Networks of Opportunity: How Refugees from the Great Irish Famine Survived, and Often Thrived, in New York and Beyond
Cormac Ó Gráda
As he trudged down the gangplank from the sailing ship West Point and first set foot in New York in March 1851, forty-seven-year-old Cornelius Sullivan must have felt a combination of exhaustion and exhilaration. Sullivan was a native of Tuosist, a remote parish of green mountain peaks in County Kerry in the southwest corner of Ireland. Before fleeing Tuosist, he, his wife “Norry” (short for Honora), and his four children—seventeen-year-old Mary, fifteen-year-old Timothy, ten-year-old Norry and seven-year-old Daniel—had eked out a livelihood on the estate of an English landlord, the Marquis of Lansdowne, whose 12,000 tenants were some of the most destitute, ill-clad, and decrepitly housed inhabitants of Ireland. Lansdowne was a prominent Whig politician who rarely set foot in Ireland to see how his tenants lived on his 105 square-mile property. They “are nearly half naked, and are but half fed,” reported an Englishman who did visit the estate a few years before the onset in 1845 of the potato blight that led to the great Irish Famine. Rev. John O’Sullivan, Catholic archdeacon of the estate’s only town, Kenmare (pop. 1,300 in 1841), called his parishioners "the most wretched people upon the face of the globe."
The Famine made these already miserable conditions on the Lansdowne estate truly catastrophic. "Nothing more usual than to find four or five bodies in the street every morning,” wrote O’Sullivan in his diary in 1847. “The cries of starving hundreds that besiege me” are so incessant, he told a government official in London, that they “ring in my ears during the night.” As the death toll climbed still further, a newspaper called Tuosist a “living tomb.”
The British government sought to pass the responsibility for helping the Famine’s victims to local Irish taxpayers. This meant that the cost of relief in the Kenmare area fell primarily on the shoulders of local farmers and landlords, and especially on Lansdowne as the area’s major land owner. The fiscal burden of the unprecedented crisis was too much for taxpayers other than Lansdowne, and soon the local relief board (like those all across Ireland) was on the verge of bankruptcy. As a consequence, assistance was grossly inadequate, and hundreds of Lansdowne’s tenants died of starvation or starvation-related diseases in 1847, 1848, 1849, and 1850—collapsing in their huts, on the roads, and in Kenmare’s overcrowded and disease-ridden workhouse. Lansdowne’s tenants therefore rejoiced when his estate agent announced, at the end of 1850, that the Marquis would pay for their emigration. That winter, Cornelius Sullivan and his family, along with 1,700 other Lansdowne tenants, were taken to Cork, where they boarded steam-powered ferries to England and then transatlantic sailing vessels for the month-long voyage to the United States.
Even in a metropolis like New York, teeming with one hundred thousand Famine refugees by 1851, the Lansdowne immigrants stood out. New York’s Evening Post lamented that Lansdowne’s tenants had been shamefully dumped on the docks “in a starving condition.” The Sun called them “the most miserable looking creatures that we have ever seen landed upon our shores.” Sullivan and hundreds of his kinsmen and former neighbors had to live at the charity boarding house run by the New York Commissioners of Emigration. He and his son Daniel were still lodging there (or had returned there) on May 7, five weeks after their arrival in New York, while Honora and the three eldest children were living at the city almshouse on Wards Island.
Given his precarious circumstances, Sullivan did something on May 7 that might surprise us—he opened a bank account. When he walked into the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank on Chambers Street behind City Hall, he placed $5 (about a week’s wages for a day laborer, and about $165 in today’s money )on the counter as his first deposit. The bank secretary asked Sullivan exactly where in Ireland he had been born, the date he had arrived in America, the name of the ship on which he had travelled, where he was living, and what his occupation was (Sullivan said “farmer”). The secretary eventually recorded Sullivan’s mother’s maiden name as well; the bank was apparently the first financial institution to use this information for security purposes.
Life must have been incredibly difficult for the Sullivans. Little Norry died sometime during the family’s first six weeks in America. Soon Cornelius moved the rest of his family out of the almshouse and into a dilapidated apartment among brothels and bawdy basement dance halls on Little Water Street, one of the seediest blocks in the city’s most notorious slum, Five Points, where hundreds of other Lansdowne tenants had also settled. Scraping by was difficult. Three months after Sullivan opened his account, he withdrew his $5 and closed it. But the Sullivans were determined to stop living hand to mouth. A year later, they opened a new account. Their initial deposit, $136 (about six months wages for an unskilled man, and equal to about $4,500 in 2018), represented a feat of savings that must have required enormous work and frugality by every member of the family.
After first placing his wife and kids in the city almshouse, Cornelius Sullivan eventually moved them to 7 Little Water Street (the building at the far left behind the man standing next to the lamp post) in in the Lansdowne enclave in New York’s Five Points neighborhood. Negative 33648, Prints and Photographs Collection, New-York Historical Society.
For the next several years, the Sullivans struggled to save. Their balance rose and fell—dipping, for example, around the time that their fifth child, Margaret, was born. Like many Famine immigrants, Cornelius sought to improve his financial circumstances through entrepreneurship—in July of 1855 he reported that he was a peddler. Beginning in 1858, the family saved much more steadily and moved to an apartment diagonally across the Five Points intersection on Worth Street. Perhaps Honora took in laundry or boarders.Mary and Timothy were old enough to get full-time jobs by this point as well. Whatever the case, by 1859 the Sullivans’ account held $238. A year after that, when Cornelius had returned to day labor, their balance reached $341. In 1861, it climbed to $447; by September of 1862, $600. Near the end of the American Civil War, in January 1865, their balance peaked at $1,173 (equal to about $18,000 in 2018), quite a feat for a family mired in poverty and on the brink of starvation in the “living tomb” of Tuosist fourteen years earlier.
Throughout their early years in America, the Sullivans utilized Irish immigrant networks to help them survive, and ultimately thrive, in their unfamiliar new hometown. Word of mouth would have led them to the charity lodging house; intelligence from other Lansdowne immigrants must have directed them to Five Points; and networking was crucial for finding that first job as well as transitioning to higher paying, more secure employment. For most Famine emigrants (though not the Sullivans), networks relaying information and remittances would have also played a crucial role in the decision to emigrate and the ability to do so.
That immigrants such as Sullivan used social networks to navigate the trials and tribulations of their migration to America will come as no surprise to scholars of migration. Such networks have been widely chronicled, in particular by social scientists examining contemporary migration. The subject has also received some attention from historians. Within the United States, networking is particularly well known among those who study Italian and eastern European Jewish immigration history. American Jews assisted newly arrived landsmen infinding housing and employment and also joined with them to form mutual aid and burial societies. Italians famously practiced campanilismo, favoritism for others born within earshot of the same church bell tower (campanile). Jacob Riis noted this tendency in the late nineteenth century, reporting that the immigrants from the Basilicata village of Auletta concentrated on New York’s Elizabeth Street, while on “Mulberry, Mott, and Thompson streets downtown, and in the numbered streets of Little Italy uptown, almost every block has its own village.” Settlement house founder Jane Addams claimed to have observed the same tendency in Chicago, stating that Italians sought to fill “an entire tenement-house with the people from one village.” While American historians have studied immigrant networks most within those two communities, some have considered their impact on the Irish immigrant experience as well.
