Indiana's Green Roots

Hoosiers Can Claim Some Irish in Their Past By Brenda Myers


While everyone claims to be Irish on St. Patrick's Day, the history of Indiana's Irish population is surprisingly slim when compared to other ethnicities in the state and to other similar Mid-western cities.


Irish families played a major role in the development of religion and politics in Indiana, yet at the height of migration to the state in 1870, when almost 29,000 Irish born immigrants lived in Indiana, they comprised just 2 percent of the state's population of 1.68 million, according to the Indiana Historical Society.


The greatest influx of Irish immigration peaked in Indiana during the period 1860-1920, the period in time it was most evident as a distinctive ethnic group here, according to Peopling Indiana: The Ethnic Experience. After that date, most Hoosier Irish history relates to those who were descendants of earlier immigrants. Still, urban Irish residents were among the builders of modern Indiana, according to the Indiana Historical Society, which houses more than a million documents on Indiana history, from early settlement to the present.


South Bend is noted for its Irish settlements and the founding of Notre Dame University, but for a number of earlier decades most Irish families could be found in southern Indiana along the Ohio River where they built churches and established communities, especially in the Madison area.


Although Irish Hoosiers were a socially and politically active group, they faced much prejudice in the latter half of the 19th century, both for their raucous past as well as their Catholic beliefs, according to the Indiana Historical Society.


Having come to the state in large numbers as spirited canal and road workers beginning in the 1830s, they began as a rural population and often lived in transient worker camps. By the end of the 1800s, most Irish families had settled down and lived in more urban environments, with husbands and sons working in factories and families attending church and school together.


When Hoosiers enjoy libations and corned beef this March 17, they can do so knowing their roots, while thin, are deep.


A Few Facts About the Irish in Indiana - From Peopling Indiana: The Ethnic Experience published by the Indiana Historical Society


During the 1850s the number of Irish immigrants in Indiana almost doubled, and the number of foreign born in the state grew twofold. Still, in1860 only 8.8 percent of the state's total population was foreign born.


In 1870, almost 29,000 Irish born immigrants resided in Indiana, comprising 2 percent of the state's population of 1.68 million, but 14 percent of all foreign-born immigrants.


By 1980, just 825 individuals residing in Indiana had been born in Ireland.  The greatest influx of Irish natives peaked in Indiana during the period1860 to 1920, the time it also was most evident as a distinctive ethnic group. After that date, most Hoosier Irish history relates to those who were descendants of early immigrants. Urban Irish residents were among the builders of modern Indiana. 


Although the potato famine in Ireland during the 1840s contributed greatly to the massive emigration from Erin, Indiana was not among the states that received the greatest numbers of Irish immigrants during this period.


In the first quarter of the 1800s, while all parts of the state saw moderate immigration by Irish Catholics, they were more likely to be found in the southern part of the state.


The canal projects of the 1830s attracted more Irish immigrants to the state, creating a demand for construction workers paid relatively high wages. The exact numbers of

Irish immigrants at this time, however, are not known, as the state did not keep exact numbers. Life was harsh and the work was difficult.


Other early Irish settlers came to work on the National Road in the 1830s. They account for the first central Indiana settlers.


Irish canal workers again began working on the canals in the late1840s and early 1850s as the state refinanced its debts and paved the way for private companies to complete

The canal projects by 1853. Railroad line construction also attracted Irish workers, with the first significant railroad completed in Indiana in 1847, especially settling in the South Bend area.


Early Indiana Irish residents experienced prejudice and anti-Catholic attitudes, yet they were active in politics and in the development of social, benevolent, temperance, military, religious and educational organizations, with most being formed in the 1870s and 1880s.

The Indiana Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal association, often took the lead in St. Patrick's Day celebrations in Indiana after 1871.


During the 1920s, while the rest of Irish immigration increased in America, the population decreased in Indiana. Lake County, in the northwest part of the state, was one exception as the Irish flocked there for work in their mills.


By the 1930s, most Irish families had been assimilated into American culture. Although they were less identifiable as an ethnicity, their descendants were active in politics, the church and the community.