Irish in Illinois

The Great Potato Famine. 

    From 1843 to 1851 over 1 million Irish starved and over 2 million emigrated to  other countries.    As a result of “An Gorta Mor” and political/religious persecution, many of the Irish emigrated to the United States in 1847-1855.  Some of them settled near Chicago, Illinois and later many moved to central Illinois counties of Macon, Shelby, Moultrie and Christian.

Why Did They Settle in Illinois?

    The construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal brought many Irish to Illinois.  In 1823, the new state of Illinois created a canal commission.  No progress was made until a second commission was formed in 1835 with a federal grant of 284,000 acres.  Most of the land was offered for sale at $1.25 an acre, but sales were slow and further problems arrived with the economic “Panic of 1837”.

Construction started in 1836.  As funds became scarce, the laborers were paid in scrip.  As the scrip became devalued, land was offered in exchange for the scrip.  Many of the Irish workers became landowners and other workers sold their land to the new immigrants.  Irish settlements were developed along the canal route in the counties of Cook, Grundy, LaSalle and Will. 

    “American History texts” written mostly by the English would have us believe that the Irish and other immigrants were ignorant, poorly educated and lazy.  More intelligent research indicates the opposite.  The Irish engineering, surveying, political and financial talents provided the impetus to complete the canal.  Michael Ryan, an engineer and Illinois State Senator, went to London to negotiate a loan of $1,600,000.  This loan made possible the completion of the canal.

The canal was finally opened in 1848.  The exchange of land for work enabled the establishment of Irish settlements from Chicago to LaSalle and extended south to Peoria.