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Micks, Paddys and Bridgets: The Irish-American Experience

Created by:
Meg Sartain
Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District

Madeline Avery
Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District


Grade Level:
9 to 12


The purpose of this activity is to acquaint students with the theme of nativism evident in the antebellum era. Students will focus on the plight of the Irish as an example of the theme of ethnic discrimination. Initially, students will use primary source visuals to predict the role of the Irish in American culture. This will be augmented by a power point that documents the actual history of the Irish experience.

Historical Context

Although the current understanding of the United States as a "salad bowl" has replaced the paradigm of a "melting pot" as an explanation of cultural pluralism, the process of assimilation into American culture has remained a problematic history for all ethnic groups that have ventured to the "land of opportunity". Hostility and discrimination has been the experience of many, if not most who have attempted to attain the "American Dream."

Diversity has been a potent theme in all phases of American development. The immigrant populous of the colonial era prompted, at least in part, Jean de Crevecoeur's concept of a "new man" that differed from European stock in both style and substance. By the conception of the new nation, immigrant numbers were substantial and the trend increased in the following century. By the antebellum era, there were vast waves of refugees, particularly Irish and German, seeking sanctuary from European chaos.

The sheer volume of émigrés, in addition to their differences in language, religion and custom were perceived as threats to existing populations, especially in urban settings like New York and Philadelphia. Consequently, "nativism" was an increasingly potent force in the Northeast during the Jacksonian Era. Anti-Irish rioting in Philadelphia's Kensington section was repeated in New York's Bowery. The Order of the Star Spangled Banner was a fairly small and unorganized secret society founded in 1849. Its members were devout in their Protestantism as well as their loyalty to cause--thus their nickname--"Know Nothings." Xenophobia reached a climax in 1854 when the American Party was organized on an anti-immigrant platform.

These political efforts, although relatively unsuccessful, were fortified by popular images and messages in the media. The use of common visuals with exaggerated features helped to portray the ominous messages of the nativist movement.


Nativism, Immigration, Ethnic Integration

Goals and Objectives:

After completing this activity, students will be able to:

1. Effectively use primary source documents, including but not limited to: political cartoons, newspaper articles and editorials,letters, popular song, speeches, statistics.

2. Use the sources attached to make critical judgments about all forms of information, with the specific ability to separate fact from opinion, recognize types of propaganda,stereotypes and statements which contain bias, and the abiltiy to judge the validity of evidence.

3. Gain an understanding of the challenges faced by Irish immigrants and how they were able to become an integral part of American culture.

4. Understand why nativism developed in the United States.

5. Work cooperatively in small groups.


6.4 United States/New Jersey History, E. Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820) F. Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

6.2 Civics A. Civic LIfe, Politics, and Government

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Computer with internet access


Details of Activity

Part I: Antebellum Diversity (10 min.)

Ask students to characterize diversity in American culture by the mid-19th century. They should use the map of 18th century Colonial America and the bar graph of 19th- century immigration. Students should make brief individual notes and then the class should generate a common response. Document this on the board.

Then, ask students to make predictions about the treatment of the various ethnic groups based on their knowledge of American history to date, specifically the Jacksonian Era. Briefly craft the group's prediction and then verify with the following activity that should serve as a case study in the treatment of minority groups in American history.

Part II: The Irish in Antebellum America (30 min.)

Show the attached Power Point presentation which provides specific history about the role of the Irish in 19th-century American history. Ask students to focus on the accuracy of their original prediction about the treatment of minority groups and note the relevant information that the power point provides.

Part III: Case Study in Ethnic Relations (Homework)

Students should read the attached synopsis of the Kensington Riots of 1844. They should take notes on the causes and conduct of this incident.

Part IV: Visual History (10 min.)

Divide students into groups of three or four. Distribute one of the attached primary sources reflecting the images of Irish immigrants in the 19th century. For each visual, the group should complete a corresponding worksheet that analyzes the content. They should rely on their class notes, as well as the information generated by the Power Point presentation.

Part V: Identifying Stereotypes (20 min.)

Groups should share their analysis with other students in the class. The class should validate or edit the conclusions for each of the visuals provided. At this point, it would be helpful to project the visuals on an LCD so that the entire class can view each particular image being discussed. Identify the stereotypes reflected by these visuals, the reasons for these generalities and their accuracy.

Practice and Reinforcement

Part VI: Combating Generalities: (20 min.)

Have each group generate a press release for an Irish candidate running for national office in a late 19th century election that acknowledges the negative perceptions of Irish immigrants but combats them with accurate history.

Collect press releases and read them to the class. Have students predict the relative success of each candidate based on their knowledge of 19th century American political dynamics. Declare a winning candidate.


Have each group generate a song in response to the negative generalities. These should be performed in front of the class and a winner declared.

Collect press releases and read them to the class. Have students predict the relative success of each candidate based on their knowledge of 19th century American political dynamics. Declare a winning candidate.


For further reading on the influence of immigrants in Colonial America, please see the writings of Jean de Crevecoeur (Letters From an American Farmer, available in full text online at the University of Virginia, Department of American Studies: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/CREV/header.html).

For further information regarding the role of the Irish in the antebellum period, please see Historical Society of Pennsylvania (http//www.hsp.org).

Web Links:
Student visuals: Irish Images of the 19th Century.

Background Immigration/Diversity Visuals.

Reading on the Philadelphia Riots of 1844.

Power Point on Irish Immigrants in America.

For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here