Irish-Catholic Migration to Pittsburgh
by Larry Ciptak
from Out of This Kitchen: a History of the Ethnic Groups and Their Foods in the Steel Valley
The Irish Catholic community in western Pennsylvania–Pittsburgh's largest foreign-born group–was an outgrowth of a mass migration of about 10,000 Irish immigrants between 1830 and 1850. Half of the Irish immigrants in 1850 came from the province of Ulster, Ireland's sole industrial region at the time.
By the 1830s the spinning industry in Ireland was mechanized, moving the focus of that craft from rural to urban areas. Farmer-weavers and their families by the thousands faced a choice: either migrate to Ireland's urban areas or emigrate to the United States.
The Great Famine in the congested and impoverished western Ireland resulted in little emigration; rather, the vast majority came from the more modern areas in central and eastern Ireland. Like the Protestant Scotch-Irish, most entered the U.S. through the port of Philadelphia.
By 1850 nearly three-fifths of Irish immigrants lived in nuclear family units, pointing to the probability that these English-speaking Irish were not part of a flight from a famine-ridden land. However, many Irish came here penniless, and over half of them in 1850 were employed as unskilled laborers, earning around 75-cents a day.
The Irish in the skilled metal trades–an elite group–were primarily puddlers, heaters and rollers, usually paid by the billet ton. Highly-skilled and proud, they often controlled the means of production, hired their own helpers and commanded wages of up to $15 a week (1850). Many Irish became petty shopkeepers, peddlers and artisan manufacturers such as shoemakers, tailors and blacksmiths.
The Irish scattered widely in Pittsburgh, usually clustering around their parish churches. The Irish Catholics–estranged from their dominant Protestant neighbors–faced the wrath of militant mid-nineteenth-century anti-Catholic sentiments in Pittsburgh. During that time, Catholic churches were often the target of vandalism, cross burnings and arson.