Irish Ohioans

From Ohio History Central

Numerous Ohioans are descended from Irish ancestors. Today, Irish Ohioans continue to enhance Ohio's cultural and social landscape.

During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, millions of immigrants migrated to the United States of America, hoping to live the American Dream. Before the American Civil War, most immigrants arrived in the United States from Great Britain, Germany, and Ireland. By the 1880s, the home countries of immigrants began to change. Many of the new immigrants to arrive in the United States came from Eastern European countries, like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, rather than from Western European countries, like Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany.

In 1860, 328,249 immigrants lived in Ohio. These people accounted for fourteen percent of the state's population. By 1900, the number of immigrants in Ohio rose to 458,734, but the percentage of the population that was foreign-born declined to eleven percent. Most of these immigrants in 1900 came from Germany, Great Britain, and Ireland, yet a growing number of Eastern Europeans were also migrating to the state.

People of Irish heritage were among the earliest white settlers of Ohio. Many migrated from Pennsylvania during the late 1700s and the early 1800s along Zane's Trace. Others came later to help build the numerous canals constructed during the 1820s and 1830s. Many of these people came to Ohio as a direct result of the potato famine in Ireland during the 1840s. Unable to pay mortgages for their land due to the poor potato crop, many of these people hoped to come to the United States to start their lives again. Many arrived with nothing more than a few pieces of clothing.

While most of the Irish immigrants hoped to become farmers, without any money, they took whatever jobs they could receive. These jobs were usually among the least desirable ones in the United States, because of the hard work and the poor wages. Many of these people who came to Ohio first served as laborers on canals like the Ohio and Erie Canal and the Miami and Erie Canal. Once railroads arrived in the state, many of these same workers helped lay the track. Other Ohioans did not always receive the Irish migrants with open arms. Most Ohioans were from Protestant faiths and opposed the Irish, who usually followed Roman Catholicism. Struggling Ohioans also did not like competition from the recently arrived migrants. During the 1850s, many Ohioans joined the new Know-Nothing (American) Party. This political party vehemently opposed new immigrants—especially the Irish—from coming to the United States. Hatred of the Irish was so deep during this time period that many communities required deceased Irishmen and women be buried in Irish-only cemeteries. Despite their difficulties, many of the Irish migrants succeeded in establishing successful lives in Ohio. They also helped improve Ohio's economic standing by helping the state establish a transportation infrastructure.

While many Irish Ohioans faced discrimination, these same people also commonly opposed the arrival of new groups to the state, especially free African Americans or fugitive slaves. Race riots sometimes occurred, especially if whites feared that African Americans were gaining too much power or infringing upon white opportunities. For example, in 1829, one such riot occurred in Cincinnati, because Irish immigrants disliked economic competition from the African-American community. The Irish tried to drive African Americans from Cincinnati, but they were unsuccessful in this effort.

Because of violent episodes like the one that occurred in Cincinnati in 1829, Irish immigrants tended to establish their own communities. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many native-born Americans feared outsiders. Some of these people objected to the immigrants' religious and cultural beliefs, while others believed that the foreigners would corrupt the morals of United States citizens. These people also contended that the quality of life within the United States would decline, as there were not enough jobs to employ the millions of people migrating to America. Many native-born Americans hoped either to limit immigration or to force foreigners to convert to American customs and beliefs. It would take several generations before the immigrants became truly accepted by the vast majority of white Ohioans.

While Irish migration to Ohio peaked during the 1840s, thousands of Irish men and women continued to migrate to the state during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. In 1900, 55,018 native-born Irish people resided in Ohio, making them the second largest such group, behind only Germans, in the state. The number of Irish migrants declined over the next twenty years. In 1920, only 29,262 native-born Irish people lived in Ohio, ranking them as the tenth largest group behind Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Italians, Austrians, Russians, British, Czechoslovakians, and Yugoslavians. The number of Irish immigrants continued to decline during the rest of the twentieth century, with it nearly ceasing following World War II.

At the start of the twenty-first century, Irish culture and institutions continue to thrive in Ohio. Irish social organizations, such as the Irish American Club-East Side, Inc., and the West Side Irish-American Club both of Cleveland, exist in most of the state's major cities.

See Also


  1. Van Tassel, David D., and John J. Grabowski, eds. The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.