Yet there are several crucial weaknesses in the historical literature on immigrant networks. First, much of it is based on impressionistic sources that are at times demonstrably inaccurate. Despite Riis’s oft-cited assertions, there were many times more Italian villages represented in New York’s Italian immigrant community than there were blocks in its Little Italies. Each village could not possibly have had its own block, or even half block. Second, the literature implies that all immigrants network, and that those within a particular group do so to the same extent, yet that, too, seems hard to believe. Finally, the scholarship on immigrant networking rarely addresses the actual impact of such activity on the newcomers’ lives. We are told that immigrants networked to determine where to live and find work, but we never learn how networkers fared compared to those who struck out on their own and shunned assistance from fellow countrymen.
The Emigrant Savings Bank’s ledger books, containing extraordinary detail about the precise birthplace, emigration experience, residence, and employment history of tens of thousands of Irish immigrants, enable historians to learn far more about its customers than other mid-nineteenth-century New Yorkers. One of us (Anbinder) previously exploited the bank’s records in an article examining the savings habits of the Famine Irish immigrants. That essay, which appeared in The Journal of American History in 2012, used a sample of 900 of the bank’s customers from the 1850s to make two main points: 1) that the Famine immigrants managed to save more than one would have imagined; and 2) that the longstanding use of the "rags to riches" yardstick for judging immigrant financial achievement is misguided and ought to be scrapped. Given the relatively small sample utilized in that study, however, Anbinder could not determine the causes of the patterns he found. What differentiated those who saved more than the median from those who saved less? Why were day laborers and other unskilled workers able to save more, on average, than skilled artisans? What differentiated the unskilled workers from County Cork, who saved very little, from the unskilled workers from neighboring County Kerry, who saved much more? In other words, what separated Irish immigrants who flourished financially from those who did not? To answer these questions, Anbinder joined forces with economic historians Cormac Ó Gráda and Simone Wegge, and together they oversaw the transcription of tens of thousands of handwritten ship manifests, census schedules, and bank ledger entries into a database covering more than 15,000 immigrants. Then, with the help of a professional genealogist, they tracked several thousand of them longitudinally, discovering what the immigrants were doing and where they were living twenty or more years after their arrival in America so that these questions, so fundamental to American social and economic history, could be answered.
Analysis of the lives of these Famine immigrants leads to a number of important conclusions. First, while it is not surprising that networks of family, friends, and neighbors played a major role in determining who emigrated during the Famine, where they settled in New York, and what jobs they took there, the impact of these networks is much larger than one might imagine. For example, the Famine emigration varied not only from Irish region to region and county to county, but even from parish to parish within most Irish counties. The factor that seems to have determined which parishes sent large numbers of immigrants to New York was not the severity of the Famine there or the wealth of the inhabitants, but rather the number of pre-Famine emigrants from that locale who could help Famine victims make the trip once the disaster struck. Second, once in New York, those who lived in enclaves with others from the same Irish parish saved significantly more than those who eschewed such enclaves. Likewise, emigrants who created occupational niches with natives of the same Irish parish accumulated substantially more savings than those who did not create such specializations, even if the niche was in a low-paid field like day labor. Third, despite the historiographic consensus that most unskilled Famine immigrants were doomed to lives of poverty in the United States, many accumulated significant savings—primarily through employment niches, self-employment, retail success, or moving west (sometimes no further than New Jersey) where opportunities for real estate ownership and other forms of socio-economic advancement were more plentiful. The unskilled actually saved more than most artisans—probably because they were more willing than tradesmen to try their luck at other, potentially more lucrative lines of employment.
Our Database and Terminology
Thanks to a $290,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, we were able to hire a small army of research assistants to transcribe into Microsoft Excel every piece of information the bank had on the individuals who, from 1850 to 1858, opened the first 18,000 accounts. This stopping point was chosen because deposit and withdrawal ledgers are extant only for these accounts. We then searched the bank’s records for any other information on these 15,700 individuals—many opened additional accounts after 1858, yielding a subsequent address, occupation, marital status, and so forth. Next, we looked on Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org for additional information on the depositors, especially in manuscript federal and state census population schedules. The research assistants could find only about one in ten depositors in the census, but our staff genealogist, Janet Wilkinson Schwartz, had a success rate of more than 50 percent. We did not have enough funding to pay her to search for all the depositors in our dataset, but we did locate nearly 5,000 of them in some census record. Combining census data with other sources, we managed to track down occupation and address information from 1860 or later for 41 percent of the 8,200 depositors who left Ireland during the Famine, making ours by far the largest longitudinal database of Famine emigrants created to date.
The Emigrant Bank’s customers were not a perfect cross-section of New York’s Irish immigrant community, but in most ways that can be measured, they appear to be fairly representative of the city’s Irish-born population. Twenty-six percent of them arrived in the United States before the Famine, for example, compared to 23 percent of all New York’s Irish immigrants. In terms of occupations, too, the bank’s depositors also track the city’s overall Irish population fairly well.
Occupations of Male Emigrant Savings Bank Customers Compared to the Overall New York City Population
Most Common Jobs in Category
Male Irish-Born Bank Depositors, 1850-1858
All Male NYC Irish Immigrants, 1855
Lower-Status White Collar
Tailor, Carpenter, Shoemaker
Laborer, Waiter, Porter
Difficult to Categorize
Source: Emigrant Savings Bank Depositor Database; occupations of all New York’s male Irish immigrants adapted from Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City, 1825-1863 (New York, 1949; repr. ed., Syracuse, 1994), 214-17.
The size of our database also adds to the confidence one can put in its representativeness. As of 1855, about 6 percent of New York’s 140,000 adult Irish immigrants were customers of the Emigrant Bank. Given that just over half of New York’s adult Irish immigrants were married, and that only a small fraction of accounts was owned by husbands and wives jointly, perhaps as many as 10 percent of Irish-immigrant households were customers of the bank. 
The strongest case against the representativeness of the Emigrant Bank’s Irish-born customers might be the assumption that having a bank account at all was atypical. Perhaps only the most successful 10 percent of Irish families opened accounts. Yet there is no evidence to support such a conclusion, and much to contradict it. Many more New Yorkers patronized savings banks in the 1850s than we might imagine. Only 3 percent of New York’s savings bank customers had accounts at the Emigrant as of 1855. At the end of that year, there were 133,000 savings accounts open in New York, a city with 380,000 adult inhabitants. Given that only 10% of these accounts were joint accounts owned by two or more people (usually married couples), and that half of adult New Yorkers were married, that means that about half of adult New Yorkers lived in a household with a savings account. Nor is there reason to believe that Irish immigrants opened accounts less frequently than other New Yorkers. Data from Philadelphia, banks recorded the birthplace of a much higher proportion of their customers, indicates that the proportion of savings accounts owned by Irish immigrants there was even larger than their share of the overall population.
