The Irish were amongst the first settlers to the Americas. A common solution to the ‘Irish problem’ or groups of Irish people that were insufficiently submissive towards the English occupation was to send them oversees to an English settlement as indentured servants (Noonan).
However the greatest influx of Irish immigrants to the North American continent occurred in the mid nineteenth century. This great influx was precipitated as a result of several great demographic changes that occurred relatively suddenly in Ireland.
The first of these changes was a great rise in the Irish population. This great rise was brought about by the large scale cultivation of the potato in Ireland. Potatoes, originally brought over from the Americas, had become a staple Irish crop towards the end of the seventeenth century. Potato crops allowed a man with the smallest plot of land to grow enough food to raise a family. This encouraged earlier marriages and more children among the Irish as did the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on the use of contraception (Anbinder).
According to Irish tradition, land would be parceled out equally to all sons at the death of the father, this lead to the average landholding becoming smaller and smaller reducing the margin of survival in case the Potato crop failed (Jones).
The outbreaks of Potato blight in the mid nineteenth century, which destroyed most of the potato crop, led to mass starvation and the deaths of thousands of people. This led the Irish to rethink their attitude towards marriage and inheritance (Jones).
The Irish not only started marrying late, but it also became a common for only one brother in a family to get married while the rest would live a life of enforced celibacy. The brother chosen for marriage would then inherit all the landholdings of the family. Marital unions, which in the time of plenty were based on mutual attraction of the young people, were now strict business deals with the amount of dowry negotiated beforehand (Jones).
This new system created a huge surplus of unmarried young Irish people with no prospects for employment or marriage in their native land, landless young men could not get a bride and nor could many parents afford to marry off all their daughters (Jones). Thus circumstances forced these young Irish men and women to seek their fortunes in foreign lands of which America looked to be the most promising.
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