How are the Irish seen in America


Bad or oppressive laws, heavy taxation, an unattractive climate, uncongenial social surroundings, and even compulsion ... have produced and are still producing currents of migrations, but none of these currents can compare in volume with that which arises from the desires inherent in most men to "better" themselves in material respects.1

At the end of the 19th century, Ernst Georg Ravenstein (1834–1913) formulated a fundamental law of migration that can be applied to a large part of transatlantic emigration from Europe between 1800 and 1950. But most researchers have essentially focused their attention on the emigration experience of a single country and, as a result, overlooked significant similarities and contradictions between different European countries. Comparing a number of case studies allows historians to identify common patterns, but also to highlight discrepancies between examples. This article examines three European countries, Ireland, Italy and Sweden, which have many similarities (such as their peripheral location in Europe and a long history of emigration) as well as differences (e.g. the official attitude towards emigration or the gender of the emigrants). In the following, an attempt is made here to formulate some general remarks on transatlantic emigration, but at the same time to work out some special features for each of the countries examined. Repressive landowners and authorities, poor farmland and external constraints (such as the famine that drove many Irish out in the mid-19th century) increased emigration movements in the period under review. But the most important factor that moved so many (mostly) young, uneducated and unmarried Irish, Italians and Swedes to leave their homeland was their desire to improve their own fortunes.

This article shows similarities and differences in transatlantic emigration from Europe by examining the following points: 1) How many people emigrated? 2) Why did they leave their homeland? 3) Where did the emigrants go and where did they come from? 4) What was the age and gender structure of the migrants? 5) How were the migrants received in the host countries? 6) What was the attitude of the countries of origin towards emigration? 7) Did emigrants sometimes return to their homeland? 8) What are the effects of emigration in the countries of origin and receiving countries in the present?

Migration history


Irish emigration across the Atlantic began long before 1800. In the 17th century, some 25,000 Irish Catholics left the country - some under duress, some voluntarily - for the Caribbean or Virginia, and Irish Quakers and Protestant ranks since the 1680s Dissenter on his way to the New World.2 Significant numbers of Presbyterians left the Northern Irish province of Ulster from the second decade of the 18th century, along with fewer Anglican Protestants and Catholics from Ulster and the southern province of Munster.3 This pattern continued until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814. Ireland had initially benefited significantly from the price rises during the war on the European continent, but suffered losses when export prices fell again after the Battle of Waterloo. Between 1815 and the start of the Great Famine (1846–1852), between 800,000 and a million Irish sailed to North America, where they settled in roughly equal shares in Canada and the United States.4 No other European country contributed so much to the settlement of the New World in relation to its population as Ireland did during this period.5 By the beginning of the 1830s, the number of Protestants among the emigrants exceeded the number of Catholics.6 After that, the number of Catholics was much higher than that of Protestants. The decline of home spinning in the first half of the century - especially after 1830 - led to a widespread displacement of workers. However, the establishment of a linen industry in east Ulster, which managed to compete with the factories in Lancashire, ensured that migration in Ulster consisted mainly of rural exodus to Belfast. In the southern Irish towns and cities, however, there was no such industrialization, so most job seekers from rural Ireland had to cross either the Atlantic or, to a lesser extent, the Irish Sea to find employment.7

Most of the approximately 1.8 million Irish who arrived in the United States between 1845 and 1855 - that is, shortly before, during and immediately after the Great Famine - came from a much poorer background than the Irish emigrants before them; thus about a third of the newcomers during this period came from the poorer, Gaelic-speaking regions of Ireland.8 Understandably, the extreme circumstances during the famine were a major drive for many Irish to leave their country.9 However, emigration continued after the famine and lasted through the second half of the 19th centurydue to the decline of the home industry, the transition from arable farming to pasture farming and the tendency to apply the inheritance law, according to which farms were inherited undivided to the eldest son and no longer divided between all sons.10 More than 4.5 million Irish people left their homeland between 1850 and 1913.11

The high mortality rate during the famine, as well as the persistently high emigration that was triggered by the famine, led to a dramatic population decline on the island: the high of almost 8.5 million reached in the mid-1840s fell to 6.5 million a year 1851 and 4.4 million in 1911.12 After the famine, there were a variety of reasons for emigration, including a decline in agricultural labor needs, wage levels in Ireland lagging behind the United States, a desire to postpone or avoid marriage, and increased contacts between Ireland and the Irish Community in North America.13

Even after the southern part of Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1922, people of all religions continued to emigrate. Catholics were drawn to the promise of greater prosperity elsewhere, while Protestants were drawn to emigration by the prospect of a Catholic Church-dominated Ireland and limited economic opportunities. There was a major shift in the direction of Irish emigration from the mid-1920s when the US imposed immigration quotas and the economic crisis that was felt throughout the 1930s made itself felt. As a result, many Irish decided to move to the UK, which did not impose any entry restrictions on them.


