Often, you might hear Americans refer to themselves as “Irish Americans.” In fact, President Joe Biden even quipped, “I’m Irish,” when asked a question by the BBC after his 2020 victory.
To be an “Irish American” generally means to be an American citizen with Irish ancestry. Naturally, some parts of the USA have more Irish Americans than others, but which American city has the largest Irish population?
Which American City has the Largest Irish population?
The answer, Boston, Massachusetts, won’t come as a surprise for those in the know.
In Boston, approximately 23% of the citizens are Irish American.
Below we will look at how this happened and its impact on the city today.
Why did the Irish leave for America?
The connection between the Emerald Isle and the US is well known. Not only are we Atlantic neighbours, but the distance between both nations is well travelled, so much so that multiple American presidents called Ireland an ancestral home, alongside many other famous American faces.
The reason for the Irish exodus to America, over various decades and centuries, is deep and multi-layered.
Unfortunately a combination of English colonialism in Ireland, resulting in conflict and wealthy landowners taking advantage of the local population, alongside the infamous potato famine of the mid-1800s (also known as “The Great Hunger”), resulted in many, many Irish men, women and children setting sail for what was then known as the “new world”.
During the early 20th century, as Ireland wrestled with its colonial past, struggling with civil war and eventually the partition of the island in 1920-21, many Irish people continued to travel across the Atlantic Ocean in search of safe haven and new economic opportunity for their families.
All of this combined to ensure a steady stream, and incredibly strong roots between both nations.
Why did the Irish choose Boston?
Why did the Irish choose Boston?
To put it simply, one key reason was geography. Ships setting sail from Ireland, or the British Isles in general, were almost exclusively bound for the east coast of the US and Irish immigrants naturally flocked to one of America’s most established cities.
As with most stories of immigration, once one family established a base, other friends and relatives followed and ethnic ghettos formed naturally as a result of this flow and the economic opportunities present in a growing city.
Irish Discrimination in Boston
Although the connections between Ireland and Boston are famous nowadays, the relationship wasn’t always a friendly one…
With the mass arrival of the Irish in Boston, not everyone was happy. In fact, it spawned a new political party known as the “Know Nothing Movement,” an anti-immigration party that wanted America to be kept for the “Americans”.
A significant cause of the divide was that, at the time, most Bostonians were Protestant, and most new Irish arrivals were Catholics. Naturally this caused issues.
The Know Nothing Movement promoted its three principles – Temperance (in reference to the stereotype that the Irish drank a lot), Liberty, and Protestantism.
The party banned Catholic burials in public cemeteries and even managed to force Protestantism on some Irish Catholics.
Thankfully, over time this movement lost appeal and new Irish arrivals were allowed to live in peace within the city.
How the Irish built Boston
The Boston that the Irish arrived in was very different from the Boston that you can visit today.
When they first arrived, most Irish had little education and the men had to work as labourers, whilst the women worked as maids and housekeepers. In doing so, these Irish workers helped to build the roads, railroads, aqueducts, and even the Boston subway (which still operates today).
As time went on, the Irish integrated into the community. They had children and grandchildren, and educated themselves upwards through society. Eventually, the Irish diaspora managed to get better-paying jobs and become an essential part of the DNA of Boston. This was epitomised by the rise of the Kennedy family.
Irish Culture in Boston today
Since 23% of Bostonians are Irish American or part of the greater Irish diaspora, there are plenty of green influences found throughout the city. Here are just some of the most noticeable:
- Boston’s NBA team is called the Boston Celtics and their logo features an Irish leprechaun covered in shamrocks
- One of Boston’s most famous musical exports is the Dropkick Murphys, a Celtic punk band
- You can do an Irish Heritage Trail when visiting the city
- The city features a John F Kennedy museum and library dedicated to the famous Irish American President
- You’ll notice an Irish Famine Memorial right in the middle of the city centre
Famous Irish Americans from Boston:
It’s not a definitive list, and obviously across the decades there are many famous Irish Americans hailing from Boston but here are a few modern names you might recognise:
- Margaret Foley: Ms. Foley was one of the original suffragettes. Thanks to her (along with others), women in America finally won the same voting rights as men
- John F.Fitzgerald: Mr. Fitzgerald was Boston’s mayor and was nicknamed “Honey Fitz” due to his sweet nature. Although you may not have heard of him, you probably know about his grandson, John F Kennedy…
- Ben Affleck: If you’ve watched Argo, Good Will Hunting, Batman, Pearl Harbour and more, you probably know who Hollywood A-lister Ben Affleck (and brother Casey) is
- Conan O’Brien: One of the kings of late-night comedy, Conan also comes from Boston
- Tip O’Neill: The former Leader of the House, this Democrat politician, just like the current president, has Irish roots
- Ken Casey: One of the leading members of the Dropkick Murphys