The Irish immigrants who fled to America during the Great Famine that began in 1846 are usually depicted as leading "gloomy," "poverty-stricken" lives after they arrived in the United States. Their lack of education was thought to be irreparable; the prejudice they faced was considered insurmountable.
But the digitization of millions of census records, city directories, and newspapers enables us to trace the lives of the Famine immigrants to an extent never before possible. Tracking the stories of thousands of New York’s Famine immigrants suggests that the old gloomy depiction is in need of revision. New York’s Famine immigrants enjoyed much more upward mobility than historians have previously imagined.
Only about a quarter of the men ended their lives on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder working as day laborers, longshoreman, and the like. About four in ten concluded their careers running small businesses like groceries and saloons. The Famine refugees were resourceful, ambitious men and women who, more often than not, overcame the obstacles they faced and they typically ended their lives far better off than when they first arrived in New York.
Tyler Anbinder is professor emeritus of History and former chair of the History Department at George Washington University. He is the author of three award-winning books of historical nonfiction: Nativism and Slavery, winner of the Avery Craven Prize of the Organization of American Historians; Five Points, winner of the New York City Book Prize of 2001; and City of Dreams, winner of the Mark Lynton Prize for History.
Professor Anbinder has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and held the Fulbright Thomas Jefferson Chair in American History at the University of Utrecht. He has won awards for his scholarship from the Organization of American Historians, the Columbia University School of Journalism, and the journal Civil War History. He also served as a historical consultant to Martin Scorsese for the making of The Gangs of New York.
His next book, Plentiful Country: The Great Famine and the Making of Irish New York, will be published by Little, Brown and Company and is currently slated for release in Winter 2024. The project's digital history component, created with research assistance from more than two dozen GW students, has already been completed and can be found here.