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Published on June 12th, 2010 | by Rudolf


Irish emigration and its effects on global pop culture

From the 1500s to the present, the Irish have been leaving their home country in droves, searching for a better life in the United States and elsewhere. While they were changed by the countries where they settled, they changed to popular culture of those countries as well. What has Irish immigration really contributed to the popular cultural of the world?

Why did the Irish leave Ireland?

Most of the earliest Irish coming to America were poor Catholics. They were not upwardly mobile, and many took jobs in servitude. Between 1820 and 1900, about four million Irish immigrated to the United States. They targeted cities such as Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans, but also started spilling into outlying rural areas.  By the end of the 1900s, many of the Irish immigrants were tradesman, semi-skilled or skilled laborers. They were welcomed into an already established Irish American society, with their own churches, workers’ organizations, parochial schools and social clubs. The influx of even poorer southern and eastern European immigrants helped the Irish increase their own status.

On the other hand, the Irish who ended up in Australia were largely convicts sent there to do prison time. Many orphans were also shipped to Australia during the Potato Famine to meet Australia’s demand for servants. Some were able to increase their social mobility through marriage, while others were simply oppressed. Irish Australians were often treated with suspicion, partly because of the unfamiliar Catholicism they practiced. Today, however, they have assimilated into society, ranking third behind English and Australians as the most populous ethnic group in the country.

The Irish who emigrated to Canada became that country’s second largest ethnic group, ranking just behind French Canadians. Many destitute Irish Catholics came to Canada in search of a better life. They helped establish Newfoundland, communities in Quebec, and villages in Ontario. While before World War I the Irish Canadians were looked down upon by other Canadians for their different religion, after the war, when they fought side by side with Canadians, they were accepted as loyal citizens and fully assimilated into Canadian society.

Ethnic Pride

Irish immigrants to the United States and other countries have always retained a sense of their own ethnic pride. Today, Irish Americans, Irish Canadians, and the Australian Irish, as well as those of Irish heritage around the world, are proud to claim their original Irish heritage. Once thought of as poor, uneducated, less cultured, more politically reactionary and perhaps even bigoted, today the Irish who have assimilated into other countries are seen as being part of their societies, not set apart from them.

According to the 1990 U.S. Census, over 38 million Americans (which accounted for 11.9% of the total United States population) claimed Irish ancestry. In 2006, over 4 million Canadians, or 14% of their total population, claimed Irish heritage. Over one million Australians polled in that country’s 2006 census said they were of Irish descent, coming in third behind English and Australian. Among each and every one of these immigrants, their ancestors, and their descendants, there is still great pride and a certain prestige in being known as “Irish.


Irish immigrants have influenced the political landscape of each country into which they settled. Most Irish Catholic immigrants to the United States were Democrats, who from years of fighting British oppression sympathized with Americans who had been through the same. The Irish became political leaders in the communities in which they settled. They also supported organized labor unions, as they were familiar with the power of organizations meeting needs back home. Politics helped the Irish immigrants gain power in their new countries. As they gained strength in the New World, the Irish took political roles including federal appointments and judgeships.

The impact of the Irish on United States’ political popular culture can be seen in the fact that 19 of our 44 presidents have claimed Irish ancestry. Nine of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Irish descent. Over a third of American soldiers fighting in the Revolutionary War were Irish.

While initially, the Irish in Canada were marginalized in politics, eventually they were fully accepted. In fact, Brian Mulroney, the 18th Prime Minister of Canada, traced his heritage to Ireland. Likewise, in Australia, Irish were looked down upon until World War I, when their loyalty to their new home country of Australia through fighting for their newly adopted country shined through.


Irish immigrants after 1880 were usually literate by the time they left their home country. As the Irish settled in the United States and in countries around the world, their special “way with words” changed the language of each of their new cultures. Terms such as “paddy wagon,” “donnybrook” and “fighting Irish” were all introduced to the language and culture of their new home countries.

As most Irish began speaking English in their home country through the 19th century, Irish immigrants to English-speaking countries were at an advantage. Today, however, there has been a renewed interest in the original Irish language, especially in cities like New York and San Francisco. Many universities are offering courses in Irish language, and those with Irish-American heritage are pursuing its study as well.

The Arts


There have been many famous Irish American authors, such as playwright Eugene O’Neill and writer Francis Scott Fitzgerald. In addition, the Irish love of music and dance has carried over into the global popular culture.

Irish music and song that was brought to America by immigrants help develop America’s own folk and country music. Irish immigration also contributed to America’s urban folk scene. Traditional Irish music and its influences can be found all over the world today. Celtic music, also a part of Irish culture, has had a global resurgence in popularity. Irish rock musicians such as U2, Bob Geldof and Elvis Costello have all left a mark on the global popular music of the time. Irish dance has also influenced the popular culture of other nations. When you think Irish dance, Riverdance and other folk-style dancing immediately comes to mind.