Besides, since we are examining what factors separated immigrants who saved more from those who saved less, and not making blanket statements about how much money all Irish New Yorkers saved, it does not really matter if the Emigrant Bank’s customers represent a precise cross-section of Irish New York. The bank’s ledgers document the lives thousands of Famine immigrants who managed to save a lot, and thousands who did not. Teasing out what tended to separate the former group from the latter allows us to draw a far more nuanced portrait of the Famine immigrants and better understand the lives they made for themselves in America.
Before we do so, a few words concerning terminology are necessary. When we use the term “network” (both as a noun and a verb), we do so in the most commonly used meaning of that word: As a verb, we use “network” to denote interacting with others to exchange information, especially to improve one’s financial or professional prospects. As a noun, we define a “network” as a group of people acquainted with each other through ties such as birthplace, residential neighborhood, work, or kinship. “Network theory” and “social network analysis” have recently become popular fields of inquiry, especially as scholars increasingly use Big Data to rediscover connections from the past that have been forgotten over time, but we are not attempting to engage that literature. We also use the words “entrepreneur” and “entrepreneurial” fairly frequently. The latter term, in particular in recent years, has taken on a variety of meanings in common vernacular. We use these terms, however, in their traditional sense. We consider “entrepreneurs” to be people who start and run their own businesses, typically risking some capital to do so, while “entrepreneurial” immigrants are ones who take such risks rather than limiting themselves to wage labor or piece work.
Networks of Birth
The networks that played such an important role in shaping the Famine immigrants’ lives often had their origins in the depositors’ birthplaces within Ireland. In previous scholarship, the Famine immigrants’ precise hometowns have usually remained a mystery. When looking at the birthplaces of the Emigrant Bank’s Irish-born depositors who opened accounts from October 1850 to October 1858, several surprises emerge. The first is that County Dublin was a leading source of Irish immigration to New York. Previous scholarship on Famine emigration, which used Ireland’s population decline from 1841 to 1851 in conjunction with Famine death reports to infer emigration rates, failed to detect any emigration from Dublin because its population rose during the crisis as thousands migrated there in search of work or charity. Second, an even bigger source of Irish New Yorkers than County Dublin was central and south Ulster. Scholars of Irish demography have long understood that County Cavan sent large numbers of emigrants to the United States during the Famine, but that other Ulster counties such as Tyrone and Monaghan did so too is not well known. 
Birth County of Famine Immigrants Who Opened Accounts at New York’s Emigrant Savings Bank from 1850 to 1858
Even more surprising is the large variation of emigration rates withineach county, and these disparities resulted in large part from the snowball effect of emigrant networking. In County Cork, for example, which sent more Famine emigrants to New York than any other, some parishes contributed dozens of customers to the Emigrant Bank’s depositor rolls, while others (often right next door) contributed very few or, in 30 percent of the parishes, none at all. This sharp parish-to-parish variation in emigration occurred across Ireland. For example, while County Tipperary ranked fourth when tabulating the birthplace of Irish-born Emigrant Bank customers, 40 percent of its parishes were completely unrepresented. The same proportion of parishes in County Kilkenny was absent from the depositor ledgers—in fact, half of County Kilkenny’s bank customers came from just five places (the town of Kilkenny and four other parishes). The most extreme example of this clustering of occurred in Kerry—half of its Emigrant Bank depositors came from just three of the county’s eighty-six parishes (the three owned almost entirely by Lansdowne). Only in Ulster and north midlands counties such as Cavan, Leitrim, Longford, Monaghan, and Tyrone—counties divided into a small number of large parishes—does one find virtually every parish represented among the bank’s customers. One might imagine that the variation in emigration from parish to parish resulted merely from the differences in their populations. But even when measuring emigration as a proportion of the pre-Famine population, the rate still varied dramatically from one parish to another, albeit to a lesser extent in the south Ulster/north midlands area, where the emigration rate was more consistent.
Birth Parish of Irish Famine Immigrants Who Opened Accounts at New York’s Emigrant Savings Bank from 1850 to 1858
The 10,800 Famine immigrants who opened accounts at the Emigrant Bank from 1850 to 1858 hailed from about 1,600 of Ireland’s 2,400 civil parishes. But in most of Ireland’s thirty-two counties, there were four or five parishes that contributed disproportionately large numbers of emigrants. Source: Emigrant Savings Bank Depositor Database.
Interactive Map of Per Capita Irish Famine-Era Emigration Rate by Parish as Documented in New York’s Emigrant Savings Bank Customer Rolls, 1850-1858
Click on any part of the map to zoom in and learn more about the emigration rate of a particular locale. Click on the red rectangles to learn more about the immigrants from that particular county, city, or town. Click on the pull-down menus to change the data or time period displayed.
Networks were essential in determining which parishes sent emigrants to New York and which did not. Those parts of Ireland whose inhabitants emigrated to New York in large numbers during the Famine were almost always areas of significant pre-Famine migration. A parish-by-parish comparison of pre-Famine and Famine emigration demonstrates just how important these networks were. Parishes that had sent few immigrants to New York before the Famine rarely sent large numbers there after the crisis hit, whereas almost all the parishes that were large sources of New York’s Famine immigrants had sent a significant number to the city before the potato blight struck:
Birth Parishes of Emigrant Bank Depositors from County Kerry Who Left Ireland Before 1846
Birth Parishes of Emigrant Bank Depositors from County Kerry Who Left Ireland From 1846 to 1858
Birth Parishes of Emigrant Bank Depositors from County Donegal Who Left Ireland Before 1846
Birth Parishes of Emigrant Bank Depositors from County Donegal Who Left Ireland From 1846 to 1858
In each county, the parishes with higher levels of pre-Famine emigration were always the ones with the highest Famine emigration too, suggesting that a significant pre-Famine emigration was almost a precondition for a heavy Famine-era exodus. Areas with little pre-Famine emigration almost never show more than moderate Famine-era migration, and this holds true even when emigration is measured on a per capita basis. No other factor seems to explain this pattern. These parishes were not consistently wealthy or poor. Some were fairly isolated, but others were not. Some had particularly high mortality rates during the Famine but in others that was not the case. The only factor we could find that most of the high-Famine-emigration parishes had in common was relatively high pre-Famine emigration. This connection probably results from early emigrants sending passage money to those left behind. The immigration trailblazers may have also written letters encouraging those who remained in Ireland to emigrate or promised to help the Famine victims find housing and work in New York. Whatever the reason, the network effect is apparent. The parish-level emigration rate to New York during the Famine was determined far less by the severity of the catastrophe in any given locale than the rate at which one’s neighbors had previously moved there. We suspect that the presence of pre-existing emigration networks strongly influenced which parishes sent large numbers of Famine victims to New York and which did not.
