Celebrating Irish American Month

By Steve Wyatt

In October 1990, Congress passed a Public Act to establish March 1991 as Irish-American Heritage Month. Since 1997, the president has issued annual proclamations for the observance. The month of March, was chosen to coincide with Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17), which is an Irish national holiday.

Irish immigration to the Americas started in the late 16th century with mainly petty criminals, beggars, prisoners of war following Cromwell’s defeat of Ireland and some indentured servants being transported as cheap labor. There were two later major waves of immigration to the Americas.  These two waves had significant differences. The first wave started around the 1720s when the “Scots-Irish” immigrated to the Americas. “Scots-Irish” is a term only used in the United States, which refers to the immigrants from Ireland who had Scottish Presbyterian origins. This wave was received well by the citizens of the United States. The immigrants mainly spoke English, were Protestant, and had job skills. The second wave began around 1946 due to a famine in Ireland. These immigrants were mainly Catholic.  The second wave being Catholic, with limited English and lacking the skill set of the early wave. These immigrants met with resentment and distrust. Acceptance of the Catholic Irish began to appear during the Civil War due mainly to the fact that a vast number of Irish fought for the Union.

Approximately 32 million people in the United States claimed Irish ancestry of some type in the 2015 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The previous survey had a response of 39.6 million.  The change was probably due to roughly 5 million people identifying as “Scots-Irish” and of Northern Ireland descent. The current estimate on the population of Ireland is 4.9 million.

The three most common ancestries listed by Tennesseans are:

  • United States
  • African-American
  • Irish

At least 22 presidents have some Irish ancestral origins. These include:

  • Andrew Jackson
  • Ulysses S. Grant
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Harry S. Truman
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Ronald Regan
  • Bill Clinton
  • Both Bushes
  •  Barack Obama.

Persons of Irish descent have made impact in the United State from sports, science, literature, the arts, and business. A few examples are;

  • Gene Kelly
  • Neil Armstong
  • Henry Ford
  • Walt Disney
  • Alfred Hitchcock
  • Michael Moore
  • Ann Coulter
  • Jimmy Fallon
  • Chris Matthews
  • Bill O’Reilly
  • Ellen DeGeneres
  • William F. Buckley
  • Tom Clancy
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Audie Murphy

On a personal note, I am “Scots-Irish”. Genetically, I am 35% Irish and 50% Scots/English. My family is composed for Brisendines, and McSwains who originated in Scotland. The McSwains and some of the Brisedines migrated to Ireland. I also am a Call, which is English in origin but portions of the family moved to Ireland and Scotland.