Irish connections in Idaho

A wee bit of St. Patrick’s Day statistics

Every March 17, Ireland venerates the St. Patrick with a public holiday on the anniversary of his death[1]. While not a public holiday in the U.S., it is a day of celebration for many. It is the occasion to have a little ‘craic’ (news/gossip/entertainment) in homage to the Irish with food and drink that, if not Irish, is perhaps green in color, all while wearing green clothes. In the world of statistics and demographics, it’s a reason for another analysis highlighting the local connection  — or lack thereof — to the Emerald Island.

A total of 31.5 million people in the U.S. (9.5%) claim Irish ancestry[2] and outnumber the current Irish population by six to one. This means that every person in Ireland has six people in the U.S. (on average) eager to tell them they’re Irish, too, and to ask if they knew their sweet ancestor born in the County Kerry, County Mayo, County Limerick or (pick your county of Ireland here).

Map-US Irish population

Chicago and Cook County, Illinois — where they dye the Chicago River green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day — is home to 431,436 people claiming Irish decent and the most in a single county in the U.S. [3]

Idaho does not dye any of its rivers green like Chicago nor does it have the same concentration of Irish descendants. When the Irish were immigrating to the U.S. in the 1800s, most could not afford to travel very far west.[4] Nevertheless 181,872 Idahoans claim Irish ancestry – 9.6% of the state’s population which is slightly higher than the national average.[5] Ada County is home to 55,491 people claiming Irish ancestry — the largest number in Idaho but not the most concentrated with 11.4% of the total population. With 14.2% of its total population claiming Irish ancestry, Adams County has the highest concentration in Idaho.

Perhaps the pull to identify and celebrate with the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day for descendants and non-descendants alike comes from why they immigrated to the U.S. and their experience once they arrived. For practically the entirety of the 19th century, poor and hard living conditions in Ireland drove high immigration rates out of Ireland by as early as the 1820s, and about half of its population relocated to the U.S. over the next 110 years.

The Great Irish Famine from 1842 to 1852 pushed emigration from Ireland to a mass exodus. By the time the famine hit in the mid-1840’s, Ireland’s population was 8.75 million. [6] By 1851, it had dropped by 2.5 million to 6.55 million with around 1 million due to deaths caused by, or related to, the famine. Once the famine had passed, the population continued to fall, and by 1891 it was only 4.7 million. [7] Ireland’s 2022 census estimated its population at 5.1 million and the highest for the island nation since 1841.[8]


It’s estimated that well over 4 million Irish arrived in America between 1820 and 1930, over one third of all immigrants to the United States during this time. [9] During the 1840s, as the Great Famine was driving them out of Ireland, they comprised nearly half of all immigrants to America. The demographics of Irish immigrants shift depending on the era of the 1800s.

“Pre-famine immigrants from Ireland were predominately male, while in the famine years and their aftermath, entire families left the country. In later years, the majority of Irish immigrants were women.” [10]

Current immigration figures are starkly different than just a little over a century ago, as 118,539 people in the U.S. in 2021 report Ireland as their birthplace.[11] Woodcut image: decorative

Where did they go upon arrival in the U.S.? The Irish who immigrated here, while relatively lucky to afford the steerage fare to leave compared with their compatriots who could not, were often destitute. Once they arrived, they were forced to make a go of it near the port towns where they disembarked. The concentration of those with Irish heritage is the modern-day remnant of this. For example, 30% of Plymouth County, Massachusetts,’ population claims Irish ancestry. Due to their numbers and economic situation, Irish immigrants became a huge source of cheap labor and would accept jobs at very low wages.

While they experienced discrimination and prejudice because of this, they were also the labor force through which infrastructure in the U.S. such as railways and canals was built. It was through their employment to construct the Illinois and Michigan canal in 1836 that led many Irish immigrants to settle in the Chicago area.[12]

Those who traveled further west and settled in Idaho likely came here under similar circumstances as any other immigrant venturing into the western U.S. — working on railroads, searching for prosperity through mining, or starting businesses and farms.

For additional information on Irish-American heritage for the U.S. and Idaho, please see the U.S. Census Bureau’s March 2023 webpage.

Craig Shaul, research analyst supervisor,
Idaho Department of Labor

[1] Citizens Information, 2023

[2] US Census Bureau, 2023

[3] US Census Bureau: Irish American Heritage Month and St. Patrick’s Day: March 2023

[4] Hidden History_ The Irish in Idaho

[5] US Census Bureau: ACS 5-Year 2016-2021

[6] Great Irish Famine, 2022

[7] Library of Congress; Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

[8] Ireland Central Statistics Office, 2022

[9] Library of Congress; Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

[10] Library of Congress; Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

[11] US Census Bureau: Irish American Heritage Month and St. Patrick’s Day: March 2023

[12] ABC7, Irish built I & M canal that made Chicago a boomtown