Following the lead of earlier generations of immigrants—both Irish and non-Irish—the Famine refugees asked the advice of previous emigrants in deciding where in New York to live. But when doing so, they did not merely talk with any Irishmen. Instead, they consulted others from their own county, parish, or even their “townland,” a sub-parish division of land that could range in size from a few hundred inhabitants to as few as a dozen or so.
New York City’s Wards, 1855, Showing the Location of the Emigrant Savings Bank and Its Competitors
After seeking guidance from these already established immigrants, the greenhorns chose where to make their homes. Some spread out relatively evenly across the city, and this was especially the case with the immigrants from big Irish towns. The largest Irish contingent in New York, the Dubliners, dispersed all over Manhattan, as did the second biggest, from the city of Cork.
Interactive Map of the Residence of Irish-Born New Yorkers by Irish Birthplace, 1850-1858
This map shows the fairly even distribution of Dubliners throughout New York City. Click on the “Back” button on the upper left and then zoom out to see other parts of Ireland, surrounded by red rectangles, whose emigrants can be mapped by place of residence in New York. Those from County Cavan and the city of Cork spread out fairly evenly across Manhattan, while those from the Lansdowne estate in Kerry, Castlegregory (also in Kerry), County Sligo, Killybegs and vicinity in Donegal, and Bodoney Lower in Tyrone all formed fairly tight residential clusters.
The third largest Irish contingent in New York, from the town of Limerick, could also be found all across the city, though a large number chose to settle in the heavily Irish Fourth Ward along the East River piers. The next biggest Famine-era contingents from urban Ireland—from Clonmel in south-central Ireland, Belfast in the northeast, and the town of Kilkenny in the southeast—also spread widely and relatively evenly across the city. There were some exceptions, and almost all of them involved newcomers from towns in Kerry and Cork in southwest Ireland. But other than immigrants from those counties, Famine refugees from large Irish towns rarely clustered tightly in New York.
Famine emigrants from the Ireland’s countryside far outnumbered those from its cities, however, and these rural folk were far more likely than their urban countrymen to settle in close-knit enclaves in New York. Because the city was so big and nearly all the Famine immigrants walked to work, Irish newcomers from a particular parish tended to create two or three enclaves in Manhattan rather than just one. Three-quarters of the immigrants from Kildorrery in northeast Cork, for example, lived in just three New York wards—the First at the southern tip of Manhattan, the Fourth along the East River, and the Seventeenth further up the East Side. More than 90 percent of the immigrants from Kilgarvan in southwest Kerry settled in three downtown wards—the First, the Fourth, and the Sixth, while two-thirds of the immigrants from Ballingarry in Tipperary concentrated in the Sixth downtown and the Eighteenth uptown.
Immigrants from the midlands and northern Ireland sometimes clustered in the same manner, albeit often in different wards than their southern Irish compatriots. Almost all the emigrants from Castletown parish in Meath concentrated uptown, especially on the West Side, in Wards Sixteen, Eighteen, and Twenty. Nearly three quarters of the emigrants born in the County Tyrone parish of Bodoney Lower in central Ulster settled in the Seventh and Thirteenth Wards along the Manhattan’s East River waterfront. In contrast, emigrants from the contiguous parishes of Ahamlish and Drumcliff along the Irish coast in northern County Sligo lived away from New York’s waterfront in Wards Six and Fourteen, while those from Killybegs Upper and neighboring Kilcar on the sea in southwest Donegal clustered inland as well in Wards Fourteen and Seventeen.
In some cases, the Famine refugees from a particular parish concentrated in a single large enclave. Sixty percent of the emigrants from the parish of Stranorlar in eastern Donegal, for example, lived in the Fourth Ward. Eighty percent of the emigrants from the three parishes primarily owned by Lansdowne in southwest Kerry resided in the Sixth Ward, while 89 percent of the emigrants from the parish of Killiney in northwest Kerry settled uptown on the East Side in the Eighteenth Ward. In rare cases, immigrants created enclaves on certain blocks. Almost all of the Lansdowne immigrants, for example, concentrated on just a few blocks within the Five Points neighborhood: Baxter Street just north of Worth, Worth just west of Baxter, and Mission Place (previously Little Water) on either side of Worth. Likewise, immigrants from Ahamlish and Drumcliff parishes in north Sligo settled a few blocks north of the Lansdowne enclave, on Mulberry Street just above and below Canal Street.
In the 1850s and ’60s, these four buildings on the east side of Baxter Street just north of Worth, the heart of the Kenmare enclave in Ward Six, housed dozens of immigrants from the Lansdowne estate in southwest Kerry. G. W. Pach, “View in the Five Points,” 1875, Image G91F179_046F, New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Religion also helped determine where New York’s Irish immigrants settled. The Emigrant Bank did not ask immigrants about their religious affiliations, but by examining the names of the depositors, especially those from northeast Ireland where a preponderance of Irish Protestants lived, one can identify Irish Protestant bank customers with a fairly high degree of confidence. Irish Protestants were less likely to live in the Lower East Side wards favored by the immigrants from southwest Ireland, and much more likely to live uptown in the wards north of Fourteenth Street. The Ulster Protestants were also more likely than their Catholic counterparts to live on the West Side of Manhattan (in Wards Five, Eight, Nine, and Fifteen) where native-born Protestants predominated. Quite a few Ulster Catholics also settled in the uptown wards favored by Ulster Protestants, but if they lived downtown they gravitated to the East Side. 
Networks also played a role in determining the occupations of New York’s Irish immigrants. Although hard evidence is lacking, newly arriving Famine refugees must have consulted with those already established in New York about where they should look for work. Indeed, some may have been enticed to emigrate by promises that family or friends would help them find employment. The results of such networking are manifest in the bank records. One group consisted of immigrants from the Donegal parishes of Kilcar, Killybegs Upper, and Killaghtee, situated next to each other on the southwest Donegal coast. While these parishes contained only 5 percent of the county’s pre-Famine population, they accounted for a quarter of New York’s Donegal-born Emigrant Bank customers. These immigrants specialized in a single trade: peddling. In fact, 20 percent of all male Irish peddlers with accounts at the Emigrant Bank in the 1850s came from those three parishes. There is no evidence that these immigrants had worked as peddlers in Donegal, where fishing, farming, and weaving were the predominant occupations. A second group of Donegal immigrants, living primarily in the Fourth Ward, concentrated in leather production. These “morocco dressers,” who cured goat hides for use as cheap leather for book binding, upholstery, and shoes, emigrated primarily from Donaghmore and Stranorlar, two contiguous parishes in east central Donegal. 
We find a similar story among the immigrants from another northern county, Tyrone, immediately east of Donegal. Large numbers of immigrants from Tyrone sought employment in the charcoal trade. Of the Emigrant Bank depositors whose Irish origins are known and who worked in New York’s charcoal business in any capacity—from charcoal merchant all the way down to charcoal wagon driver—96 percent were from County Tyrone. Sixty-eight percent of these workers were from just one of Tyrone’s forty-two parishes: Bodoney Lower.
