The best books about Irish immigration to the United States

Why am I passionate about this?

I am interested in immigration for both personal and professional reasons. A native of Dublin, Ireland, I did my undergraduate work in Edinburgh, Scotland, completed my graduate degree in New York City, moved to Austin, Texas for my first academic job and to Boston for my second job, and then returned to New City York to take up my current position at NYU, where I teach US immigration history and run Glucksman Ireland House, an interdisciplinary center devoted to the study of Irish history and culture. The key themes in my work—migration and diaspora—have been as central to my life journey as to my research and teaching.


I wrote...

Making Sense of the Molly Maguires

By Kevin Kenny,

Book cover of Making Sense of the Molly Maguires

What is my book about?

Twenty Irish immigrants, suspected of belonging to a secret terrorist organization called the Molly Maguires, were executed in Pennsylvania in the 1870s for the murder of sixteen men. Ever since, there has been enormous disagreement over who the Molly Maguires were, what they did, and why they did it, as virtually everything we now know about the Molly Maguires is based on the hostile descriptions of their contemporaries.

Kevin Kenny examines the ideology behind contemporary evidence to explain how and why a particular meaning came to be associated with the Molly Maguires in Ireland and Pennsylvania. At the same time, this work examines new archival evidence from Ireland that establishes that the American Molly Maguires were a rare transatlantic strand of the violent protest endemic in the Irish countryside.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy

Kevin Kenny Why did I love this book?

Thoroughly researched, elegantly written, and deeply humane, Expelling the Poor shows how poverty—and Irish poverty in particular—shaped American immigration policy.

Until the late nineteenth century, Hirota demonstrates, individual states and cities controlled their own borders. They regulated, taxed, excluded, and removed the Irish poor, thereby laying the groundwork for the national policy that emerged in the 1880s.

By examining the impact of anti-Irish sentiment in the United States, Hirota reveals the plight of the foreign-born poor and, in so doing, uncovers the origins of American immigration policy.

By Hidetaka Hirota,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Expelling the Poor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Expelling the Poor examines the origins of immigration restriction in the United States, especially deportation policy. Based on an analysis of immigration policies in major American coastal states, including New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Louisiana, and California, it provides the first sustained study of immigration control conducted by states prior to the introduction of federal immigration law in the late nineteenth century. The influx
of impoverished Irish immigrants over the first half of the nineteenth century led nativists in New York and Massachusetts to develop policies for prohibiting the landing of destitute foreigners and deporting those already resident in the…


Book cover of The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine

Kevin Kenny Why did I love this book?

The “coffin ship” is a haunting metaphor for the catastrophe that struck Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s, when more than 1 million people died of starvation and disease and another 2 million people emigrated.

In this deeply researched and beautifully written book, Cian McMahon accomplishes two main goals. First, he disentangles the myth of the “coffin ship” from the reality. Shipboard mortality, he finds, was generally low, yet on some fully one-quarter of the passengers perishing in the worst cases.

Second, McMahon fills in a huge gap in emigration history—which usually explains why people leave home and then takes up the story again when they arrive in America—by showing how emigrants grappled with life and death on board ships and built community in the process.

By Cian T. McMahon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Coffin Ship as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Honorable Mention, Theodore Saloutos Book Award, given by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society
A vivid, new portrait of Irish migration through the letters and diaries of those who fled their homeland during the Great Famine
The standard story of the exodus during Ireland's Great Famine is one of tired cliches, half-truths, and dry statistics. In The Coffin Ship, a groundbreaking work of transnational history, Cian T. McMahon offers a vibrant, fresh perspective on an oft-ignored but vital component of the migration experience: the journey itself.
Between 1845 and 1855, over two million people fled Ireland to escape the Great…


Book cover of Hereafter: The Telling Life of Ellen O'Hara

Kevin Kenny Why did I love this book?

In Hereafter, Vona Groarke accomplishes what most historians can never hope to do.

Filling in the gaps and silences in the historical record with poetry, prose, and imagery, she recreates the interior world of an Irish domestic servant in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century—her transatlantic migration, her back-and-forth journeys to Ireland, her working conditions and family life, and her hopes, dreams, and frustrations.

A work of great imaginative power and empathy, Hereafter is also a profound meditation on the historian’s craft.

By Vona Groarke,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hereafter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A lyrical portrait of a young Irish woman reinventing herself at the turn of the twentieth century in America
Ellen O'Hara was a young immigrant from Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century who, with courage and resilience, made a life for herself in New York while financially supporting those at home. Hereafter is her story, told by Vona Groarke, her descendant, in a beautiful blend of poetry, prose, and history.
In July 1882, Ellen O'Hara stepped off a ship from the West of Ireland to begin a new life in New York. What she encountered was a world…


Book cover of Irish Nationalists in America: The Politics of Exile, 1798-1998

Kevin Kenny Why did I love this book?

Irish men and women in the United States launched a movement to liberate their homeland from British rule.

David Brundage’s Irish Nationalists in America, the first history of this movement as a whole, ranges across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, covering the full range of ideological positions—from peaceful constitutional change to an Irish republic achieved through violent means—and exploring how Irish-American nationalism intersected with movements for labor reform, racial equality, and women’s rights in the United States.

A skilled social and political historian, Brundage tells a vivid story about how ordinary immigrants built an extraordinary movement.

By David Brundage,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Irish Nationalists in America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this important work of deep learning and insight, David Brundage gives us the first full-scale history of Irish nationalists in the United States. Beginning with the brief exile of Theobald Wolfe Tone, founder of Irish republican nationalism, in Philadelphia on the eve of the bloody 1798 Irish rebellion, and concluding with the role of Bill Clinton's White House in the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, Brundage tells a story of more than two
hundred years of Irish American (and American) activism in the cause of Ireland.

The book, though, is far more than a narrative history…


Book cover of The End of Outrage: Post-Famine Adjustment in Rural Ireland

Kevin Kenny Why did I love this book?

To understand the history of Irish immigrants in America, you first need to study the country they left.

Breandán Mac Suibhne’s The End of Outrage examines traditions of rural violent protest in nineteenth-century Donegal, the county where many of the Molly Maguires of Pennsylvania originated. Intriguingly, MacSuibhne also uncovers a significant degree of reverse migration and cultural influence from Pennsylvania to Ireland.

His title contains a triple pun: the word “end” refers to the goal of Irish agrarian protest, the termination of that tradition by the famine and mass emigration, and the failure of subsequent generations to acknowledge what happened.

By Breandan Mac Suibhne,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The End of Outrage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

South-west Donegal, Ireland, June 1856.

From the time that the blight first came on the potatoes in 1845, armed and masked men dubbed Molly Maguires had been raiding the houses of people deemed to be taking advantage of the rural poor. On some occasions, they represented themselves as 'Molly's Sons', sent by their mother, to carry out justice; on others, a man attired as a woman, introducing 'herself' as Molly Maguire, demanding redress for wrongs inflicted on her children. The raiders might stipulate the maximum price at which
provisions were to be sold, warn against the eviction of tenants, or…


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Book cover of Returning to Eden

Rebecca Hartt Author Of Rising From Ashes

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author Idealistic Storyteller Teacher Mother Seeker

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What is my book about?

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A dead man stands on her doorstep.

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Returning to Eden

By Rebecca Hartt,

What is this book about?

Presumed Dead, Navy SEAL Returns Without Memory of His Ordeal in the Christian Romantic Suspense, Returning to Eden, by Rebecca Hartt

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Interested in Ireland, immigrants, and Irish Americans?

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