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These Irish American History Books Explore Rich History and Culture

With Irish emigrants arriving in North America as early as the 1500s, it's no surprise their history is a vital part of America's tale.

irish american history

It's often said the United States is built upon the backs of its immigrants, and it's true. The American melting pot would not be what it is without our ancestors. Without the Irish immigrants of the past, much of the country's institutions and culture would be sorely lacking today.

Overseas immigrants flooding into major ports and cities made for a predicament. Many came from a rural existence and had to adapt to city life. Impoverished travelers to these hubs of industrialization were forced to arrange living accommodations where they could. This often meant homes were taken up among subdivided houses, small rented spaces, and even in open alleyways.

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Similar to many modern immigrants, faith was a crucial dimension of life for those coming to the New World from their native land. Much of the Irish milieu existed within a culture of Catholicism. The biases of anti-Catholicism and anti-immigration made for rough times for the Irish, especially during the 1800s

Without the Irish, the Chicago River wouldn't turn green each year on March 17, nor is it likely that you would be drinking the verdant-tinged beer at the bar either. (Irish-Americans were celebrating St. Patrick's Day in the states as early as the 18th century.) The sphere of politics shall forever bear the footprints left by leaders of Irish descent found throughout its history.

From homemade cuisine to public festivities that have become a mainstay of society, the Irish have contributed in countless ways to the face of the nation. Here are a few books that take us back through the years, showing the development of Irish-American identity, their struggles and their prosperity.

Real Lace

Real Lace

By Stephen Birmingham

Real Lace traces the story of many notable American family lineages back to Ireland's potato famine, also known as the “Great Hunger,” which spanned about half a decade. The incident led to declining health, resulting in over a million deaths in Ireland. The failed crop prompted numerous families to emigrate from the Emerald Isle in search of greener pastures. Stephen Birmingham, the late historian and bestselling author, follows a few of these Irish-Catholic clans, focusing on their subsequent development in the United States. From their descendants rose prominent figures such as the Silver Kings and President John F. Kennedy.

Born Fighting

Born Fighting

By Jim Webb

While Born Fighting isn't perhaps Jim Webb's most renowned book, he nevertheless fleshes it out with the same detail found in any of his other writing. A Marine veteran who has since gotten involved in politics and journalism, Webb examines the line of Scotch Irish (or Scots Irish) heritage and its influence on American military and polity. It isn't a passion project simply because it explores interests related to Webb's professional career, but also because it explores his roots.

Irish-American Autobiography

Irish-American Autobiography

By James Silas Rogers

What does it mean to be Irish? And what does it mean to be American? The two cultures make for an eclectic and engaging blend, but that doesn't mean it was easy from the get-go. As already noted, these immigrants frequently confronted discrimination and struggled to assimilate to the pre-existing American society. James Silas Rogers—a poet, editor, and scholar familiar with Irish studies—examines how the Irish-American identity developed over time, taking into account factors such as employment, recreation, and faith. Irish-American Autobiography is built up by snippets of memoirs from real individuals. Collectively, they make for a raw and personal history of the Irish American.

The Sons of Molly Maguire

The Sons of Molly Maguire

By Mark Bulik

The Sons of Molly Maguire takes a look at some deep and somewhat dark Irish roots and the origins of the group that came to be known as the “Molly Maguires.” The historical Molly Maguire was a widow dwelling in Ireland in the 19th century. She opposed the position many English landlords held over her countrymen… so, she spearheaded a group that strived to steal lands away from the landlords. Apparently, they were fond of the fighting mantra: “Take that from a son of Molly Maguire!” In the following decades, the “Molly Maguires” began to appear in the US. It has been suggested that the discrimination and economic hardship discovered by immigrants in the states led to drastic measures similar to those witnessed earlier in Ireland. Mark Bulik's book introduces the reader to the engrossing world of the “Mollies”, their influence amid wartime, and how their efforts shaped successive methods of labor activism.

Related: Discover Labor Day's History and Origins from its Industrial Revolution Roots to Today

irish american history

Irish Immigrants in New York City, 1945-1995

By Linda Dowling Almeida

New York City and Boston, Massachusetts became big urban centers of immigrant activity in the 19th and 20th century, especially with regards to the incoming Irish. One can easily imagine weary immigrants gazing up at the face of Lady Liberty upon their arrival in New York. Even today, New York City supports a strong Irish element, comprising what is believed to be more than 10% of the city's population. Linda Dowling Almeida's Irish Immigrants in New York City delves into the changing tides contrasting the Irish immigrants of the 1950s with the “New Irish” of the 1980s. It's an important exploration into the evolution of the Irish-American demographic during the 20th century. Almeida, an adjunct professor of history at New York University, has spent much of her studies focusing on Irish-Americans' past.

irish american history

The Irish in the American Civil War

By Damian Shiels

Damien Shiels, a historian specializing in military and conflict, combines two major aspects of 19th-century American history: the Civil War and the understanding of social belonging. During the U.S. Civil War and its aftermath, people had to deal with division stemming from racism, economic structures, and different ideas of allegiance. For many, there was a line drawn between North and South, between one state and another. National identity was slowly being realized and nurtured. Amid this change, Shiels documents several specific accounts of the Irish who got caught up in the Civil War. Figures such as the disguised female soldier Jennie Hodgers and the “Irish Rifles” member and US marshal James O'Beirne make for just a few of the engrossing stories captured in The Irish in the American Civil War.

irish american history

The Mob

If the American dream doesn't come to fruition, some resort to violence. Such is the case of the Irish mob, a network of crime that sprung up in urban society. A historian and Irish-born writer himself, James Durney attempts to capture some of the most desolate and destructive moments in Irish-American heritage in his book The Mob. From well-known incidents such as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre to less familiar events like the “Irish War” in Boston, Durney strives for a drama in realism.

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irish american history

Ulster to America

By Warren R. Hofstra (editor)

The roots of the Scotch-Irish family tree go back to the Ulster plantation in Northern Ireland that was established in the 1600s under England's colonization. At Ulster, many of the newly arrived settlers were Scottish. Some years down the road, the Ulster Scotch-Irish found themselves under pressure from both the native Catholics and the Anglicans. Hence, a migration from Ulster to the states took place, its beginnings predating the mass exodus witnessed during Ireland's potato famine. Like so many early American settlers, the Scots-Irish hoped for religious liberty and a little breathing room. Ulster to America, a detailed volume compiled and edited by Warren Hofstra, hosts groundbreaking contributions from a number of scholars.

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