Famine refugees from southern Ireland sometimes created occupational niches as well. More than half of the male immigrants from Castlegregory (pop. 500), for example, found employment in Manhattan as “gasmen,” working at the hulking New York Gas Works that occupied an entire city block northeast of the corner of First Avenue and East Twenty-first Street.These immigrants spent their days shoveling tons of coal into huge “retorts,” in which the coal was heated to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The gas produced at that temperature was channeled into condensing and purifying units before being stored in huge tanks, among the biggest structures in the city. They supplied fuel to the city’s thousands of gaslights. Once the gas-making process was complete, the gasmen had to shovel out the coal ash that remained in the retorts before starting the process all over again. This was noxious, dangerous, unhealthy work, but year after year new immigrants from Castlegregory flocked to it. A majority of all male New Yorkers from Castlegregory were employed at the gas works; perhaps a quarter of all its Irish employees were from this one tiny town. Like the southwest Donegal peddlers and the west Tyrone charcoal sellers, these Castlegregory immigrants adapted to an occupation wholly foreign to them before they arrived in America.
The Lansdowne immigrants from southwest Kerry had their own occupational niche of sorts—day labor. While only 28 percent of other male Famine immigrants worked as day laborers, 67 percent of Lansdowne’s former tenants did so, primarily on construction sites in the city’s booming commercial and residential building industries. This concentration must have been a conscious choice to some extent. The Lansdowne immigrants were no more likely than other newcomers from southwest Ireland to arrive in New York without training in an artisanal craft, and there were plenty of other jobs available to those without prior experience, such as hostler, janitor, longshoreman, porter, and watchman. Irish immigrants from parts of Meath and Sligo gravitated especially to day labor as well.
About a third of all male Famine immigrants found jobs in New York that required artisanal training that they may have received before they emigrated, and some of these newcomers were part of occupational clusters too. As one might expect, these immigrants were primarily from Ireland’s cities and large towns. A disproportionate number of Irishmen from Clonmel in Tipperary, for example, worked in New York as carpenters. The skilled emigrants from Ireland’s three biggest cities—Dublin, Cork, and Belfast—all clustered in the printing industry. Only 1 percent of Irish-born men in New York worked as printers, but about a quarter of the men from those three cities followed that trade.
Employment options for Irish women were far more circumscribed than for men. Eighty-six percent of Famine immigrant women who worked for pay toiled as domestic servants, washerwomen, or in the needle trades, but the vast majority were domestics. With so few employment options, women did not apparently make use of employment networks specific to their Irish birthplaces the way men did. But women from Irish cities were much less likely to be employed as domestics than women from rural areas. Women from Dublin, Belfast, and Limerick chose needlework over domestic service by a large margin. It is hard to determine whether these women chose employment in the needle trades because they had gained experience in it while living in Ireland or because they were led to it by their social networks in New York. It is also possible that emigrants from urban Ireland, who were much more likely either to have worked as domestics or known women who had, consciously avoided taking such jobs in New York.
Networks and Savings
Networks played an important role not merely in determining who came to the United States and what the immigrants did after they arrived, but also in how much financial success they enjoyed in America. The most important factor that influenced how much money immigrants could accumulate, however, was their line of work. Among the men, predictably, doctors and lawyers saved the most, followed by business owners such as saloonkeepers and grocers. More surprising, though, is how much money peddlers managed to save. They accumulated more than both skilled tradesmen and clerks (often a lot more—Famine peddlers’ average savings was nearly double that of Famine artisans).
Highest Bank Balances Achieved by Male Irish Famine Immigrants Living in New York City, by Occupational Category at Time First Bank Account Was Opened
|Occupational Category||Median Highest Balance||Avg. Highest Balance||Most Common Jobs in the Category|
|Business Owners||$340||$666||Salonkeeper, grocer|
|Lower-Status White Collar||$226||$377||Clerk|
|Skilled Tradesmen||$150||$317||Tailor, carpenter, shoemaker|
|Unskilled Workers||$170||$302||Day laborer, waiter, porter|
Highest Bank Balances Achieved by Female Irish Famine Immigrants Living in New York City, by Occupational Category at Time First Bank Account Was Opened
|Occupational Category||Median Highest Balance||Avg. Highest Balance||Most Common Jobs in the Category|
|Business Owners||$235||$408||Boardinghouse keeper, grocer|
|Petty Entrepreneurs||$105||$291||Fruit peddler|
|Nurses||$111||$233||Hospital and private nurses|
|Laundresses||$113||$191||"Washer" and "ironer"|
Comparison of Highest Bank Balances Achieved by the Native-Born and Major Immigrant Groups in New York City, by Occupational Category
|Occupational Category||Irish Median Highest Balance||German Median High Balance||Native-Born Median High Balance|
|Lower-Status White Collar||$226||$172||$399|
|Female Needle Trades||$85||$102||$204|
Source: Emigrant Savings Bank Depositor Database. The last chart compares Famine Irish immigrants only to Germans who emigrated in those same years, 1846-58. The depositors did not necessarily still work in the same occupational category when they reached their peak balance. These figures denote the median householdsavings of individuals who worked in the occupational category listed when they opened their first bank accounts. When we refer to “household savings,” we mean we counted every account owned by a member of the depositor’s family living with the depositor to determine the depositor’s savings. If a day laborer had $100 in his account, and simultaneously his seamstress daughter living with him had her own account with $50, we considered both balances in determining their savings, and marked each as having a household balance of $150. As best we can determine, the 15,700 depositors in our database lived in 12,800 households.
Peak Bank Balances Achieved by Famine Immigrants Living in New York City and Brooklyn, Categorized by Occupation When First Bank Account Was Opened
|Sailor or Boatman||$135||$441||51|
|Domestic Servant (female)||$99||$205||1,011|
|ALL FAMINE IRISH||$155||$383||6,248|
Source: Emigrant Savings Bank Depositor Database. The “policeman” category includes all Irish-born depositors working as policemen, not just those who arrived after 1845. It also includes Irish immigrants who became policemen after they opened their first Emigrant Bank account. We included them in the policeman data to provide a more robust sample, because only four Irish-born depositors who immigrated after 1845 worked as policemen when they opened accounts from 1850 to 1858. The expanded police sample includes seventeen Famine immigrants who became policemen after opening their first accounts, thirty-seven pre-Famine immigrant policemen, and two whose immigration date is not known. The four Famine immigrants who were policemen when they opened their accounts actually saved more than the larger sample group.
The bank records show that entrepreneurship was the quickest way to wealth in the United States. Of the occupational groups that saved the most money, most were small business owners. Thomas Finton (later spelled Fenton) from County Waterford, for example, worked for nearly a decade as a gardener after his arrival in New York in 1849 at age thirty-two, saving nearly $1,000, before opening a saloon north of Harlem. That business was far more lucrative than gardening, and by 1870 he owned $10,000 in New York real estate. Fenton showed a level of frugality that was characteristic of Famine immigrants. Psychologically scarred by their experience, many remained exceedingly thrifty (some obsessively so) even when it was no longer necessary. When Fenton died in 1899, the courts valued his clothing at $10 and his other possessions at $50, but when the miser’s heirs opened a small safe found among those items, they were shocked to discover passbooks from thirty bank accounts with balances totaling $90,000.
