Irish Environments in New York – Heather Thompson

The Irish were forced out of Ireland following the Great Potato Famine in order to survive. They searched for a more stable environment, in which they could rebuild their lives. Their migration spread throughout countries in Europe and North America. One place where the Irish settled heavily was New York, where they began new lives in a completely foreign environment, and mixed in with an already crowded community. There are two points of view to focus on when looking at the migration of the Irish people to New York, the view of those who migrated and the view from those who’s environments changed with the ever changing makeup of their community. Both contribute to the understanding of the ways in which Irish migration had an affect on the world as a whole. In many ways, the life the Irish came to in America was different from where they had been forced to leave, but there were some similarities. The city life was different than the more rural one that many had been used to in Ireland, and with an influx of nearly one million Irishmen in New York at this time, it is seen how it would have been an overwhelming process. Due to a lack of much income, they were forced to live in places that were cramped. In Ireland, many had resorted to living in mud huts and tight spaces as a survival method, therefore they were more prepared when they came into New York as the lowest members of society, often living in tiny apartments where entire families were housed in. Even with this, the lives that they were beginning in New York was better than what they had left behind with the Famine and disease of Ireland in the nineteenth century onward.

A map showing the spread of Irish immigration throughout the United States, but particularly in the East Coast port cities. They were most dense in these cities due to lack of funds to venture out further, as well diseases that held them to the place that they departed from the ships.

Through the addition of so many immigrants to New York, in particular New York City, aspects of the city and everyday life had to be reconfigured. The way in which the Irish were received upon getting to New York City became an important sort of barrier. Ellis Island, unattached to the city itself, opened in 1892 and created a specific place where the immigrants were evaluated before being able to continue on into the city itself. If people had contracted something on the boats, or elsewhere, Americans could then quarantine them, holding the power over where they were able to go. With the influx of people living in the already bustling city, there was less open space available, and diseases ran rampant. Many wanted to blame the arrival of diseases on the immigrants, saying that they had been brought with them across the ocean. In reality, these diseases, cholera, tuberculosis, and typhus to name a few, were due to the poor living conditions that many of these Irishmen lived in due to destitution. They lived in apartments without proper circulation, sewage or even running water. This created an environment in which cleanliness was nearly impossible to achieve, which therefore accounts for the diseases that went throughout the immigrants at this time. There was a need for more places in which they could escape this cramped lifestyle and enjoy fresh air. The government and residents alike agreed that a change was needed, and therefore more parks were implemented into society. These parks, such as Central Park, were created after the waves of immigrants as a way to provide an open space for all to enjoy, including the Irish immigrants. On the other hand, it was also viewed as a place where the immigrants could be further controlled, even policed, as a way to make the elites who came to the parks feel comfortable and protected. It was seen as an escape, whether immigrant or elite, and even a way to keep in connection with their old homeland through the environment around them.

An example of the tenements in which the Irish immigrants lived within New York City. Very close quarters and many people, sometimes several families living within one small confined space.

It became obvious that many American people were uninterested in helping out these impoverished people and instead turned their backs on them, refusing them basic rights that they would have had as members of society. Around the 19th and into the 20th century, there were help wanted signs hanging up in many businesses, but a caveat was added, “No Irish Need Apply.” This attitude towards the Irish immigrants resulted in a negative environment, especially within the working community. The Irish were often illiterate and unskilled and there were some could not speak English very well. Therefore they worked the manual labor jobs, working long and hard hours and getting paid next to nothing for not a whole lot more than the food they needed to survive on.

-Heather Thompson



“Adaptation and Assimilation.” Library of Congress. Accessed November 30, 2018.      ntations/immigration/alt/irish3.html.

“Irish Immigration.”

“Irish immigration to America 1846 to the early 20th century.” Irish Genealogy.

Misra, Tanvi. “How 19th Century Immigration Made New York City Rethink its Parks.”   CityLab. July 7, 2016.  century-immigration-made-new-york-city-rethink-its-parks/490106/.

“The Potato Famine and Irish Immigration to America.” Constitutional Rights       Foundation.          famine-and-irish-immigration-to-america.html.