As a result of The Great Hunger, the Irish became a large and important part of American society. Those who came to the United States during and following The Great Hunger played a major role in the development of this country, and today more
than 40 million Americans, or roughly 15 percent of the population in the United States, claim Irish ancestry. Irish immigrants were substantially involved in the early labor union movement in the United States, and the history of 20th-century urban American politics is inextricably linked to the development of Irish-American politics.
The Catholic Church was relatively small and a minor institution in America until Irish immigrants, following The Great Hunger, swelled its ranks and helped develop it into one of the largest and most influential religious institutions in the country. Irish immigrants of the post-Great Hunger period also were instrumental in building the country’s infrastructure and in developing the parochial school system, which stands today as a model for education.
“Fleeing starvation with few or no material possessions, they brought their music and song and tales of home as they spread out across the land, until there was not a corner they didn’t touch or leave their mark upon,” writes Patricia Harty in the introduction to her collection, the book Greatest Irish Americans of the 20th Century. “They became American. And, yet, despite their identification with the American way of life, they continue to have an interest in their Irish heritage, and a sometimes poignant emotional connection to the land of their ancestors.”
Among her first acts as Ireland’s first female President, Mary Robinson instituted a perennially lit candle in a window of her official residence, Áras an Uachtaráin, to honor the Irish Diaspora worldwide.