It is hardly surprising that business owners like saloonkeepers made so much money. But even petty entrepreneurs like peddlers could amass substantial savings. More than a third of the Famine immigrants who worked as peddlers saved $500 (equal to nearly $15,000 today), and the median peddler saved more than $300. Male peddlers, who sold a larger variety of goods and traveled more widely and freely, earned much more than female peddlers, who stuck close to home and overwhelmingly sold fruit from street-corner tables. James McShane, for example, arrived in New York from Killybegs in 1851, quickly found the network of Killybegs peddlers, and settled in their Fourteenth Ward enclave. By 1856, he had saved $574. Historians have characterized peddling as “an occupation of last resort” for Irish immigrants, one they turned to when they had no other options, but that does not appear to have been the case for the bulk of New York’s Irish peddlers.
We also found it surprising that unskilled Famine immigrants saved more than those who came to America with an artisanal skill, a result that may also relate to the entrepreneurial opportunities open to unskilled workers. The amount of money a porter earned, for example, depended on how long a day he was willing to work, how quickly he completed each job, and how well he negotiated his fee with each customer. Consequently, porters saved more money than Irish tradesmen. Cartmen—essentially porters who no longer had to carry their loads on their backs—accumulated even more than porters. Patrick Barry, for example, who emigrated from Kildorrery in 1851, became a porter in New York and by 1860 had saved $1,522.Barry became a cartman sometime between 1860 and 1870, by which point he had also bought real estate valued at $15,000. Barry and his compatriots understood how lucrative the transition from wage earner to self-employment could be.
It is understandable why porters could save sizable sums, but why day laborers were able to squirrel away even more than many tradesmen—including blacksmiths, butchers, carpenters, metal workers, painters, plasterers, printers, stone cutters, and tailors—is harder to determine. It is possible that there was a greater demand in New York’s booming construction industry for day laborers than for workers in these other fields. Native-born artisans as well as immigrants from other places (especially the German states and England) competed for jobs in these skilled trades, while day labor became virtually the exclusive purview of the Irish. Furthermore, in an era before backhoes, elevators, and construction cranes, each construction site needed far more day laborers than carpenters or painters (many bricklayers were required, but the Irish seemed to have been frozen out of that field). As a result, day laborers may have fared better than contemporary observers imagined.
Day laborers also seem to have transitioned into entrepreneurial pursuits far more often than tradesmen, and this fact explains, in part, the surprisingly high savings of these immigrants. We were able to track nearly 1,000 unskilled male Famine immigrants and the same number of skilled immigrants to determine the occupations that they held in the years after they opened their initial Emigrant Bank account. Irish artisans tended to stick to their trades much more so than day laborers and other unskilled workers. Only 9 percent of the skilled workers later worked as peddlers or business owners, while 20 percent of unskilled men made that leap. Edmund Butler from the tiny townland of Rathnagard (pop. 89) in mountainous north-central Cork, for example, arrived in New York at age twenty-four in May 1849 with his mother and two brothers, settled near the East River waterfront, and took a job as a stevedore. By 1856, he had saved about $100 in his Emigrant Bank account. As Butler hauled sacks, crates, and barrels on and off ships, he noticed that while in some months work was slow, in others the managers of the shipping lines were desperate to find enough longshoremen to offload and reload the vessels efficiently. He decided to become a labor contractor, striking agreements with shipping companies to supply labor on their docks at a certain price, hiring other Irish immigrants to do the work, and pocketing the difference. Although there were risks involved in such undertakings and some entrepreneurs invariably failed, the potential profits for clever and enterprising contractors were substantial. Butler eventually became one of the largest suppliers of labor on the New York and Brooklyn waterfronts and by 1870 he owned a home in Brooklyn worth $7,000. It is possible that day laborers viewed that vocation as a stepping stone and were always on the lookout for something better, whereas artisans had a pride in their training and trade that made them reluctant to leave it for a potentially more lucrative line of work.
Of course, not all occupational mobility was upward. Looking at all the male Famine depositors—not only artisans and the unskilled—we were able to find employment information from 1860 or later for 25 percent of them. Of this group, 58 percent stayed in the same occupational category, 30 percent moved into what was generally considered a higher-status occupation, and 12 percent saw their occupational status decline. But members of this last group were not abject failures. Their median savings were $318, double that of Famine immigrants overall. From a savings standpoint, therefore, even a failed attempt to move up the occupational hierarchy was better than never having tried at all.
Take Peter Faye, for example. Two years after his arrival in 1848 from Loughrea, a lakeside town in central Galway, Faye was one of several dozen Irish immigrants working as servants at a large Manhattan hotel. Five years after that, he had found higher-status job as a clerk (he had beautiful handwriting), yet Faye soon gave that work up for a seemingly lowly position as a doorman. Why? Because he was opening doors at the New York Stock Exchange, a dream job for a resourceful immigrant who knew the value of networking. Faye, the Exchange’s only doorman for nearly thirty years, reaped a windfall from his seemingly humble position. The Exchange had very few employees in those days, and as a result Faye “was the custodian of money, packages of securities, important messages and the like, for every member of the exchange,” reported the New York Herald. He tracked members down at their clubs and homes after hours with important messages and news that might cost the traders dearly if they were missed or delayed. For this dedication to his employers, the Exchange’s leaders rewarded Faye with thousands of dollars annually in gratuities, according to the Herald.The brokers also “let him in on stock-exchange deals” that were “a sure thing.” As a result, when Faye died in 1884, he left an estate supposedly worth $100,000. Several Wall Street titans attended his funeral.
Another element that may have contributed to the relatively low savings rate of the tradesmen was that they were disproportionately from Ireland’s cities. The bank records reveal that immigrants born in Ireland’s largest towns saved far less than their rural counterparts. Fourteen percent of the Emigrant Bank’s Famine depositors were born in Irish towns that had 10,000 inhabitants or more in 1841. The median peak bank balance achieved by these urban Famine immigrants was just $100, whereas immigrants from the rest of Ireland saved 61 percent more.
We found this result surprising, having imagined that those who had worked in Ireland’s urban areas were more likely to possess job skills that were in demand in New York. Immigrants from urban parts of Ireland also had larger hometown-based networks to help them find good housing and steady work. (Of the 200,000 or so Irish immigrants in New York in 1860, about 8,000 were from the city of Dublin, 3,000 were from Cork city, and 2,000 were from the city of Limerick.) The lower bank balances of newcomers from urban Ireland were not the result of their working disproportionately in artisanal trades. Even if we consider only unskilled workers, the median savings of rural Irish immigrants in unskilled occupations were 68 percent higher than those of the immigrants from urban Ireland who held the same jobs.
