By any measure, faring very well.

The pipes were calling in Levittown as the Irish Thunder Pipes and Drums marched in the 25th annual St. Patrick's Day Parade.
The pipes were calling in Levittown as the Irish Thunder Pipes and Drums marched in the 25th annual St. Patrick's Day Parade. (PATRICK McPEAK / Staff Photographer)

The luck of the Irish is not the secret to success

Posted: March 18, 2013

Sure, they faced famine in their homeland and early prejudice in this country, but here's the bottom line on the Irish:

They're doing pretty darn well.

They're better-educated and earn higher salaries than average, their rate of poverty is lower, rate of home ownership higher, and job status solidly managerial.

"It is very good to be Irish," said Siobhan Lyons, executive director of the Irish Immigration Center in Upper Darby.

In the United States, nearly 35 million people claim Irish ancestry, more than five times the population of Ireland itself, and on Sunday they'll celebrate the quasi-national holiday of St. Patrick's Day. What began as a religious observation to honor the man who introduced Christianity to Ireland - supposedly using a three-leafed clover to teach the trinity of father, son, and holy ghost - has evolved into a green-and-orange celebration of all things Irish.

"In many ways, it's a home away from home, being Irish over here," said Jack Kelly, a 32-year-old Philadelphia banker who emigrated from Dublin in 2010.

He keeps up with Irish rugby through game-day visits to Tir Na Nog, the Center City pub, where he's often surrounded by people whose roots may be more removed.

Who are the Irish Americans?

They're slightly older, with a median age of 39 compared with 37 for the rest of the country. Thirty-three percent of those 25 and older hold at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 28 percent nationally. Nearly 93 percent have at least a high school diploma, compared with 86 percent countrywide, census figures show.

Their $57,319 median income is higher than the $50,502 for all households. Only 7 percent of Irish families live in poverty, compared with 12 percent nationally. Nearly 70 percent own their own homes, above the national average of 65 percent. Fully 41 percent of employed, civilian Irish Americans work as managers or professionals.

"Much of the Irish American population has acquired the American dream," said Charles Gallagher, who studies ethnicity as chair of the La Salle University sociology department.

One reason why the Irish do so well, say Gallagher and others, is that the achievement that now seems obvious and entrenched was in fact built year by year, crafted through ethnic solidarity, sturdy fraternal organizations, political machines, and job networks.

The early immigrants came from an English-speaking country, so they didn't have to learn the language. As white people, they didn't face the racial barriers that have impeded African Americans and others.

Another reason: The core values that sustained earlier generations remain strong.

"Endurance," said associate professor Joseph Lennon, director of the Irish studies program at Villanova University. "And sacrifice. ... There's no shame in Irish America for work, for whatever kind of work."

On Sunday, those who seek a bit of Irish history don't have to go far. The Irish Memorial at Penn's Landing is dedicated to the one million men, women, and children who died during the potato famine of 1845-50, and to the millions who came to the United States.

At 11 a.m., Irish leaders will gather there to honor those lost in the Great Hunger, known in Gaelic as An Gorta Mór, and to celebrate the accomplishments of Irish in the region and nation. The early newcomers were not greeted warmly here. In Philadelphia, the "Nativist Riots" of 1844, caused by anti-Catholic sentiment amid growing Irish Catholic immigration, resulted in deaths, injuries, and the destruction of two Catholic churches and other buildings in Kensington and Southwark.

Among the ruined was Saint Augustine's Church, from which two members had started Villanova University in 1842. When the church burned, the subsequent financial problems closed the college for a year in 1845. Villanova, like the Irish, endured and prospered. "They were used to hard work," said Michael Bradley, whose grandparents came from Ireland.

Bradley, of Havertown, is director of the Philadelphia St. Patrick's Day Parade, which was held last week. He will spend St. Patrick's Day morning in quiet reflection at the memorial, then visit friends. No green beer and plastic hats for him.

"We're Irish all year long," he said. "We don't do the one-day Irish thing."

Nationally, Irish is the second-highest reported ancestry, behind German. In Philadelphia, 12 percent of the 1.5 million residents claim ancestry, followed by Italian and German. "The Irish as an ethnic group adapted better than many others, at least initially, to the U.S. political system," said Vince Munley, deputy provost at Lehigh University, who has studied in Ireland and written on the Irish economy. "Any group that can be effective in the political arena is likely to derive economic benefits."

While the Irish were mistreated upon arrival, they also got here early, he noted. Subsequent groups of immigrants came from south, central, and eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the Irish had a head start toward economic success. "To know there's millions more people in the United States that identify as Irish than are actually living in Ireland, that says something unique about the Irish culture," said Lyons, of the immigration center. "The importance of education, the importance of family, these things are strong parts of the Irish American community."


Contact Jeff Gammage

at 610-313-8205, jgammage@phillynews.com,

or on Twitter @JeffGammage.

Statistics in this story come from the Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey.

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