The Irish Impact on the History of NYC

9:36 am  |  25.04.2021

NY is one of the world’s biggest centers of multiculturism, it was founded, built, and developed by different ethnical groups and nowadays can be considered a “face of the Earth” in terms of its population. The immigration wave from Ireland was very numerous due to a difficult economic situation at that time.

Since then, the history of NYC has been closely connected with descendants of Irish immigrants, the influence of Irish culture on the city’s growth can’t be underestimated.


Thought the first wave of immigration from Ireland started well before the 19th century, but those were just slight presages of the upcoming stream. The economic situation in Ireland was so complicated for decades that it finally led to the Great Famine, which lasted several years. Hundreds, even thousands of people were dying from lack of alimentation, others started to look towards the West. In 1840 even more deep crisis began in Ireland, and tens of thousands of families went to seek salvation and better life opportunities in the USA.

In 1840-1856 a big diaspora of Irishmen settled in NYC. It is estimated that about 1 million people died on their way, and over 1,5 million arrived at the dream shore.

NYC in the 19th century

Due to the difference in mentalities and low level of education, it was difficult for various groups of immigrants to find a common language and understanding. They started to group up in small communities and rally together. Of course, every group was looking for ways to earn money, including illegally. That was the time when the history of NYC gangs’ epoch began…

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Gangs of NYC

Irish immigrants settled on the western edge of Midtown alongside the Hudson River. Life conditions were very poor, several big families used to live in one room. They mainly worked in docks and earned hardly enough to feed themselves. Young men stick to each other and quickly got a bad reputation among well-to-do New Yorkers. In a while, this area was called “the most dangerous place on the whole American continent” or Hell’s Kitchen.

Hell’s Kitchen

Growing quite quickly, Irish gangs had already outlets in the Bronx, Queens, the Inwood, and Manhattan. The Forty Thieves was the first and best-known organization. Poverty resulted in crimes, violence, and blood. That’s the period when the expression “a fighting Irish” appeared. The Forty Thieves became a very powerful, numerous, and influential gang because of collaboration with corrupted city officials and government.

Another famous and dangerous gang of that time was called the Dead Rabbits. It was already a well-organized unity with a concrete structure and hierarchy. The members even wore a uniform with a red stripe on their pantaloons. The Dead Rabbits gang culture was alive for 100 years and ended up only in the 1960s.

Although now this area is safe and prosperous, one can still notice the influence of those years in modern NY map – transport, streets, restaurants, etc. The spirit of gangs is still inspiring many artists and creators of movies, paintings, and novels. And the Tenement Museum keeps the history of those difficult and bloody years.

Irish in the FDNY

At the same time when numerous gangs were coming into power, other young Irishmen were working hard for the city’s growth and wealth. During the Civil War, they formed almost 100 percent of the FDNY. Also, many of them worked for the police. Modern Irish Americans proudly keep the nostalgia of those days and place fire helmets in local pubs together with newspaper clippings of their grandfathers’ photos.

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The St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Of course, first of all, the St. Patrick’s Cathedral should be named as one of the most famous masterpieces and pieces of evidence of the Irish culture in NYC. It was founded between 1809 and 1815 and is one of the biggest and oldest Catholic churches in the city. Its Gothic architecture and the inside unique spirit make it so outstanding and so much loved not only by modern Irish Americans but also by thousands of tourists.

Not far from the St. Patrick’s Cathedral, The American Irish History Society is situated. This is the center of culture, history, Irish achievement, and their impact on the development of the USA.

It goes without saying that the Irish Hunger Memorial, located in lower Manhattan, is a very important place for modern Irish Americans. It was made of materials brought from Ireland, outside walls show native countryside with its flowers, plants and potato fields. It also reminds all New Yorkers of the danger of famine period.

Irish Food & Drinks in nowadays NYC cuisine

Irish pubs are probably among the most popular and loved by New Yorkers’ bars and restaurants. The oldest one, McSorley’s Old Ale House, was established in 1854 in the East Village. It has such an authentic spirit, that every visitor feels nostalgia and a very romantic atmosphere of old times. Walls are covered by old newspapers, photos, historical facts of prominent Irish politicians and brave firemen. The place is also decorated with helmets as a reminder of the huge impact of Irish people in NYC’s fire department.

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McSorley’s Old Ale House

Irish food and drinks are mainly based on old family recipes. One should definitely try a delicious lamb or beef stew with soda bread. You will lick your fingers after a wonderful shepherd’s pie or corned beef and cabbage in a cozy booth surrounded by sawdust floors and a wood-burning fireplace. And it goes without saying that a pint of Guinness beer would adorn your evening.

Celtic influence on modern culture

Everyone in the world knows St. Patrick’s Day in the early spring. Nowadays it is celebrated in NYC even more brightly than in Ireland. Even the Empire State Building goes green for the whole day to celebrate it. And the 5th Avenue gets closed traditionally for the biggest and most colorful festival in the year. Whether you are Irish or not, but if you are New Yorker St. Patrick’s Day is among your favorite fests for sure.

St. Patrick’s Day parade at 5th Avenue

Also, Celtic art and music have influenced a lot on modern NYC life. There are so many concerts, shows and performances hold in ethnic Irish style that you can find one almost every day. And Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan has become a real Irish section where exhibitions and art open-airs are organized regularly.  

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