It is not clear why emigrants from urban Ireland saved less than those from the countryside. Perhaps emigrants from Ireland’s cities could not network as assiduously with other immigrants from their hometown because they were much less likely to have kinship or social ties to them. Or perhaps immigrants from urban Ireland did not feel the need to network as actively because the adjustment to life in New York was not as difficult for them as it was for those who had grown up in tiny villages. Overall, the urban Irish may not have “stuck together” as much as immigrants from rural Ireland, and this may have hurt their ability to save.
Several pieces of evidence support this hypothesis. First, as previously noted, Emigrant Bank depositors from the cities of Dublin, Cork, and Limerick spread out fairly evenly across New York. In contrast, the three biggest groups of rural depositors—Lansdowne’s tenants Kerry, the immigrants from the Killybegs area in southwest Donegal, and immigrants from Ahamlish and Drumcliff in north Sligo all clustered with their former neighbors in enclaves. Seventy percent of the Killybegs emigrants, for example, lived in just three New York wards. About the same proportion of the Ahamlish/Drumcliff emigrants lived in the Wards Six, Fourteen, and Seventeen. And four out of five Lansdowne immigrants lived in a single neighborhood: Five Points in Ward Six. This pattern is borne out in a more thorough survey of all the parishes and towns that contributed large numbers of depositors to the Emigrant Bank’s customer rolls. Those from primarily rural parishes were three times more likely to cluster tightly in New York than emigrants from Ireland’s large towns and cities.
This clustering is important because it seems directly correlated to the amount of money immigrants saved. Social scientists generally measure the correlation of one factor to another (such as the impact on one’s savings of being a doctor) on a scale of -1 to 1. A correlation of 1 indicates a perfect correlation—working as a doctor always leads to high savings. A correlation of -1 denotes an inverse correlation: working as a doctor always leads to low savings. A correlation of zero would mean that working as a doctor had no correlation whatsoever to savings. The correlation between being a member of an Irish group that was tightly clustered and savings was 0.61, a fairly high correlation. All other things being about equal, living near a lot of other immigrants from the same part of Ireland was associated with higher savings, as these newcomers saved significantly more than other Famine refugees. While we do not fully understand the reasons why, it appears that residing near many others from the same part of Ireland paid significant savings dividends.
There was an even stronger correlation, 0.67, between savings and being part of an immigrant cohort that had an especially large concentration in a single occupation. The peddlers from Killybegs and Kilcar, the charcoal workers from Bodoney Lower, the morocco dressers from Stranorlar, the gasmen from Castlegregory, and even the day laborers from Kenmare—they all saved far more than the median Famine immigrants in their occupation. Even the immigrants from these places who did not work in the group’s occupational niche seemed to benefit, in some way, from the group’s close networking. The non-peddlers from Kilcar and Killybegs, the non-leather workers from Stranorlar, those from Castlegregory not employed at the gasworks, etc., all saved more than the median Famine immigrants in their occupational categories. In some cases, occupational clustering could have helped these immigrants save more because dominating a business (such as the charcoal trade) could reduce competition and therefore increase profits for those lucky enough to work in the field. It is also possible that while members of these occupational niches might not make more per day than others in the same fields, their tight networks might allow them to avoid unemployment better than others or find the best paying jobs in their particular line of work.
Our findings call into question the prevailing view of the socio-economic mobility of the Famine Irish. Beginning in 1941, when Oscar Handlin published Boston’s Immigrants, immigration historians have portrayed the Famine Irish as hopelessly mired in poverty due to discrimination, illiteracy, a lack of skills, and an oversaturated job market in the cities where they lived. Economic historians such as Joseph Ferrie have taken a more positive view, noting that while Irish immigrants had less wealth than natives or other foreign-born groups, many Irish Americans managed to significantly improve their circumstances during their first decades in the United States. But the scholarship of these economists has been almost wholly ignored by historians. “In the two decades before the Civil War,” notes one survey summing up the prevailing view among historians, “the success of German and English immigrants stood in stark contrast with the dire poverty of the famine Irish." The account ledgers at the Emigrant Savings Bank suggest that this interpretation needs reassessment. By the middle of the 1850s, a majority of the Emigrant Bank’s Famine-immigrant customers with a male breadwinner in the household had an emergency fund equal to about six months of wages. Even if only half of Irish households had bank accounts, this level of savings indicates that while these immigrants may have started out with very little, most did not remain in “dire poverty” for very long.
Networks of Out-Migration
A final way the Famine immigrants used networks was to find new homes once New York no longer suited them. Locating the new residences of those who left the city is difficult, but we managed to trace five hundred Irish-born New Yorkers to homes outside of Manhattan. Most did not go far. Forty percent of those who left New York moved just across the East River to Brooklyn, then a separate municipality. Brooklyn appears in many cases to have been the destination for Irish immigrants who had succeeded financially. The median savings of the Famine immigrants who moved to Brooklyn was $205, one-third higher than that for all Famine immigrants, and 21 percent of the Famine immigrants who relocated there owned real estate by 1870, five times the rate among those who remained in Manhattan, where real estate was much more expensive.
The financial profile of immigrants who left New York for the second most popular destination, New Jersey, was even more impressive. Their median savings was $283, and 55 percent of them owned real estate by 1870. Thomas Gilmartin, a porterfrom Ahamlish parish in Sligo, for example, continued in that line of work in Jersey City, and by 1870 he valued his real estate holdings at $4,000. The typical immigrant who relocated did not do quite so well, of course, and some fared worse after they left New York. Five Points tailor Patrick Twigg and his wife Bridget, who had arrived together in 1849 from Clonakilty, Cork, saved $149 by 1854 before moving to Newark. In 1860, however, they reported to the census enumerator that their net worth was only $50.
Networks helped determine whether these immigrants chose Brooklyn or New Jersey. Those from Counties Cavan and Sligo, for example, overwhelmingly selected New Jersey, while those from Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and the midlands settled primarily in Brooklyn. Networks could draw the Famine Irish to relocate farther away as well. Every one of the Irish immigrants we could trace to Massachusetts, for instance, was from Cork or Kerry. The Cork natives who relocated there all moved to the Boston area, while those from Kerry all chose the mill towns around Springfield.
Networks must have also helped determine the settlement patterns of those who left the northeast altogether, but those connections are more difficult to reconstruct. Some returned to a life of farming. James Lynch and his sister Jane, who worked in New York as a grocery clerk and a domestic respectively after emigrating from the tiny rural townland of Rahood in Castletown, County Meath, managed along with three other siblings to save $1,600 by 1856. Soon thereafter they all moved to Sibley County in the Minnesota Territory, where they bought cheap land and returned to farming. The hundreds of Irish surnames adorning the nineteenth-century tombstones in the area’s Catholic cemetery, where the Lynches are buried, suggests that they were part of a large Irish community in this far-flung locale. Adam Strain from County Down saved $800 working as a porter in a drug store in New York during the 1850s before he moved west. He, his wife Sarah and their two children took their nest egg to Marquette County, Wisconsin, first buying a small farm and eventually a much larger one ten miles away. He was known there for “his thrift and enterprise,” according to his obituary in a local newspaper published in 1882. When he died, at age fifty-eight, he had “handsome farm buildings, the best of stock, broad, well-cultivated fields, and a good bank account.”
