Irish Immigrants Impact on Education in the United States – Jeanie Cullip

Irish immigrants arrived in the United States for reasons of war displacement,
religious persecution, and famine from the 17th to mid-19th centuries. A majority of them
were stricken with poverty, had little to no skills, and poorly educated; while others were
skilled tradesmen seeking adventure and opportunity. No matter the cause for their journey, once in America, most migrants settled near the ports of their arrival due to lack of resources and to create Irish communities for support and protection in their new land1.
As more and more Irish immigrants came to the United States, Americans began to
discriminate them, calling them stupid and lazy for their lack of knowledge and ability to
complete skills in the workplace. The bias did not end there, it was evident in the public
school system too. Students bullied the Irish children on the playground and the textbooks
portrayed them poorly in the classroom.

Bishop John Hughes of the Catholic faith was a tenacious opponent of the Protestant-centered public school system and advocated the rights of Irish students in New York. Battling social injustices was an inherent characteristic of Bishop Hughes, who was born on June 24, 1797, in County Tyrone, Ireland; he dreamed of “a country in which no stigma of inferiority would be impressed on my brow, simply because I professed one creed or another.” Being an immigrant himself, in June 1840 the Bishop alongside the Irish community protested against The Public School Society. For two years they campaigned and in April 1842 the state legislature made changes to assist them in their situation.

Legislation dissolved the Public School Society, a state-funded private organization which ran the New York Public School System. This allowed a school board to work with their local communities to improve student achievement in their local public schools and receive their power and authority from the state rather than private organizations with varying
agendas. In addition, legislation prohibited the ability to teach religion in public schools. This was not the exact result Bishop Hughes was looking for, so he devised a plan to implement Catholic schools in order to protect their religion, educate the Irish in America, and enhance their culture.

By the 1850s, there were 100 Catholic elementary/middle schools and the bishop
founded Fordham University. According to the Catholic Heritage Curricula, “in 1858, he
blessed the cornerstone for the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral; a sign to show the city and the nation that the Irish were a people whose time had come.” By the 1890s, the Irish alongside other cultures developed the Catholic parochial school system, “an extensive network of parishes and parish schools across the urban Northeast and Midwest”.
Through evangelization and education, Bishop Hughes and the Irish Catholic
communities achieved enormous success toward the assistance of improving social conditions and strengthening the personal lives of the students and their families. By the early 1900s, a complete transformation for the Irish people took place in New York. They went from humiliated and ridiculed immigrants toward becoming successful leaders within their community. They held positions such as teachers, doctors, judges, lawyers, and elected politicians. Andrew Costly reports, “In 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the great-grandson of a famine immigrant, was elected president of the United States; showing that the Irish Catholics had been assimilated into American culture and [with education] had left the misery behind them.”

-Jeanie Cullip


Ann, Elizabeth, Sr. ” Dagger John .” Catholic Heritage Curricula. Accessed November 24,
“Archbishop John Hughes: Founder of Fordham.” Fordham University. August 18, 2014.
Accessed December 01, 2018.
Costly, Andrew. ” The Potato Famine and Irish Immigration to America .” Constitutional
Rights Foundation. Accessed December 01, 2018.
Forrest, J. B. “The Most Revd. John Hughes–Archbishop of New York.” Digital image.
Picryl. Accessed December 3, 2018.
Gutowski, James A., ” Politics and Parochial Schools in Archbishop John Purcell’s Ohio ”
(2009). ETD Archive. Paper 117. Accessed December 2, 2018.
Hennesey, James. American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the
United States (1983).
Stern, William. ” How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish ,” Urbanites 7, no. 2 (Spring