Irish Immigrant Ballads

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Irish Immigrant Ballads

Students explore the issues of Irish immigration and assimilation into American culture through the analysis of 19th century ballads.  These songs exemplify major themes of Irish immigration from forced evictions and famine in Ireland to the challenges of finding work and facing discrimination in America. Students are asked to reflect on songs as a means of documenting history and as an expression of group sentiment and opinion.  

Essential Questions

What role does analysis have in historical construction?
Why is time and space important to the study of history?


Students will...
  • be able to compare and contrast the discrimination of Irish Immigrants to that of other ethnic and racial minorities. 
  • use critical thinking to analyze primary sources from Irish Immigrants.
  • compare and contrast multiple views on reasons for Irish immigration.
  • be able to explain the experience of immigration for the Irish, both immigrants and family left behind in Ireland.

Other Materials

Student worksheet:  Irish Ballads


  1. Poor Pat Must Emigrate
  2. A New Song Called the Emigrant's Farewell to Donegal ("A New Song Called the Emigrant's Farewell to Donegal." Irish Emigrant Ballads and Songs. Ed. Robert L. Wright. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green U Popular, 1975. 175. Print.)
  3. The Irish Emigrant ("The Irish Emigrant." Irish Emigrant Ballads and Songs. Ed. Robert L. Wright. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green U Popular, 1975. 248. Print.)
  4. No Irish Need  Apply
  5. What Irish Boys Can Do
  6. Drill Ye Tarriers Drill

Suggested Instructional Procedures


By using the Irish Ballads, students explore the reasons for Irish emigration from Ireland and the impact that immigration had on many aspects of Irish life from discrimination to work.  Students learn about the hardships in Ireland and the challenges the Irish faced in the United States. From these ballads, students also gain an understanding of Irish values and beliefs, as well as a sense of Irish pride. Students build a more holistic profile of the Irish immigrant from the varied topics of these Irish ballads. 


1. Documenting History through Songs

Have students think about their favorite songs.  Put some of the titles on the board and ask students to give a one sentence summary of the major theme of the song. (Specify that students should share titles and descriptions that are appropriate in a classroom setting). The teacher may wish to share some additional titles that reflect a group sentiment or reveal the historical context of the song. For example: "God Bless America" post September 11th or John Lennon's "Imagine" in the 1970's.

Guiding Questions
  • What would these songs reflect about American society and culture one hundred years from now? 
  • Would they be a useful historical tool?  Why or why not?

2.  Irish Ballads and Immigration

  • Place students in groups or pairs and distribute the Irish ballads. Have students read all of the songs out loud.
  • Distribute the student worksheet and have students complete it.
  • As a class, go over the answers to the questions, connecting their responses to the background reading and the discussion from Activity One. Do these songs reflect the experiences of the larger Irish community? What do they tell us about the Irish immigrant experience? (leaving Ireland, relations with England, type of work, life in America, discrimination)

3. Conclusion

Focus on questions 5 and 6 from the student worksheet. Discuss the use of the term “emigrant” as opposed to “immigrant.”

Guiding Questions
  • What does the use of the term emigrant reflect about the Irish perception of their migration to America and their relationship to Ireland? 
  • What effect might this have on their settlement in America?
    Discussion should include: Emigration implies forced migration as opposed to voluntary movement. There is a feeling that Ireland and its people are victims of the British and that their emigration is not to be seen as an abandonment of their native land, but as a temporary measure for survival. There is a yearning or hope to return to Ireland. Discuss how this connection to Ireland might be perceived by native-born Americans.
  • Have students share their responses to question 6. Write their album titles on the board and have students explain their responses. Ask students to assess the ability of these songs to convey information on Irish immigration as compared to their secondary source readings.  Their responses should allude to more personal and emotional aspects of the songs. Also, have students think of the songs in relation to the Curtis letters -- what information was similar, what was different? 

Expansion Activities

  • Visit the Hugh Moore Canal Museum  in or the Anthracite Museum.
  • Visit an Irish cultural event or organization in your locality
  • Invite a representative from the local Ancient Order of Hibernians to visit the class and speak about the Irish community



Coffin Ship: a term given to the ships that carried Irish immigrants escaping from the potato famine. The name reflects the dangers immigrants faced in the form of disease and poor nutrition

Diaspora: refers to any people or ethnic population who have left or been forced to leave their traditional homeland and are dispersed throughout the world.

Discrimination: unfair treatment of a person or group (either intentional or unintentional) based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, handicap, or other attribute.

Emigrant: someone who leaves one country to settle in another

Erin: ancient Gaelic name of Ireland. Nineteenth century nationalists used this term.

Famine: widespread starvation in Ireland was also called the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49, The Great Famine, or The Great Hunger.  British economic policy towards Ireland and a potato fungus that ravaged the crop resulted in mass starvation.

Immigrant: a person who comes to a country where they are not born in order to settle there.

Migration: the movement of persons from one country or locality to another

Nativism: anti immigrant sentiment or a sociopolitical policy favoring the interests of established inhabitants over those of immigrants. Historically refers to white, native-born, Protestant Americans' hostile and defensive reaction to European immigrants

Paddy: used as a disparaging term for a person, especially a man, of Irish birth or descent. 

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