Official statistics for emigration from Italy begin in 1876, not long after the country was unified in 1861. In fact, emigration from Italy began much earlier. Italians of all walks of life, merchants, bank clerks, members of religious orders and the military, students, exiled politicians and activists were during the centuries and decades before Risorgimento emigrated in different numbers to different countries in Europe.14 From the 19th century, this emigration also took place across the Atlantic. Of the estimated 550,000 Italians who left the country between 1789 and 1871, over fifty percent went to the Americas (47 percent to South America and nine percent to North America).15 The recently independent republics of South America wanted to increase their population - preferably by white Europeans - in order to colonize the vast landscapes and to compensate for the looming loss of labor due to the liberation of African slaves in the second half of the nineteenth century.16 In 1864 an Italian politician named Argentina the "Italian Australia", which, with its huge land area and small population, attracted numerous Italians, much like Australia did to the British.17 The growing Italian community of the United States (which rose from about 10,000 in 1860 to nearly 45,000 in 1880) included at times revolutionaries such as Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882) as well as thousands of other migrants in search of better economic living conditions.18

Industrialization began in northern Italy towards the end of the 19th century - long after neighboring countries entered the process. It took much longer for industrialization to reach southern Italy. As a result, Italy had a surplus of people working in rural communities in agriculture. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Italy's population grew by more than seven and a half million people.19 Demand exceeded supply, which led to increasing impoverishment. With opportunities for income limited in Italy but increasingly plentiful elsewhere, large-scale emigration began at the end of the 19th century.20 More than five million Italians left their homeland between 1876 and 1900, and the annual numbers rose steadily until the end of the century. France, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Switzerland needed cheap unskilled labor, as did the United States. Since industrialization created numerous job opportunities in neighboring countries, which were relatively easy to reach, northern Italians in particular emigrated mainly to European countries; they made up three fifths of the emigrants between 1876 and 1900. Southern Italians, on the other hand, were more inclined to travel across the Atlantic.21 The countries of America promised a much more exotic and enriching experience than neighboring Europe. Reports of the vast expanses of Brazil and Argentina with rich, barely populated agricultural areas attracted many Italians, especially those who were farmers themselves. Compared to the difficult political, economic and agricultural conditions in Italy, the prospect of escaping domestic poverty attracted hundreds of thousands of Italians to South America - which at the end of the 19th century caught up with Europe as the most popular emigration destination for Italians. At the beginning of the 20th century, migration from southern Italy to North America increased, so that the United States soon overtook South America and caught up with the popularity of Europe.

The expectation of higher wages led to large numbers of people setting off for North America at the beginning of the 20th century, while Italy went through the most important phase of emigration in its recent history; nearly nine million Italians left the country between 1900 and the First World War. During this period, many of them went to the United States, Argentina, and Brazil.22 After 1918, emigration across the Atlantic was resumed, but never reached the pre-war level. The "booming of the guns of August 1914 brought to a sudden close the era during which foreigners were relatively free to traverse borders" and rigorous passport controls were introduced.23 The US immigration laws of 1921 and 1924 limited immigration and introduced country quotas. The ethnic makeup of the population now became an issue; the US preferred northern Europeans over eastern and southern Europeans.24 Brazil and Argentina continued to accept Italian immigrants until the start of the Great Depression after the stock market crash of 1929.

After the fall of fascism and the end of World War II, emigration from Italy picked up again at a relatively high rate, but never came close to the level at which it had peaked half a century earlier. The main destination countries were now in Europe, especially France, Switzerland and Belgium; only after that came South America in the immediate post-war years. Emigration to the US continued, but the numbers remained low compared to pre-World War I levels.


The first documented emigration from Sweden to North America occurred in 1638 when a small group of settlers founded the colony "New Sweden" near Delaware. By 1655, however, the Dutch had taken over this colony.25 The next phase of immigration from Sweden to North America began almost 200 years later and was to be one of greater success and duration. Immigrant numbers between the 1840s and 1860s were low but stable, with the Swedish population in the United States reaching 18,000 at the start of the American Civil War.26 From the 1870s - the late 1860s had been marked by bad harvests - Swedes emigrated to North America in increasing numbers. This mass emigration lasted until the First World War.

Most of the early immigrants built farms in the American Midwest. As in the case of all three countries considered in this study, chain migration occurred as relatives and friends followed the first immigrants after hearing of their successes in America from their letters. Harvest failures in Sweden in 1867 and 1869 increased the pressure to emigrate on a rapidly growing population. By the 1870s, 100,000 Swedes had settled in the United States, and by the 1880s another 330,000 arrived.27

In the 1890s, emigration fell sharply because the social and economic problems of the United States increased along with the growing industrialization of Sweden. In the meantime, the American settlement border had reached the Pacific and the Great Plains had largely been developed, so that new immigrants could no longer purchase their own land as cheaply as before. This resulted in an increase in Swedish immigration to Canada (which had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Sweden to settle in the 1870s) because land was more readily available there.28 Immigration to America increased again at the beginning of the 20th century, but with the outbreak of World War I, Swedish immigration to America ceased almost entirely and remained at a low level immediately after the war, given the considerable economic uncertainty in both America and Sweden.29 America's move to introduce immigration quotas in the 1920s resulted in a noticeable decline in numbers. Aside from 1923, when 25,000 people immigrated to forestall the introduction of even stricter immigration regulations, Swedish immigration remained strikingly low in the 1920s and 1930s, with numbers even below the 3,300 annual rate planned for Sweden. In fact, four times as many people returned to Sweden as new immigrants from Sweden came to America in the 1930s.30

