Irish Immigrants in Alexandria, VA

Alexandria, VA from the Potomac River, 1863, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Alexandria, VA from the Potomac River, 1863, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The common historical narrative of nineteenth century immigration tends to tell the story only of Irish immigrants who arrived and stayed in the northern states while completely omitting or largely minimizing those who settled in the rest of the country, particularly the American South.  Although the great number of immigrants did in fact settle in states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, there was a significant population who chose to settle in southern states such as Louisiana, South Carolina, and Virginia.  Most of these immigrants came in the 1840s during the height of the Irish Potato Famine and entered a society in which they found themselves near the bottom of the social and economic ladder, not much higher than free blacks and slaves.  From the 1840s through the 1890s, these immigrants used a variety of tactics to improve their position and eventually moved from their lower working class position.  Some became skilled workers and artisans, while others joined the middle classes and, in a few cases, moved into the professions.  To facilitate these social and economic changes, Irish in the U.S. South embraced the Confederate cause during the Civil War, thus affirming their connection to other white southerns, and political participation. As a result, Irish immigrants living in the U.S. South were able to improve their social status and gain a place among the established white society.  To demonstrate this phenomenon, we will conduct a case study, looking at Irish immigration in Alexandria, Virginia.

Authors: Jessica Chrisman, Kim Humphries, and Eily Walsh


Life in Ireland Before America

Life in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century was difficult with famine and disease ravaging the country. As a result, around one million died and another million migrated. Many of those who chose to leave came to the United States.


In the fall of 1841, the weather was perfect for farmers to grow their main crop: potatoes. In the early 1840s, there were over 15,000 tons of potato production; by 1856, Irish output had been reduced to 3,844 tons.[1] The blight and subsequent famine began in the fall of 1841. Unfortunately, the leaves turned black, killing all of the potatoes. In the words of Sir William P. MacArthur, “the food of the whole countryside had vanished.”[2]

The Irish had little to eat because their main crop and food source had been destroyed. Even those who were able to purchase food at first, could not after food prices soared due to demand. People were unable to receive the nutrients their bodies demanded, so many became ill and starved to death.


Beside starvation, typhus fever spread rampantly throughout Ireland in the early 1840s. It was something so serious that, according to MacArthur, “an initial case of two of fever could infect a whole district.”[3]   Those who survived would usually relapse and would eventually die.[4]  According to MacArthur, at the same time, the number of workhouses with typhus fever increased from 32 in 1844, to 71 in 1845, and finally to 130 in 1846.[5] Every county was attacked with the fever, but many did not recognize the epidemic until May – or even November – of 1847.  The areas affected lost between 10% to 30% of the population.

Irish Immigrants in Society


[1] Colm Tóibin and Diarmaid Ferriter, The Irish Famine: A Documentary (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 53.

[2] Dudley Edwards and Desmond Williams, “Medical History of the Famine,” The Great Famine; Studies in Irish History, 1845-52 (New York: New York University Press, 1957), 270.

[3] Dudley and Williams 271.

[4] Dudley and Williams 270.

[6] Dudley and Williams 272.

Author:  Eily Walsh

One thought on “Irish Immigrants in Alexandria, VA

  1. I am the great-great-great grandson of Rosa Latham Vaccari. I have information on the life and times of Rose and Fred that may be of interest to you. The information prints out to about 2 1/2 pages. Will the “Comments” section of your website accommodate this much information or is there a better means of transmission?

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