Young glass factory workers form a baseball team in Indiana.

The contribution of Irish labor following the Great Famine


Young glass factory workers form a baseball team in Indiana.

Ten thousand Micks
They swung their picks
To build the new canal
But the choleray was stronger
And killed
Ballad, 1800s.

Irish labor became an invaluable resource for the development of America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Midwest and Far West, the Great Lakes region and upstate New York, farming and ranching were common trades for Irish immigrants. In the East, labor contractors hired men to work in “labor gangs” that built railroads, canals, roads, sewers and other construction projects. Their work provided a significant portion of the labor that built infrastructure in expanding cities. Over 3,000 Irish helped to build New York’s Erie Canal, which had to be dug with shovels and horsepower, and thousands more worked on railroads, farms and in mines. In mill towns in New England, Irish provided low-cost labor at textile mills. Some, including children, worked long and dangerous hours at factories. Within view of the Western New York Irish Famine Memorial are the Erie Canal and the grain and steel mills where the Irish helped to build American industry and solidify their place in the country.

Many men who had in Ireland been unemployed or worked as basic laborers and farmers found work in mines. The work was dangerous and caused many health problems, and only low wages for long days were offered as reward. Miners lived in “mine patch” communities, overcrowded and crudely built towns in which the housing, the community stores, and the land were all owned by the mining companies, characterized by mine bosses whose practices included intimidation and oppression to avoid worker unrest or complaint. Miners’ children worked in “breaker rooms,” where they picked off slate from coal and broke coal lumps.

In the Southern United States, slave owners considered the Irish less valuable than slaves, as they were not property, and therefore a better population to execute cheap and highly dangerous labor. They were usually employed for construction projects, in the course of which hundreds and thousands of Irish would die, often paid only a dollar a day for their trouble.

In New Orleans, the Irish played a major role in the building of the New Basin Canal. An outbreak of yellow fever meant that workers were dying in large numbers, and as slaves were judged to be too expensive to lose, Irish immigrants who were desperate enough to take on the dangerous and difficult work for $1 a day became the preferred labor. As boatloads of Irish continually arrived, the New Orleans Canal and Banking Company had no trouble replacing the Irish that died by the thousands. By the time the canal opened in 1838, 8,000 Irish laborers had succumbed to cholera and yellow fever. Over the following decade, the canal was enlarged and shell roads were built alongside it. While there are no official records of immigrant deaths, somewhere between 8,000 and 30,000 are believed to have perished in the building of the New Basin Canal, many of whom are buried in unmarked graves in the levee and roadway fill beside the canal.

Mills also began to hire more Irish during the influx of Famine immigration. “No Irish Need Apply” signs were prevalent through the 1830s, and some Irish women were segregated when first hired in mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, where Yankee Prostestants called “Lowell Girls” had previously held the majority of the jobs. However, by the 1850s mills were hiring the Irish regularly because they would work for less money and did not make the same demands for reasonable working conditions that Yankee mill girls were beginning to stand for in their historically famous strikes. Between 1828 and 1850, Lowell’s population grew from 3,500 to 35,000. In 1860, approximately 62 percent of Lowell’s textile workers were immigrants, half of whom were Irish.

The Connecticut River Valley saw a large number of Irish immigrants in the wake of the Great Famine, and many settled in Hadley Falls, Massachusetts, the upcoming industrial center upriver from Springfield which was renamed Holyoke in 1850 to fight negative attitudes towards “the Irish Parish.” Some 5,000 Irish settled there by 1855 and built a dam and a series of canals that would provide water power to mills and factories, primarily for textiles and paper. Local Catholic churches played a vital role in forming a sense of community and pride to the Irish in Holyoke, a legacy that continues to this day in the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Some Irish immigrants went west towards California, especially San Francisco, to seek their fortune in the Gold Rush of 1848-1855. San Francisco’s Irish population grew to 4,200 by 1852 and 30,000 by 1880, and the Irish were the largest group of foreign-born workers in the city by that year. There was no easy way to travel to California, either by ship or the treacherous 2,200 mile journey by land from trail heads in Missouri or Iowa that could easily take three or four months. Gold mining was difficult and time-consuming work, and one bucket of soil might turn out only ten cents’ worth of gold. One estimate is that one in five miners to arrive in California in 1849 died within six months of disease, hunger, accidents and injury, or violence.