Comparison of emigration

Magnitude of emigration

The economists Timothy J. Hatton (* 1949) and Jeffrey G. Williamson (* 1935) describe the period from 1850 to 1914 as Europe's "Age of Mass Migration".31 The social historians Jan (* 1947) and Leo Lucassen (* 1959) recently pointed out that, as the case of Ireland shows, European societies were quite mobile before, even if European migration increased rapidly after 1850.32 Further studies show that this age of mass migration was by no means limited to Europeans; Indians and Chinese, for example, settled all over the world between the middle of the 19th century and the beginning of World War II, on a scale similar to that of the Europeans - an era of remarkable "expansion and integration of the world economy". In addition, not all countries restricted immigration after the First World War.33

What is special about the period between 1850 and 1914, however, in contrast to earlier European migratory movements, is that an extraordinary transatlantic migration took place. In these decades more than 50 million Europeans emigrated to North and South America. Of these, over 15 million came from Ireland, Italy and Sweden, and many more migrants had left these countries, particularly Ireland, before that period. In total, more than 6 million Irish crossed the Atlantic between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the start of the First World War.34 When you consider that the population of Ireland had peaked at around 8.5 million before the Great Famine and had declined to 4.4 million by 1911, then it becomes clear what an enormous proportion of the population of this island was during the period under consideration America set out. The emigration rate in Ireland was more than twice that of any other European country.35 Millions of immigrants from Italy also came to the New World during this period. Between 1880 and 1920, Italians made up the largest group of migrants in America.36 Of the 20 million or so Italians who left their country between 1876 and 1950, about 10 million emigrated to American states (about 5.5 million to North America and 4.5 million to South America).37 Although fewer Italians than Irish emigrated in relation to the population, the former also had an enormous influence on North American culture and - in contrast to the Irish and Swedish migrants - on the culture of South America, especially the Argentine and Brazilian, due to the absolute numbers. The total for Swedes was not that high, but between 1840 and 1930 one in five Swedes emigrated to North America, which added up to 1.2 million people.38

Reasons for emigration

With the exception of the great Irish famine, the reasons for emigration were quite similar in Ireland, Italy and Sweden. Most of the migrants tried to improve their economic position.39 Religious persecution played a minor role in the early days of Swedish emigration, but the number of those who left the country for this reason remained low. Some Irish and Italian migrants left their homes for political reasons, but this type of migration was only a fraction of the total. Most people tried to escape the limited economic opportunities in their home countries and the resulting poverty. The Irish land reforms after the famine meant that usually only one son inherited the family farm, the other brothers became landless workers. This made it increasingly difficult for women in Ireland to marry wealthy men. Given the large Irish families, those affected by these circumstances made up a significant proportion of the country's population. In addition, wages in America were higher compared to Ireland, as if by letters became known by relatives and friends as well as through payments of money from abroad, so that many young Irish felt compelled to leave their home country.

Similar factors drove Italians and Swedes to cross the Atlantic, with a few important differences. Young Italians, for example, often left for a limited time while waiting to inherit property in order to increase their fortunes in the meantime.40 Agricultural underemployment also led many Italians to go abroad for a period of time each year before returning home. Swedish migration to America increased rapidly after the severe crop failures of 1867 and 1869 and the drop in prices in the late 1870s, at a time when the American economy was expanding by leaps and bounds.41 The passage of the Settlement Act of 1862 (Homestead Act) facilitated the acquisition of better farmland in the American Midwest, which could be acquired very cheaply. In addition, the establishment of steam shipping in the 1860s lowered travel costs for emigrants from all three countries considered.

Origin and destination countries

Limited agricultural opportunities were an important factor in emigration from Ireland, Italy and Sweden. Accordingly, most of the migrants came from the agricultural regions of these countries. By the 1830s, most Irish emigrants came from the northern province of Ulster. These predominantly Presbyterian migrants, who in many ways resembled Swedish migrants from rural areas such as Dalsland, Öland, Halland, Värmland and Småland, had lived as farm workers in Ireland and were now setting up their own American farms on the great prairies. During and after the great famine, most of the Irish emigrants came from the predominantly rural and poorer western province of Connaught and the southern province of Munster, rather than from the north or east of the country. The urban centers of Ireland, particularly Dublin and Belfast, contributed little to emigration.42 Unlike their Ulster predecessors, Irish emigrants after the 1830s preferred the cities on the American east coast, especially New York, Boston and Philadelphia, rather than the agricultural areas.

This corresponds to the changes in Swedish emigration at the end of the 19th century. By 1900, most Swedes lived in the urban centers of America and came not only from rural areas but also from cities and towns - a pattern that continued into the first half of the 20th century, with Chicago holding a prominent position. Italians emigrated mainly from rural areas to the cities on the east coast of the USA and to Buenos Aires in Argentina. Agriculture played only a subordinate role in the Italian immigration to the USA, but there were some Italian emigrants who cultivated wine and fruit on the American west coast.