Tracing Your Irish Roots

Tracing Your Irish Roots – Irish Immigration

Handbook for Irish Research

The last three hundred years has witnessed extensive Irish immigration to all corners of the globe. Close to 80 million people who claim Irish roots or affiliation are connected in a vibrant community of shared cultural identity and heritage. This network of Irish descendants is an important part of Ireland’s ongoing tale. No wonder so many people journey to Ireland to connect to their past and become a part of that country’s story. Searching for your Irish ancestors is fun, exciting, and gratifying. Experiencing your Irish heritage within the context of your ancestors is unmatched. 

This is the first post in a blog series authored by Melanie Nelson, US-based professional genealogist and founder of MelNel Genealogy. Follow her here as she reveals the story of her Irish ancestors and provides helpful Irish research tips and tricks along the way.

Irish Immigration

I grew up moving around the United States. Dad’s career with the United States Coast Guard afforded us the opportunity to transfer between duty stations every couple of years. I had lived in seven different states (twice in both Florida and Alaska) and at minimum passed through almost all 50 by the time I left for college. Geographic migration has been part of the human dynamic since people came into existence. For my family, a cross-country move was definitely an event, but no more overwhelming than an extended summer vacation. The moving van magically came to the house, packed our goods, shipped them in a truck, and, voila, appeared at the new place. I have since realized it wasn’t always that easy.

Reasons People Migrate

The probing question for migrations is “Why?” It’s easy for me to explain my moves – for the job – but, is it always that simple? In no case can I find evidence (yet) that any of my people had family members already in America, so for the most part, they took major risk uprooting themselves, crossing a big ocean and re-establishing their livelihoods in a foreign country. This wasn’t simply ordering up the moving van.

Fundamentally, people move for one of two reasons: push and pull. Push factors describe the unfavorable elements about an area in which one lives while pull factors consider the attractions that one area has over another. People whose current lot in life is miserable are pushed to move to a different location in search of safety and security. Whereas others may feel a pull for adventure, exploration or improving an aspect of their life.

Root Causes of Migration Banner
Table 1 Root Causes of Migration1

The Irish have created one of the globe’s widest diasporas, or distribution of people beyond their own country. Upwards of 70 million people worldwide claim Irish ancestry.2 Centuries of complex political, economic, religious, and social dynamics in Ireland created the perfect storm for three waves of immigration to the United States. 

The Pull: Freedom Immigration to Colonial America

Ireland served as an original melting pot of raiders and immigrants who arrived on the island from ancient times through the Middle Ages. Power landed in England’s King James’ hands in 1607 after the Nine Years War when many Irish lords fled the country.3 England’s dominance in Ireland established Protestants as the ruling class. In order to dilute the strength of the Irish Catholics, a plantation scheme colonized Ulster province in the north of Ireland with Scottish (primarily Presbyterian) and English (primarily Protestant) farmers. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the Scottish Presbyterians found themselves excluded from the power base, becoming a middle class sandwiched between English Protestants and the Irish Catholics.4 

Full congregations of Ulster Scots (or Scots-Irish), led by their Presbyterian ministers, immigrated to colonial America in the eighteenth century.5 An estimated 250,000 people left Ulster for the promise of the New World.6 These established land owners were not poor and uneducated, for they adequately funded their passage often up to seven pounds sterling per person.7 They felt the pull of political independence and religious freedom that they had heard about in the American colonies. When they arrived in Massachusetts, however, they encountered more English Protestants who had arrived before them, continuing the discrimination. The new arrivals were forced to the edges of the wilderness. They found their way to other parts of New England settling communities named after their homeland towns like Londonderry, New Hampshire, and Belfast, Maine.8 Some continued their trek to the mid-Atlantic colonies becoming the original settlers of the Carolinas. 

The Scots-Irish were not alone. Irish Catholics from eastern and southern portions of Ireland followed using the established trade routes to America. Because they lacked the wealth of their Ulster counterparts, many of these Irish arrived as indentured servants.9 They provided labor in return for passage, lodging, and food for a period contract up to seven years. They then left service with starter land and resources so that they could strike out on their own.10 Their efforts created the foundational infrastructure for the New World. 

The collective hardy stock of the Scotch-Irish and Irish Catholics directly influenced the formation of the United States. Colonial records identify thousands of Irish who eventually produced eight signers of the Declaration of Independence (Image 1).11 The Irish comprised almost a third of General George Washington’s Continental Army, contributing 22 generals and 1,500 officers of Irish ancestry.12 After the revolution, British Lord Mountjoy explained to Parliament, “You have lost America by the Irish.”13 

List of the Irish Signers of the Declaration of Independence
Image 1 The Irish Signers of the Declaration of Independence (from upper left: Charles Carroll, John Dunlap, Thomas Lynch, Jr., George Read, Edward Rutledge, James Smith, George Taylor, Matthew Thornton)14

The Push: Famine Emigration from Ireland

The United States experienced a calm, but steady stream of Irish immigration through the next few decades until 1845 when Irish farmers noticed leaves on their potato plants had turned black. Potato blight caused by a destructive fungal strain that had arrived on the island from potato food supplies carried on ships from America.15 

The potato had long been the staple of working class Irish. It was easy to grow and contained the nutrition necessary to support their livelihood. Each acre of potato sustained ten people, thus allowing Irish Catholic families to support themselves even as their land portions were reduced from generation to generation.16 

Reduced food supply, unpaid rents, and government mismanagement sparked unparalleled famine across Ireland. As laboring families faced starvation, throngs of destitute Irish pushed for America out of pure survival. They had nothing, many leaving without shoes. They sought passage on “coffin ships” marked by crowded, disease-ridden steerage where 20,000 people died crossing the Atlantic.17 

Most of the 1.5 million famine emigrants who arrived in the United States were forced to remain in urban areas, scrambling for whatever food, housing and work they could find.18 They completely changed the demographic of Boston by 1855 when 25% of that city’s population was of Irish descent.19 

Irish Immigrants by Year, 1820-1932
Table 2 Irish Immigrants by Year, 1820-193220

The Pull and Push: Post-Famine Opportunity Immigration to the United States

By the late 1800s, Irish Americans created a pattern of chain migration that funded additional immigration by other family members still living in Ireland. Ship travel had become safer, cheaper and more reliable, making planned passage feasible. Irish households purposely budgeted travel money so that family members could trickle to the United States.

