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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Immigration
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Immigration Irish
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Joining the Workforce

Irish immigrants often entered the workforce at the bottom of the occupational ladder and took on the menial and dangerous jobs that were often avoided by other workers. Many Irish women became servants or domestic workers, while many Irish men labored in coal mines and built railroads and canals. Railroad construction was so dangerous that it was said, "[there was] an Irishman buried under every tie."

As Irish immigrants moved inland from eastern cities, they found themselves in heated competition for jobs. The audio recording, Immigrant Laborers in the Early 20th Century, describes how West Virginia coal operators fired union laborers and gave the jobs to Irish, Italian and African-American workers because, “[the] coal company owned them.” This competition heightened class tensions and, at the turn of the century, Irish Americans were often antagonized by organizations such as the American Protective Association (APA) and the Ku Klux Klan.

The Irish often suffered blatant or subtle job discrimination. Furthermore, some businesses took advantage of Irish immigrants’ willingness to work at unskilled jobs for low pay. Employers were known to replace (or threaten to replace) uncooperative workers and those demanding higher wages with Irish laborers.

Over time, many Irish climbed occupational and social ladders through politically appointed positions such as policeman, fireman, and teacher. Second and third generation Irish were better educated, wealthier, and more successful than were their parents and grandparents, as illustrated by the Kennedy family. The first Kennedy who arrived in the United States in 1848 was a laborer. His son had modest success in this country, but his grandson, college educated Joseph P. Kennedy, made the fortune that enabled the great grandsons (one of whom became President John F. Kennedy) to achieve great political success.



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