Music in Global America


Header image: Cherish the Ladies, Photo by David Knight. Courtesy of


Approximately 34.5 million Americans—more than ten percent of the total population—are of Irish ancestry. This compares with a population of over 5 million on the island of Ireland. The global Irish diaspora is ten times the population of Ireland and concentrated in the U.S., Canada, England, and Australia. In 2021 President Biden proclaimed March as Irish-American Heritage Month.

The first wave of immigrants from Ireland came to North America in the 18th century,  an estimated 250,000 between 1717 and 1770 alone. Most were Presbyterian Scottish planters who had lived in Ireland for several generations. Finding that land was scarce and expensive on the coast, they settled  first in Pennsylvania, then in the hills of Virginia and Carolina alongside German, English, and other Irish emigrants. Many became pioneers in settling Tennessee, Kentucky, and Texas.

The second large wave of Irish emigration to the New World took place during the 19th century. Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States, a number unmatched by any other European country per capita; and unusually, in comparison to other European countries, single women constituted a significant proportion of this group. Most of the emigrants were poor Catholics from rural areas. An estimated 1.25 million Irish emigrated during the Great Irish Famine of 1844-1852, most to the United States. Another million Irish died during the famine. The emigrants of the 19th and early 20th century settled in cities, especially New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. 

Irish immigration to the U.S. declined in the 1920s, when anti-immigration laws were passed, and during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The economic recessions of the 1950s and 1970s in Ireland led to an estimated 600,000 Irish emigrants, mostly men seeking work in England. 

Ireland's "Celtic Tiger" period of unprecedented economic growth from 1997 to 2007 attracted returning Irish citizens as well as non-national immigrants. In 2002 the total immigrant population stood at 5.8 percent. By 2014 the total had risen to 11.5 percent, of which 8.1 percent came from European Union states. Most asylum applications came from Nigerian nationals (26 percent), followed by Pakistani and Iraqi nationals (about 5 percent each), in figures from 2008. 

Emigration rose substantially following the 2008 collapse of the banking industry. Most recent emigrants are young, highly educated, and destined for England, Australia, or Europe, leading to fears of a brain drain, and a strain on Ireland's aging population. 

[Irial Glynn, "The Re-Emergence of Emigration from Ireland," TransAtlantic Council on Migration, 2015; and "Ireland: From Rapid Immigration to Recession," Migration Policy Institute, Washington, DC, 2009; and Patsy McGarry, "Almost one in eight living in Ireland hail from abroad," The Irish Times, August 16, 2018.]







Wyndham, Andrew Higgins (ed.), Re-Imagining Ireland, Univ. of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2006 

Moloney, Mick, Far from the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish-American Immigration through Song, Crown Publishers, New York, 2002.

Vallely, Fintan, Companion to Irish Traditional Music, 2nd ed., Cork Univ. Press, 2011.

Ó hAllmhuráin, Gearóid, O'Brien's Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music, eBook edition, The O'Brien Press, Dublin, 2012.

Mainer, Wade, Rural Roots of Bluegrass, Native Ground Music, Asheville, NC, 2003.

Ó'Canainn, Tomas, Traditional Music in Ireland, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

Varley, Dennis, Music of Ireland, Dublin: Merlin Publishing, 2001.

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