1874 engraving in The Illustrated London New showing Irish emigrants preparing to leave for the United States.

How the Irish Made Their Mark in New England

With excerpts from an article by the New England Historical Society:

The first great migration to New England began in 1628, when King Charles granted a new charter to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Between 1629 and 1640, 20,000 people crossed the Atlantic. By 1650, a steady stream of Boston-bound ships began to leave Ireland filled with redemptioners – indentured servants who agreed to near-slavery for seven years in exchange for passage, food, shelter and clothing. That stream would become a flood. Between the years of 1652 to 1659 it is estimated that well over 50,000 men, women, and children of Irish descent were forcibly transported to British imperial colonies to serve as indentured labor

By 1790, there were 400,000 Americans of Irish birth or ancestry out of a population of 3.9 million. When the Irish famine ships arrived in Boston in the 1840’s, tens if not hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Ireland already made their mark on New England.

In the 1840’s and 50’s, Irish refuges sailed to America in the wake of the Potato Famine to seek employment. Thomas Franklin Waters wrote,

“The first variant element was the incoming of the Irish, driven from their homes by oppressive land laws, the failure of crops, which resulted in severe famine, and general unrest. They adhered, naturally, to the Catholic religion, but they spoke our language, and were readily assimilated as citizens. A priest from Newburyport ministered to them spiritually until 1871, when Rev. Wm. H. Ryan of Beverly took charge. In 1873, they had increased sufficiently in numbers and strength to erect a church edifice which .was dedicated Nov. 9, 1873.”

By 1860, over half the population of New England mill towns was foreign-born. A large percentage of them were Irish, who became victims of the same hostility that they had experienced from the English, when in 1854 the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party swept Massachusetts elections. Originally named the “Native American Party” it was organized with the intent of preventing Irish Catholic immigration, fed by unfounded fears that the nation would soon be controlled by Irish bishops obedient to the Pope.

With no love of the English, Irish immigrants and their descendants played major roles in achieving American independence. More than 1,200 officers in the American armies came from Ireland, including Gen. John Sullivan, later a New Hampshire governor. And the muster roles of the Continental Army and Navy are filled with Hibernian names. There are 695 Kellys alone who fought against the British. So many fought, in fact, that one British general testified at the House of Commons that ‘half the rebel Continental Army were from Ireland.’


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