At the same time post-famine regulations in Ireland limited land inheritance to one son, thus leaving remaining sons to find other options.21 Many searched for adventure and fortune in America. Likewise, young, single Irish women arrived as domestics ubiquitously employed by elite manors throughout New England.22 They sent earnings back home to enable the next person to join them. A typical passenger list like the one seen in the image below for the Cunard Line’s Cephalonia headed from Queenstown (now, Cobh) to Boston, shows countless Irish immigrants joining brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles and whose passage was paid for by someone else.

Partial Passenger List, Cephalonia, 1 Nov 1895
Image 2 Partial Passenger List, Cephalonia, 1 Nov 189523

Back home twentieth century Ireland was in the throes of a nationalistic movement. Irish Americans funneled huge sums of money to support their countrymen. The United States became known as the “second Ireland.” Without question this aid influenced the political direction and eventual partition of the island into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Even as the United States’ Irish ancestry has been diluted by the enormous influx of immigrants from other countries, almost ten percent of America’s population claims Irish heritage (Table 3).

United States Irish Ancestry
Table 3 United States Irish Ancestry24

Find Your Irish Ancestors

Our Irish immigrants were survivors, characterized by strength, resilience, optimism. They moved to distant countries to shape new lives. Tracing your Irish roots is fun, educational, and challenging. Embarking on this genealogy adventure allows you to understand more about the historical and social context of your family’s unique heritage. As you learn your ancestors’ incredible stories, you develop your sense of belonging to a culture and a people. Your exploration connects you with your homeland that helps fit you into the bigger picture. A journey into the past creates everlasting memories for your entire family.

Many people know All the President’s Men as a 1976 hit movie about Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein cracking the Watergate conspiracy. It’s probably the only blockbuster that builds intrigue and excitement from watching two guys make phone calls, organize paper notes, and meet an informant dubbed Deep Throat in a parking garage. At one point when they get stuck in the investigation, Deep Throat guides them to “follow the money”. 

Genealogy has a similar lesson: follow the people – backwards. Tracking your ancestors is much easier in today’s internet age, which has removed significant barriers that others before us have faced. But, the questions never stop. Like Woodward and Bernstein, I find myself making phone calls, reviewing documents, and engaging information sources as I build my Irish ancestors’ stories. 

Read about  the moment I discovered I had Irish ancestors in my post Luck of the Irish published with the Florida Genealogical Society – Tampa. In my next post, learn why Irish genealogy research is challenging – and yet extraordinarily simple. 

Your Journey into Your Past Starts Here

Whether you’re beginning your family history research or are ready to hop the pond, it’s your time to feel the myth and magic of the Emerald Isle. Contact MelNel Genealogy or Kerry Experience Tours to find out more about our joint offering Ireland Heritage Travel that weaves your ancestral search with a wonderful travel experience!


End Notes

1 Justice for Immigrants, Root Causes of Migration ( : accessed 13 April 2021).
2 Devon Haynie, 10 Countries With the Most Irish Emigrants ( : accessed 13 April 2021).
3 William Roulston, The Plantation of Ulster, pamphlet (Newtownards, UK: Ulster Historical Foundation, n.d.), panels 2-.
4 Linde Lunney and William Roulston, The 1718 Migration (Belfast, UK: Ulster-Scots Agency, 2016), 6.
5 Ibid.
6 Billy Kennedy, Ulster-Scots in the Forefront of American Life and Culture (Belfast, UK: Ulster-Scots Agency, 2016), 3.
7 Catherine B. Shannon, Irish Immigration to America, 1630 to 1921 ( : accessed 13 April 2021).
8 Alister McReynolds, The Ulster-Scots & New England (Belfast, UK: Ulster-Scots Community Network, 2010), 2-5.
9 Ancient Order of Hibernians Florida State Board, Irish Role in American Independence ( : accessed 13 April 2021). 
10 History Detectives, Indentured servants in the US ( : accessed 13 April 2021).
11 Ancient Order of Hibernians Florida State Board, Irish Role in American Independence
12 Ibid.
13 Phillip Thomas Tucker, How the heroic Irish won the American Revolution remembered this Patriot’s Day ( : accessed 13 April 2021).
14 Jack Beresford, Meet the 8 Irishmen who signed the US Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 ( : accessed 13 April 2021), supplied individual photos used to create composite.
15 Joseph Stromberg, Scientists Finally Pinpoint the Pathogen That Caused the Irish Potato Famine ( : accessed 13 April 2021).
16 Potatoes USA, Fun Facts About Potatoes ( : accessed 13 April 2021).
17 Catherine B. Shannon, Irish Immigration to America, 1630 to 1921.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid.
20 The Irish Potato Famine ( : accessed 13 April 2021).
21 Catherine B. Shannon, Irish Immigration to America, 1630 to 1921.
22 Ibid.
23 “Massachusetts, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1963,” S.S. Cephalonia, Boston, Massachusetts, 1 November 1895; digital image 487, ( : accessed 13 April 2021); citing NARA microfilm publication T843, roll 017.
24 United States Census Bureau, Where Irish Eyes Are Smiling ( : accessed 13 April 2021).