Skip to content

Irish Emigration to America

It is estimated that over 6 million Irish people have emigrated to the US since 1820.

Of all the emigrants to the US between 1851 and 1860, it is estimated that 81 per cent (990,000) were Irish. Today one sixth of US citizens (43 million) identify their national background as Irish

The peak of Irish emigration resulted from the Great Famine of 1845-1852. It has been estimated that nearly two million people - about a quarter of the population - emigrated to the United States in a ten year period at that time. In Mayo the population declined from 388,887 to 274, 830, between 1841 and 1851.

19th Century Irish Population Growth

The relative prosperity that resulted from Napoleonic wars from 1790 to 1815 was followed with a doubling population of Ireland in the first half of 19th century. By 1800 the population of Ireland was 4,500,000. This rose to 8,200,000 by 1841.

Factors encouraging this 19th century growth included marriage at young ages and increased numbers of births as well as the practice of subdividing land for the next generation. The same land was supporting a greater number of people. In tandem with this population growth was a growing dependence on a single crop - the potato. The ‘spud’ could be grown on relatively infertile soil and in sufficient quantities to nutritionally feed the doubling population.

Irish Famine and Emigration

A peak in Emigration occurred as a result of the Great Famine of 1845-1852. The failure of the potato crop, due to blight, and insufficient provision of alternative food supplies resulted in destitution, death and emigration on a cataclysmic scale. It was not until 1855 that the total harvest reached half of what it had been in 1844. Mass evictions, the near-famines of 1861-1864 and 1879-82, and the hardships of subsistence farming meant emigration to North America continued to be seen as an opportunity to support and improve life. Migration to the US declined during World War 1 when shipping was severely disrupted, but reached a peak from 1921 to 1923 followed by a decline due to international depression and introduction of US restrictions on immigrant numbers.

Gender – Irish female Immigrants

A distinguishing feature of Irish emigration was the large number of females, often young single women, who emigrated to America. Between 1856 and 1921 half of all Irish emigrants were young women. Between 1876 and 1885 the female /male emigration ratio was 120:100 from County Mayo to the USA via Irish ports. In the years 1886 to 1905 it reached a peak of 175:100.

Source; Fitzpatrick, David, “The Modernization of the Irish Female”, in P O’ Flanagan, P Ferguson and K. Whelan (eds.) Rural Ireland 1600-1900: modernisation and change, (Cork, Cork University Press, 1987)

Sign up to our newsletter

Keep up to date

Receive updates on the latest exhibitions