Irish Immigrants Who Helped Shape America

America has been a mecca for Irish immigrants since the 1600s. They arrived to seek opportunity, flee persecution or preserve their religion. During America’s colonial period, about 250,000 of all religions arrived from Ireland and had no love for their British colonial rulers. They participated in significant numbers in the American Revolution and according to The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society, Volume 9, page 455, General Lee stated that “half the rebel Continental Army were from Ireland.”  

According to Immigration in American History by Elliot Robert Barkan, from 1720 to 1820, 468,400 Irish arrived in America. From 1820 to 1860, 1,956,557 more Irish arrived, 75% of these after the Great Hunger.  They took jobs in mills, mines, laying tracks or digging canals helping to build America and they also helped to defend her as they filled the ranks of her military from the many Irish regiments in the Union Army and the legendary Irish Brigade itself. In addition, Irish immigrant women worked in mills or as domestics.

Together, they finally overcame nativist bias and fought their way to acceptance, all the while contributing to the shaping of America. By 1910, 4,787,580 Irish had arrived and though they started low on the social scale, they insisted on education for their children and it paid off. By 1900 they and their children had jobs and earnings about equal on average to their neighbors.

Many have said that the Irish didn’t as much become totally American as America itself became partly Irish.   They are truly one of the more remarkable success stories in America’s book of immigrants.

Legacy Stories from the Americans All Heritage Honor Roll

We are pleased to host and share these legacy stories created by honorees’ family, friends and associates. They, like us, appreciate that heritage and culture are an integral part of our nation's social fabric and want to help students participate effectively in our nation's economy, workforce and democracy.

Last Name of Individual
First Name of Individual
Group name

American Revolutionary War Pennsylvania (c.1754 - c.1788) Irish, American History, Revolutionary War

When America was born, the Irish were there!  The Irish, both Protestant and Catholic, were a major part of Washington’s volunteers from foot soldiers to high ranking officers. When increased Crown exploitation drove the colonists to protest, among the loudest were the Irish who had no great love for the Crown to begin with. And there were many immigrant Irish in America’s colonies.

Ireland's Great Hunger New Jersey (c.1845 - c.1852) Social Studies Resource, Immigration, Famine, American History

There are only two major instances of population decline in modern times that did not result from military retaliation—the Holocaust in Germany and the Great Hunger in Ireland. Neither was a response to a threat, but rather to bigotry and greed. Yet, after every storm, no matter how devastating, there shines a bit of light—and the light that came after these unwarranted tragedies were the survivors who  . . . 

Commodore John Barry Pennsylvania (March 25, 1745 - September 12, 1803) Irish, Ireland, U.S. Navy First Flag Officer, Politician, Continental Congress

September 13th is Commodore John Barry Day. It is not a new commemorative day, for it has been commemorated on the American national calendar more than once. There were even statues erected in his honor back in the days when Americans remembered with gratitude the contributions of this dedicated man. Today, how many remember his deeds? 

Ellen "Nellie" Cashman Arizona (c.1845 - January 25, 1925) Irish, Catholic, Entrepreneur, Prospector, Missionary, Alaska Mining Hall of Fame

American western music and Irish music have often been compared and that is due to the many Irish who settled the American West. From lawmen to bad men they color America’s history.  There was even a well-known set of outlaw brothers who were named after Irish patriots, but there were also Irish business people and pioneers and they helped shape the destiny of a wilderness.

Patrick "Paddy" Colvin Pennsylvania (? - ?) Irish, Patriot, River Ferry Master, American History, Revolutionary War

A number of Irishmen were key to Washington’s success in crossing the Delaware River to take Trenton. Among them were two immigrants: Paddy Colvin and Sam McConkey, who ran two river ferries. Patrick Colvin of Co. Cavan, Ireland bought a ferry and land on the river in 1772 when Morrisville, PA was known as Colvin's Ferry.

Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore New York (December 25, 1829 - September 24, 1892) Irish, Ireland, Composer, Band Leader

America’s first superstars were the leaders of America’s first bands—her marching Brass Bands—and though John Philip Sousa was certainly one of them, he was not the first. That honor goes to a man whom Sousa himself admired and whom he called matchless. He was a man who, in his day, was called America’s Greatest Bandleader, and The Musician of the People—Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore. 

John Holland New Jersey (February 29, 1840 - August 12, 1914) Irish, Ireland, Inventor, Engineer, Finian

His name was John Philip Holland and he was born in Liscannor, Co. Clare, Ireland, on February 24, 1841. He was only three when the potato failure devastated his country. He survived but suffered poor eyesight for the rest of his life. His father was a member of the Coast Guards and young John inherited a love of the sea. 

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones Colorado (c.1837 - November 30, 1930) Irish, Ireland, Labor Organizer, Orator, Children's Crusade

Few would argue with this feisty little Irish lady for, although she was known as the Miner’s Angel, she was also known as the Mother of All Agitators. Born in Cork City, Ireland, her family fled the Great Hunger to Toronto, Canada, when she was a child. She trained as a teacher and worked briefly as a teacher and as a dressmaker. In 1861, Mary married George Jones, an iron molder and union organizer in Memphis, Tennessee.

Moneignor Hugh O'Flaherty New Jersey (February 28, 1898 - October 30, 1963) Irish, Ireland, Italy, Catholic Priest at Vatican City

On October 30, 1963, Cahirsiveen, County Kerry, Ireland saw the largest outpouring of grief in more than a century as Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was laid to rest. Although he was born in Kiskeam, County Cork, he grew up in nearby Killarney, where his father was the steward of the old Killarney Golf Club, Hugh retired to Cahirsiveen three years before his death and was regarded as one of their own.

Charles Thomson Pennsylvania (November 29, 1729 - August 16, 1824) Irish, Ireland, Politician, Revolutionary War, Designer

The name of Charles Thomson is not as familiar today as it was in the early days of America when it was widely known and respected. Born in County Derry, Ireland, Thomson was one of the most influential men of the entire American Revolution. He served as Secretary of the Continental Congress for over 15 years and was the Chief Executive of the American Government several times between 1776 and 1789. He also designed both sides of the Great Seal of the United States