How The Irish Built America

How The Irish Built America

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St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, and of course that always gets me thinking about my Irish ancestry and what it means to be Irish. I can’t avoid it, in fact- people wearing shirts like these or hats like these are passing me every two seconds (though I must admit I do have a fondness for that Guinness hat). That said, I’d like to focus my thoughts this time on the luck of the Irish.

(Yes, I know this is titled “How The Irish Built America”. We’ll get there in a bit, I promise.)

A number of people have, due to my Irish ancestry, brought up the “luck of the Irish” a time or two. Almost always, they use it as a good thing: that I’ve been lucky, had some sort of good fortune, turned out to have great genetics, or what have you. But what they don’t realize is that they’re using the phrase wrong.

Or so I’ve thought. But lately I’ve been reconsidering that.

Let me start from the beginning. The Irish aren’t lucky. Scratch that: we are spectacularly unlucky. As originally intended, “luck of the Irish” was an ironic phrase. Or, to put it a different way: you certainly didn’t want the luck of the Irish bestowed upon you. Better to let the people of the Emerald Isle keep it rather than suffer their fate.

And suffer they did. The 19th century was, to put it bluntly, a terrible time to be Irish. Oppressive British rule and a series of famines at home (not helped by the aforementioned British rule) forced many Irish citizens at the time to emigrate and find a better life, heading towards America, a land that promised hope and opportunity. My great-great-grandfather was one of these citizens, one of those full of hope and courage.

The 19th-century was, to put it bluntly, a terrible time to be Irish.

What they found instead was a hostile environment that didn’t take too kindly to them or their Catholicism. Businesses quickly moved to try and suppress this irksome immigrant population, putting “no Irish need apply” signs on their storefronts and making their position very clear.


Due to the lack of higher-paying jobs and America’s general dislike of them, many of them were forced to find extremely dangerous jobs, like mining. These jobs were brutal and dangerous, but for many the mines were all that kept them alive.

And it wasn’t just mining – construction was another dangerous job that went to the Irish. One of the most brutal examples of this was in New Orleans between 1830 and 1860. The construction company that was digging the New Basin Canal was faced with a dilemma: the work of digging was extremely dangerous.

No: not just dangerous. It was downright lethal. The cholera, malaria, and yellow fever that was rampant among the diggers was killing slaves too fast. By 1838, the slaveowners in Louisiana were not getting new slaves due to the 1808 federal ban on slave importation. What they were getting, however, were immigrants.

The city exploded between 1830 and 1860. It grew by 366%, and the vast majority of that immigrant flood were Irishmen. They quickly formed the core of the cheap labor force in New Orleans, and the company digging the canal was quick to hire them for a dollar a day because paying a dollar a day for cheap Irish labor was less expensive than exposing their now valuable slaves to the risk of death.

the company digging the canal was quick to hire them for a dollar a day because paying a dollar a day for cheap Irish labor was less expensive than exposing their now valuable slaves to the risk of death.

As a result of their willingness to work for such low wages, the Irish working class in New Orleans died in droves. At least 6000 Irish workers are confirmed to have perished while building the canal, though it is likely that up to 30,000 actually died.

Now to this point, I have not painted my ancestors with a particularly optimistic brush. The luck of the Irish would seem, then, to be very appropriate: they left a bad situation in Ireland only to come to a bad situation in America. Wherever they went, their bad luck followed them.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Why does any of this cause me to reconsider what the phrase “luck of the Irish” means? If anything, it only reinforces the point of the people who say it’s a curse, who say it is an ironic phrase to mean bad luck.

But I look at it a different way. Because the Irish that came here, the men and women that made the difficult journey across the Atlantic, continued to face hardship. No matter where they went, whether it was from the British or the Americans, they found no one to help them.


And yet they persevered. They kept on going, even when their countrymen were dying of the black lung in the mines of Pennsylvania, when their kinsman were dying by the droves of cholera and malaria in the sweltering heat of New Orleans, they persevered. They kept their heads high, and stayed unbroken.

And the result of that? The Irish built America. Its roads, its bridges, its iconic buildings and façades were all raised with the hard work and determination of the Irish who never gave up, who never gave up believing that they were working for a better future for them and for their children.

In the early 20th century, a photographer named Lewis Hine was commissioned by the United States government to take pictures of the labor situation during the Great Depression. He took a number of pictures of Irish men, women, and children. Many of them were shabby, certainly none of them well-off, and maybe some of them not happy.

But he also has inspiring, incredible pictures like the one in the title of this article, and the ones I’ve been posting throughout. (These and many more can be found at the Library of Congress and New York Public Library websites). Men toiling to build one of the greatest buildings of the 20th century: the Empire State building.


Those Irish laborers went from dying digging canals in New Orleans to erecting what was, at the time, the greatest building in the world.


So yeah. For me, luck of the Irish takes on a different meaning. In fact, I don’t think it has anything to do with luck at all. For me, luck of the Irish means endurance. It means perseverance, loyalty, the willingness to keep going, and the hope that it will get better.

So this St. Patrick’s Day, raise a glass. Raise a glass of Guinness (or Beamish, or whatever your preferred Irish stout is) to the luck of the Irish- A luck not bestowed, but a luck earned and forged through grit and determination.