The contribution of Irish labor following the Great Famine


In 1859, two Irishmen named Peter O’Reily and Patrick McLaughlin found silver in what is now Virginia City, Nevada, in the famous Comstock Lode of silver ore. Their discovery brought thousands of Irish to Nevada, and Virginia City was one-third Irish by the mid-1870s. The “Bonanza Kings” or “Irish Four,” John Mackay, James Flood, James Fair and William O’Brien, made their fortunes organizing the Consolidated Virginia Silver Mine near Virginia City, Nevada.

The earliest gold discovered in Montana was in 1858 in Gold Creek. More discoveries followed in Bannack in 1863 and then Virginia City. Ultimately Montana would become known for its rich deposits of copper, and an Irish man, Marcus Daly, who was born in County Cavan in 1841 and immigrated to New York at the age of 15, became known as The Copper King for the fortune he made from the Anaconda Copper Mine in Butte.

The Civil War and war with Mexico provided situations for many Irish men to serve. Men were enlisted to fight in the Civil War as they arrived in the U.S. at Governor’s Island in New York. A full 150,000 Irish-born Americans fought with the Union army, about one-third of whom came from New York, and while statistics for the Confederacy are less solid, the Irish were certainly among their ranks as well. Thomas Francis Meagher and Michael Corcoran led the Irish Brigade and the Corcoran Legion to fight for the honor of their home country and the salvation of their adopted one on the Union side. With the exception of the 116th Pennsylvania, which carried the state flag, the regiments in the Irish Brigade and Corcoran Legion carried the Irish green flag with gold harp, and a Gaelic battle cry was often added for effect. During the Civil War, the Medal of Honor was created and has since been awarded to 3,401 men. Ireland is the birthplace of the largest number of medal recipients, with 258 Medals of Honor. Five of the 19 men who won a second Medal of Honor were also born in Ireland. In fact, the recipient of the Medal of Honor for the first action in which one was awarded, Bernard J. Irwin, was born in Ireland in 1830.

By 1860 some 4,000 miles of canals were spread out across America, mostly dug by Irish immigrant labor.

Many of those same immigrants and newer immigrants moved on to work upon the railroads. There was an expression heard among railway men: “an Irishman was buried under every tie.” If a worker was injured, he was fired. If he was killed, his widow and family went without. Many new immigrants, women in particular, found employment as factory workers, or as domestics, cooks and maids, in affluent homes such as those on Boston’s Beacon Hill and along New York’s Fifth Avenue. Studies have shown that women emigrated as often as men from Ireland, and at equally young ages. Some sociologists give the role of female Irish domestic workers credit for neutralizing American attitudes in regards to Irish immigrants, as they experienced personal interaction in the intimacy of family lives and the private American home. Irish women, known familiarly as “Bridgets” or “Biddys,” were often hired as servants at hiring fairs, and were usually taken on for a six-month or other given time period, largely as indentured servants or paid only a small compensation aside from room and board. However, these domestic jobs were luxurious compared to the tragedy unfolding in Ireland or the cramped spaces of “Shanty Towns” where Irish immigrants were crammed in urban areas. “Bridgets” sent significant portions of what money they did earn home to Ireland, an estimated total of $260 million between 1850 and 1900.

Whether running American households, building American infrastructure, fighting American wars, manufacturing consumer goods or seeking their fortune out West, Irish immigrants sacrificed their lives in great numbers in the name of the country on whose shores they had arrived, in huddled masses, tired and poor but not necessarily welcomed by the nativists that met them there. The labor that the new Irish Americans contributed cemented their role in the development of the country they now called their own.