It was much more common, however, for the Irish who went west to avoid agriculture, and again, networking shaped these experiences. The gasmen from the Dingle Peninsula were especially likely to head west. Matthew Dowd and his wife Catherine from Castlegregory moved in the mid-1850s to Hastings, Minnesota, on the Mississippi River just south of St. Paul, where he worked as a laborer. Even for menial workers, opportunities abounded on the western frontier. Catherine’s brother, Eugene Dean, who had worked as a laborer for a railroad just outside of New York City, arrived in Hastings in 1855, and just two years later became the county treasurer. At least three of the Kerry gasmen with accounts at the Emigrant Bank moved in the 1860s to the same small Indiana town, Greencastle, situated on the rail line from Indianapolis to St. Louis. Two of the men from Castlegregory became railroad track workers, while another, from Dingle, toiled in a nail mill, but all three were able to purchase modest homes—worth $300 to $600—by 1870. Even so, their lives were far from secure. One of the Castlegregory natives, James Moriarty, died while doing track maintenance in 1877 when he was struck by an east-bound express train.
Cornelius Sullivan would have appreciated the drive and determination that had led his fellow Kerrymen to Greencastle, even if the passage of time has made it hard for us to appreciate how much the desire to save and get ahead dominated the lives of his fellow Famine immigrants. Sullivan, like so many of his countrymen in the United States, used a variety of networks—one based on his place of birth, another on his place of residence in New York, and another on his occupation, and perhaps others still—to help him achieve his goals. While he spent much of his first decade in New York as a day laborer, he managed, less than eighteen months after arriving as a pauper, to accumulate a sum equal to about five months’ wages in New York, giving his family an emergency fund unimaginable to them when they lived on the Lansdowne estate. Sullivan also seemed to recognize that entrepreneurship was the best means of making the leap from stability to prosperity. His transition from day laborer to peddler helped him and Norry accrue a bank balance worth nearly $20,000 today, a princely sum for Famine victims who had arrived hungry and penniless in New York fourteen years earlier.
The Sullivans’ story was not typical, but neither was it unusual. Forty percent of male-headed Famine-immigrant households with an account at the Emigrant Bank managed to save $325, a year’s wages for a day laborer, and the equivalent of $10,000 today. Nor did it take them decades to do so. Eighty percent of those who achieved this level of savings did so by 1860. These figures are especially impressive when we consider that 40 percent of American households today have no savings at all. What explains the ability of so many Famine immigrants to save impressively? One possibility is that a large proportion of the Irish arriving in New York already possessed the financial acumen necessary to succeed in the United States. Throughout the Famine years, observers in Ireland lamented that the nation’s middle class comprised the bulk of the emigrants, who were escaping before they exhausted all of their savings on emergency food purchases. In contrast, most of the Irish who had been impoverished even before the onset of Famine remained in Ireland, too poor to buy a ticket to America and the five-week supply of food and water necessary for the journey. “The pith and marrow of Ireland, with money and value,” were the ones who had come to America over the past two years, observed the New York Irish-American in 1849. Newspapers in Ireland often made similar statements. The Famine immigrants may have included many clever, ambitious, fairly successful men and women who were laid low by the circumstances of the Famine and the limited opportunities available to them in Ireland. Once in the United States, they were able to rely upon these skills to replenish savings that had disappeared as they struggled to survive and flee the Famine.
It is also possible that historians’ preconceived notions about the limited opportunities afforded the poor and unskilled in the United States in this era need revision. “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world,” stated Abraham Lincoln in 1859, “labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him." This was, in essence, the path that Lincoln himself had followed. It would have been harder for the Famine Irish to climb the socio-economic ladder this way, especially if they arrived in America already married with children, and discrimination made the effort harder still. Yet the Emigrant Bank records indicate that many of the Famine Irish did improve their situations, especially if they made use of the social networks available to them and deployed their accrued social capital wisely. Historians have commonly assumed that the Famine Irish immigrants were doomed to a lifetime of poverty due to discrimination, minimal education, and their lack of the vocational skills that were in shortest supply in the New York job market. But the bank accounts of the Famine Irish remind us that then, as now, those with the most education and vocational training are often not the ones who make the most money. Other, intangible talents possessed by technically “unskilled” workers are often more important.
These findings also have implications for understanding the experiences of other American immigrant groups in other eras. First, immigrant groups large and small throughout American history have created residential enclaves, their residents have developed employment niches, and the extent to which they use such networks have probably influenced how they have fared in the United States. Second, historians have undoubtedly underestimated how much money immigrants save. Americans might have bemoaned the fact that immigrants dressed poorly, ate terribly, and suffered through overcrowded living conditions, but these were often strategic decisions made to enable the immigrants to create an emergency fund, start a business, buy a house or a farm, or send their kids to college. In fact, they would have saved even more had they not been remitting so much money to their homelands to support parents and other loved ones they had left behind. The Famine immigrants spoke proudly of their economic success in America, but few native-born Americans then, or historians since, have taken them at their word.
Is the case of the Famine Irish in New York anomalous? A study by economists of the largest savings institution in Philadelphia suggests that it is not. And other immigrant groups accumulated more wealth than the Irish. African Americans in former slave states are the only other group from this era whose savings accounts have been examined in detail, and historians have found that they did not fare nearly as well as the Irish. The Irish appear to have benefitted from both being white and living in an economically vibrant locale. Those African Americans who did accumulate sizable savings followed the same path as the successful Irish—they managed to save money while employed in menial occupations and then used those savings to open businesses or purchase real estate.
One also wonders how the savings of immigrants of the past compare to those of immigrants and native-born Americans today. We know that Americans in the twenty-first century do not save as much as Americans of previous generations. We also know that Americans—both immigrants and natives—do not enjoy as much socio-economic mobility as in the past, and that the mobility rate today varies significantly from one immigrant group to another. Social scientists debate the root causes of these trends and their impact on immigrant life today, but these scholars rarely acknowledge that the experiences of previous generations of immigrants might shed light on their debates.
Famine immigrants did not typically have the combination of ambition, business acumen, and good luck necessary to achieve Cornelius and Norry Sullivan’s degree of financial success. But most could establish a sizable rainy-day fund, and a significant minority saved enough to start a small business, buy a home (though not often in New York City itself), or even purchase a farm out west and return to the agricultural life they had known in Ireland. The Famine immigrants may have been ragged, sickly, relatively uneducated, and largely unskilled, more so than any other immigrants who had previously arrived in New York. Nonetheless, their hard work and thrift, entrepreneurial skills, and networking ingenuity enabled them to survive, and in many cases thrive, in New York and beyond.