever the reasons were for immigrants to
leave their homeland, one thing was for certain: America had what they wanted.
The first big wave of immigration to America was in the 1840s. Most of these
people were from Germany and Ireland. There were many reasons why these immigrants
left their homeland to come to the United States. For the Irish, the Potato Famine which
lasted from 1845-1851, was the most common reason for them to leave. "The years of
and immediately after the Great Famine saw hundreds of thousands of Irish come to the
United States, almost 220,000 in 1847 and somewhat over 254,000 in 1851 (the latter
being the peak figure in the entire history of Irish immigration)."1
The Potato Famine was one of the darkest times in Irish history. It cut Ireland's
population nearly in half from eight million to five million in little under a decade.
Nearly 1.5 million perished from hunger and disease, while the other 1.5 million migrated
to America, England, or Canada. This is the only time in Irish immigration history that
they left in order to survive and not by choice. "Emigration, then, was less choice than
necessity in the middle of the nineteenth century."2
During the Famine, some of the relief funds that were sent to help Ireland came
from America. This was not only done out of kindness. Some thought that by helping
1 Akenson, Donald H. The United States and Ireland. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University
Press, 1973: 34-35.
2 Quinn, Dermot. The Irish in New Jersey: Four Centuries of American Life. New Brunswick, New Jersey:
Rutgers University Press, 2004: 75.
Ireland, the Irish would recover and wouldn't have a reason to leave and come to the
United States. "The relief of Ireland meant, in effect, the relief of America, saving the
latter from a tide of indigents washing up on its shore."3 What is quite interesting is that
Americans wanted foreign labor, but not foreign laborers.4 Many people wanted to pay
low wages, but didn't want new cultures or customs that came with the workers. The
Irish were usually poorly paid and rarely had job security. They also had to endure long
periods of unemployment which often forced them to become public wards.5
Had the Potato Famine not occurred, Irish immigration to New Jersey and
America still would have been high. Economic opportunities were nowhere to be found
in Ireland and many people were evicted from their homes. "The economic vitality of the
United States undoubtedly was attractive, and even had there been no Famine and no
depressions in Ireland, there would have been at least a steady stream of migrants from
Ireland just as there was from the more prosperous European countries."6
Of the places to migrate to, the Irish mostly went to America during and directly
preceding the Famine. Besides New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston, many cities in
New Jersey were becoming heavily populated by the Irish. Places such as Paterson,
Jersey City, Newark, and Trenton were nicknamed "little Irelands" due to all the Irish
immigrants living there. Some settled in these cities because relatives or neighbors were
already there. Others did so because there were jobs that needed to be filled. Irish men
found low-paying work as day laborers or jobs on construction gangs.7 Many of the city
3 Ibid., 81.
4 Ibid., 81.
5 Curran, Thomas J. "Assimilation and Nativism," International Migration Digest 3, no. 1 (Spring, 1966):
6 Akenson, The United States and Ireland, 35.
7 Shaw, Douglas V. Immigration and Ethnicity in New Jersey History. Trenton: New Jersey Historical
Commission, Department of State, 1994: 18.
Where did most Irish immigrants settle between 1820 and 1850? The correct answer is cities on the East Coast. Most immigrant Irish settled in the East Coast between 1820 and 1850. In 1845, people from Ireland were suffering hunger due to the “Potatoe Famine” ih that region. They decide to emigrate to America in searching of better living conditions for their families.
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