Ethnicity and Sport in North American History and Culture

By George Eisen; David K. Wiggins | Go to book overview

4

The Shamrock and the Eagle:
Irish Americans and Sport in
the Nineteenth Century

Ralph C. Wilcox

Since the first Irishman stepped ashore in the New World in 1492, millions of Erin's sons and daughters have crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of personal freedom and economic opportunity. The United States Census of 1980 revealed that more than 40 million Americans (18 percent) claimed Irish ancestry, third only to those descendants of English and German immigrants (22 percent each). Throughout the Colonial period, the majority of Irish immigrants were Protestant merchants who commonly shared the values and lifestyle of mainstream America. However, as Ireland's population increased and her domestic, small farm economy offered limited opportunity for employment, an unprecedented, nineteenth century Gaelic wave of mostly poor, illiterate, rural Catholics began to arrive on American shores. Further prompted by the clearance of tenants from country estates, to make way for livestock, and a series of famines culminating in the Great Famine of 1845-49, their numbers steadily increased through mid-century. 1

During the 1820s Irish denizens represented more than one-third of the total immigrants to the United States, rising to almost half by the end of the 1840s and replacing the English as the chief source of aliens by mid-century. Between the years 1841 and 1860, 1.7 million Irish immigrants disembarked at the gateways of the northeast, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Limited in mobility, through lack of funds, they commonly clustered in inner-city enclaves. Often employed as longshoremen and factory workers, it has been argued that Irish Americans furnished the cheap labor foundation upon which the nation's industrial success was built. As westward expansion grew, Irishmen joined the ranks of canal and railroad navies ensuring strong Gaelic representation in Chicago, San Francisco, and St. Louis during the post-Civil

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