How 4.5 million Irish immigrants became 40 million Irish Americans

This paper tends to support my and others' belief that English ancestry is massively underreported in the US Census.

How 4.5 million Irish immigrants became 40 million Irish Americans: demographic and subjective aspects of the ethnic composition of white Americans.

Hout M and Goldstein JR

How did 4.5 million Irish immigrants come to be 40 million Irish Americans? The growth of ethnic populations, including the Irish, has three components: natural increase, intermarriage, and preference. We combine a demographic analysis of natural increase with a sociological analysis of intermarriage. Preference is a subjective component; it remains a residual in our analysis. [p. 65]

Intermarriage and its complement, homogamy, are generally assumed to be critical factors in whether national origin groups grow or decline. Generations of "pure" Irish, Italians, Poles, and so on, have admonished their children to marry within the group to preserve it. However, recent findings by Alba (1990) and Waters (1990) imply that intermarriage hurts some groups but helps others, at least in the numerical sense. In the world of ethnic options, intermarriage provides an opportunity to exercise one's options. For some ethnic groups, intermarriage thins out the ethnic heritage because few offspring of mixed marriages remember ancestors from that group. For other groups, intermarriage is a recruitment opportunity because the offspring of mixed marriages often think of themselves as part of that group, simplifying their mixed heritage with a single mention or expressing the sense that they "feel closer" to one group than to the other.

Formally, we could show that if all groups have the same intermarriage rates and if the patterns of intermarriage between each pair of groups is symmetrical, then intermarriage will have no effect on the size of th population identifying with a group. However, there would be no point in such a formal exercise because neither premise is true. Intermarriage differs significantly among ethnic groups (Alba 1976; Lieberson and Waters 1988). The groups that started coming to North America first now have higher rates of intermarriage than groups that have come in large numbers more recently have had. This has led some observers of ethnicity to include intermarriage as a condition of assimilation (Gordon 1964). Geographically dispersed groups are also more likely to intermarry than are isolated or concentrated groups (Peach 1974; Lieberson and Waters 1988). [pp. 70-71]


Natural increase of a population is the interaction of demographic trends with the elapsed time between immigration and the present. Social increase stems from the joint effects of a high rate of intermarriage and the high probability that someone will express a particular ethnic attachment. For example, the social increase of the Irish and German populations in America has far outstripped their natural increase. This important subjective component of ethnic identity is beyond our data; we can only speculate on its sources and implications. Second- and third-generation Americans, especially those of mixed heritage, exercise a significant level of choice in defining their ethnicity (Alba 1990; Waters 1990; Farley 1991). This has led to a certain unreliability in responses to ethnicity questions (Waters 1987; Farley 1991) and an alleged shallowness in the ethnic attachments reported to the Census. Our analysis has shown how the numbers of people identify with two groups -- the Germans and the Irish -- have increased because of this process. We have also shown how religious homogamy and the religious diversity of the Germans and the Irish combine to produce an intermarriage pattern that abets German and Irish ethnic identification, and how intermarriage has hurt identification with another outmarrying group, the British. We have also shown how numbers identifying themselves as Italian have grown, despite religious homogeneity, because of ethnic homogamy. We will not be surprised if the various Hispanic groups follow the Italian pattern in years to come.

Ethnic intermarriage is limited by religious homogamy and social homogamy. Groups that are affiliated with the same religion, have similar socioeconomic status, and live in the same parts of the country have much higher intermarriage than groups that differ in religion, education, and region. A past history of intermarriage and American residence are also important; groups with many mixed attachments and few foreign-born members intermarry more. The nine-fold increase of the Irish population in the United States stems from the combination of favorable outcomes on each of these variables for the Irish. The Irish have been in the United States a long time; they are religiously diverse, highly educated, and dispersed throughout the country. In addition, an unexplained subjective "closeness" to Ireland contributed to the size of the Irish American population in 1980. [p. 79]

What's to explain? Identify as Irish and you get to be a colorful victim, diametrically opposed to the evil, dull WASP television and public schools have taught you to hate.

Aside from that effect, British-Irish and British-German mixes may simply be more aware of the origins of their more recent immigrant ancestors.

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