In search of economic opportunities and - on both sides of the religious divide - freedom from discrimination, sons and daughters of the Emerald Isle thronged to America in two major waves of immigration. In the 18th century, Ulster Presbyterians migrated into the Appalachian Mountains, the first western frontier in America, where they came to be known as the "Scotch-Irish." After the end of the Napoleonic Wars the British Isles suffered extremes of rural poverty and unemployment, and in Ireland (as elsewhere) this produced social unrest. Large numbers of Irish Catholics emigrated between 1815 and 1845, looking for rough pick-and-shovel work in the booming American canal- and railroad-building industries, and the disastrous Potato Famine drove another million and a half of them across the Atlantic between 1845 and 1854. By far the majority settled in Northern cities such as Boston, New York and Chicago, but Southern seaports and river towns - particularly Memphis, New Orleans and Savannah - also witnessed dramatic increases in their Irish populations.
While the majority of immigrants found work in unskilled jobs, budding Irish entrepreneurs set up small shops, grocery stores, taverns, hotels and boardinghouses. Irish professionals made their mark in journalism, education and politics. Cities including Boston, New York, Charleston and New Orleans came to have heavily Irish police forces. The new immigrants established distinctly Irish neighborhoods in America, with strong family and community bonds and stalwart ties to the Catholic Church. They also maintained contacts with the land of their birth, and an ongoing involvement in Irish political and revolutionary causes.
It was middle-class Irish who took the lead in organizing volunteer militia companies in the larger American cities. These companies drilled, engaged in shooting matches, and sponsored balls and banquets, all of which provided important social outlets for the immigrants. Enlisted members often came from the poor laboring class, while officers were usually young sons of the Irish-American professional and
merchant class. Nearly even-large American city had at least one Irish volunteer military company, and some - New York, Chicago, Boston and New Orleans — boasted many.
Militia companies both encouraged American patriotism and boosted Irish pride. Green uniforms, and the generous use of Irish war mottoes and symbols such as the shamrock and the harp, were common. The immigrants often named their companies after Irish national heroes like Robert Emmet, Daniel O'Connell and Patrick Sarsfield, as well as Andrew Jackson (many regarded "Old Hickory" as the first Irish-American president). They paraded on St Patrick's Day as well as on Independence Day and other patriotic occasions.
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