This St. Patrick’s Day, as some people honor certain traditions involving alcohol, some of it green, we return to the early 1800s, when thousands of Irish immigrants were crossing the Atlantic and settling in Ohio’s hills and villages.

In the first half of the 1800s, Irish immigrants, many of them fleeing the potato blight and resulting famine of the 40s, settled in Ohio, making up a sizeable portion of the immigrant population. Though immigration peaked in 1840, by 1900, Irish were the second most populous immigrant group, behind Germans. At the time, most people emigrating to the United States were coming from Western Europe. As early as the late 1700s Irish were arriving in large numbers on the East Coast, making their way inland, through Pennsylvania along Zane’s Trace, one of the first roadways through the Northwest Territory, and into Ohio. Most of the Irish arriving in Ohio planned to become farmers, but their job prospects, largely due to the amount of discrimination Irish immigrants faced, were not promising.

ohio canal credit western reserve hist soc
A boat being pulled down the Ohio and Erie Canal in 1902.

Built by Irish Hands

So, instead of practicing the agricultural pursuits they were used to on the Emerald Isle, Irish immigrants in Ohio survived by working jobs that were considered more undesirable. Those jobs involved long hours and back-breaking labor to construct Ohio’s canal system, including the Ohio & Erie Canal and the Miami & Erie Canal. When railroads came to the state, it was again Irish laborers who laid the tracks that modernized Ohio’s transportation system, allowing coal, timber, and iron ore to be moved around the country, fueling the engine of American progress.

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An Ohio Historical Marker located outside Columbiana County’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau commemorating Irish immigrant workers who dug tunnels for part of Ohio’s canal system. Photo credit: Remarkable Ohio. (Database of Historical Markers)


Discrimination and Unrest

The discrimination faced by Irish immigrants, just like discrimination toward African Americans, Italian immigrants,¬† and other groups who came from Eastern Europe in the later half of the nineteenth century, has been documented in the history books and in the memories of people who remember extreme segregation in Ohio’s industrial towns. The most extreme examples of this even saw Irish men and women buried in separate cemeteries from other ethnic groups in the town. Many agree such discrimination usually could be explained by religious differences. Irish immigrants were primarily Catholic, while Protestantism was the primary religion of most Ohioans. The “Know Nothing” Political Party also gained large membership in Ohio during the mid 1800s, a party which held firm anti-immigrant positions.

Despite being the recipients of discrimination for their perceived theft of American jobs, Irish Americans also saw their jobs as under threat from African Americans moving North, fleeing slavery, discrimination or simply seeking work. Economic tensions fueled by racial unrest resulted in rioting and violence between the Irish and African American Ohioans.

Today’s Irish Culture

irish dancers credit flickr OZinOH
Young Irish dancers performing at the Dublin Irish Festival in Columbus in 2008. Photo credit: OZinOH (flickr)

Though immigration from Ireland almost completely stopped after World War II, the Irish population in Ohio remains sizeable and proud. The annual Dublin Irish Festival in Columbus and the Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival are yearly reminders of the history of the Irish people in Ohio, which are joint efforts of many different organizations in two of Ohio’s largest cities. Both were started with and maintain the same goal today: to celebrate and preserve Irish culture for future generations of the original Irish immigrants who settled here and for all Ohioans to enjoy.

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