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Food and Drink

The Irish have influenced the food culture of their chosen nations as well. The Irish traditionally favored a high fat diet, and brought some of their favorite dishes, including rashers, bangers, black and white pudding and soda bread, with them. They eat a lot of fatty dairy products and potatoes, Irish stew, smoked Irish salmon, buttermilk, and corned beef and cabbage.

In addition, Irish beverages are popular globally. Tea is the most popular Irish beverage, followed by Irish coffee (whisky and coffee) which was really invented by Irish Americans. Irish whiskey and Irish stout beer are also drunk all over the world.



Their dietary habits have caused the Irish to influence health in the countries in which they emigrated. Because of their high fat, high calorie diets, the Irish are prone to heart diseases. Alcohol is important to their way of life. Subsequently, physical and mental health problems associated with alcoholism is high among the Irish and Irish immigrants.

When the Irish immigrated to other countries, they brought with them folk medical remedies, using herbs and natural substances like honey to help maintain good health and prevent illness. Some of the folksy Irish health beliefs that many still hold include the idea that one should not go to bed with wet hair, should never sit in a draft, should take laxatives regularly, should take tonics and extra vitamins, should get plenty of exercise and fresh air, and should avoid going to the doctor unless they are very ill.


Family structure and dynamics of Irish immigrants has also influenced the culture of the countries in which they settled. The traditional Irish would usually marry later in life than other ethnic groups, wanting to increase their socioeconomic status prior to marrying. That is not the case today, as more Irish in their adopted countries tend to marry earlier and in greater numbers. Divorce is not looked unfavorably upon as it once was in traditional Irish families, either. While it is still against the Catholic Church teachings, many Irish who do divorce civilly also get the church to annul their marriage so that they can remarry in the church. The Irish Catholics who have settled into other cultures traditionally marry within their own religion.

Traditionally, Irish women and Irish American women stayed home and took care of the household and children. Today, modern Irish Americans and in other countries are as likely to work, just as their counterparts do, as they are to stay home and handle domestic duties.  Professionally, Irish women have succeeded in medicine, law, academia, politics, sports, entertainment and more.

Irish families and, thus, Irish American families were traditionally large. Many Irish descended families still have large numbers of children, perhaps because of their Catholic religion and its views on contraception. Usually, the mother has a dominant role in raising children, while the father is sometimes a more distant figure responsible for negative punishment when necessary.


Early Irish immigrants were more interested in their sons receiving education over their daughters, whom they believed would simply be homemakers or hold jobs of servitude one day. Today, Irish Americans and in other cultures educate both sons and daughters equally, following the traditional Irish respect for education.   They know the importance of academic success in helping climb the social and economic ladders of status. The Irish believe that attending Catholic educational facilities which tend to have higher standards than public schools creates higher academic achievement and upward mobility. Popular Catholic universities in the United States include Boston College and the University Of Notre Dame.


Most early Irish immigrants retained the Catholicism of their native country. The lives of early Irish Catholic immigrants revolved around the church, as they sent their children to parochial schools and social activities were organized through the church. Today, while the Catholic church still holds great power over Irish Americans and the Irish in other countries, most Irish are more inclined to question doctrines and take issue with teachings on such subjects as abortion, contraception, divorce, priestly celibacy, and female priests. The numbers of Irish receiving the sacraments and attending church services have drastically declined. Nevertheless, most Irish Catholics around the world are still faithful to the teachings of their church.

Prominent Irish Americans

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/68/Nicole_kidman3.jpgIn business and finance, numerous Irish Americans have left a mark. Some of these include banker/philanthropist Andrew Mellon, auto manufacturer Henry Ford, and industrialist Howard Hughes. There have been many prominent Irish Americans in the entertainment industry, including Ed Sullivan, Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Gene Kelly, Mickey Rooney, and Jack Nicholson. In the military, the most decorated soldier of World War II was Irish American Audie Murphy. Irish Americans who made their mark in the world of sports include Babe Ruth, Jimmy Connors, and Gene Tunney.

Prominent Irish in Other Countries

Famous Irish Canadians include actor James Montgomery Doohan (Scotty on the “Star Trek” television series) and Jean Charest, Premier of Quebec. Famous Irish Australians include actress Nicole Kidman, author Thomas Keneally and, of course, outlaw Ned Kelly. Latinas who can claim Irish descent include musician Fergie, actress Rita Hayworth, newswoman Soledad O’Brien and singer Mariah Carey. Famous Irish Africans include rugby player Percy Montgomery and musician Roger Whittaker.



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One Response to Irish emigration and its effects on global pop culture

  1. alan fitzgerald says:

    You have made two major errors about Irish emigration.
    First most of the early Irish emigrants went to America in the 18th century long before the Famine arrivals of the 1840s. And they were protestants – presbyterians – from the Northern Counties of Ireland.

    The number of Irish convicts sent to Australia ( 1790 -1840) were no more than 10 per cent of the free Irish. That is 30,000 convicts and 300,00 emigrants, most of whom arrived between 1830 and 1890. Mass emnigration to Australia then stopped until after World War II

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