Approximately a quarter million Irish, 75% of them being Catholic, immigrated to America between 1815 and 1870. A significant portion of these immigrants came to New England, by way of the then British-ruled Canada, for job opportunities on railroads, canals, sewers and other construction sites, and in mills, such as those in various Massachusetts towns. But why come in to North America through Canada and not directly to the United States? It really boils down to money.
The Irish fled their homeland due to poor economic conditions that began with the recession that followed French Revolution. During wartime, Irish agriculture boomed as their beef and dairy products fed British troops; however, when the wars ended, so did Irish agricultural prosperity. From 1815 to 1845, about ¾ million to one million Irishmen left Ireland for North America, but the population leaving Ireland during this time period would be surpassed by about 1-1/2 million Irishmen during and following the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1852.
Fare passage to Canada was much more inexpensive to Canada than it was to America. For one, the British government kept the fares low in order to encourage the Irish to emigrate to Quebec rather than Britain. Secondly, many Canadian vessels carrying lumber to Britain began offering cheap passage aboard the would-be empty vessels back to Canada. Many Irishmen took this opportunity.
Travel to Canada found many Irish immigrants sick with typhus and many did not survive the 3,000 mile journey. Ships entering the Saint Lawrence River would be inspected and any sick passengers would be quarantined in facilities on Grosse Isle, a small island on the river. The worse outbreak of Typhus aboard what became known as coffin ships occurred during the spring and summer of 1847. The inspection facility quickly became overwhelmed with the number of typhus-infected passengers aboard ships. It took days for passengers to see a doctor, and a 15-day general quarantine was imposed for all passengers, during which time many uninfected passengers became infected. The death rate was so high that hundreds of bodies were being disposed of in the river.
Many Irish immigrants who were fortunate to survive their journey to Canada made their way to America, often on foot or by canal. There were not as many job opportunities for them in Canada, and Canada was still under the rule of Britain, whom the Irish was escaping their homeland from. Due to its proximity to Lower Canada, many of these Irish came to settle in New England.
Once in New England, Irish men sought out construction jobs, such as for the railroad. Irish women sometimes settled in mill towns around Massachusetts or took jobs as maids in hotels or private residences. The Irish were the poorest immigrant group to the United States during the 19th century and they were willing to work for extremely low wages, making them more desirable to hire than other ethnic groups.
Irish immigrants suffered many hardships when they arrived in New England. They were discriminated against because of their religion (many were Catholic, and America was a dominantly Protestant nation at the time) and poorness. They were often stereotyped as being alcoholics, lazy violent, and criminal. However, despite illness, poverty, stereotypes and prejudices, the descendants of these Irish immigrants have long since flourished in America.