March 17, 2015

The fading of the green

In the U.S., Irish ancestry is decliningOn this St. Patrick’s Day, here’s news that might dampen the party: The ranks of Americans who trace their ancestry back to Ireland – long one of the most prominent subgroups in American society – are slowly declining.

In 2013, 33.3 million Americans, or one-in-ten, identified themselves as being of Irish ancestry, making it the second-largest ancestry group in the U.S. after Germans. In addition, nearly 3 million Americans claimed Scotch-Irish ancestry, or just under 1% of the entire population. (The Scotch-Irish were mainly Ulster Protestants who migrated to the British colonies in the decades before independence, while Irish Catholics didn’t begin arriving in large numbers until the 1840s.) By comparison, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have a combined population of about 6.5 million.

The ranks of both Irish- and Scotch-Irish-Americans have fallen a lot in the past two-and-a-half decades, and the trend does not appear likely to reverse. Two decades ago, in 1990, 38.6 million Americans (15.5% of the total population) claimed Irish ancestry, and 5.6 million (2.3%) identified as Scotch-Irish.

Both ancestral groups are older than the U.S. population as a whole. In 2013, the median age of those claiming Irish ancestry was 39, and 51 for those of Scotch-Irish ancestry, versus a median age of 37 for the entire population. Nor are the Irish immigrating to the U.S. in anything close to the numbers they used to: In fiscal 2013, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics, just 1,626 Irish-born people obtained legal permanent residency.

Northeast states lead in Irish ancestryIrish- and Scotch-Irish-Americans are most highly concentrated in a few areas of the country, reflecting their historical migration patterns. The poor Irish immigrants who fled their famine-stricken homeland in the 1840s and 1850s generally settled in or close to the Northeastern port cities they arrived at. Northern New England states continue to have the highest share of residents claiming Irish ancestry: Massachusetts (21.2%), New Hampshire (20.5%), Maine and Vermont (18% each).

The Scotch-Irish, who arrived earlier than the Irish in the early 1700s, moved to the more mountainous interior of the U.S. To this day, the states with the highest share of residents claiming Scotch-Irish ancestry are North Carolina (2.5%), Tennessee (2.4%), South Carolina (2.2%) and West Virginia (2%).

Note: The Census Bureau has asked Americans to identify their ethnic ancestry since 1980, and annually since 2005. Because they can pick one or two, we counted everyone who chose Irish or Scotch-Irish as their primary or secondary ancestry.

Topics: Demographics, Race and Ethnicity

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Michelle2 years ago

    Irish ancestry isn’t declining, it’s being diluted over time. Census questions asking heritage only give you a couple of options but my own (and many other Americans) ancestry has more than 2 origins. My line of women takes me to Baden, Germany. There are a few other German lines as well. Also, English, Irish, Scottish, French (do we count Canada too?) and family rumor said Native American as well but I found no direct lineage that could be proven while researching my genealogy. I have cousins that are 1/2 Puerto Rican too. This is what an American heritage looks like! If you just got here, give it a few generations and your tree will have a similar mixed heritage. Maybe they will have different origins than mine but they will certainly be mixed! Continuing the family tradition, my daughter wed an African American / Indonesian man so my grandsons add those to the mix as well! American means we have an awesome mixed heritage!

  2. Paul Smith2 years ago

    Nancy Fuller Smith (my wife) has Scotch/Irish roots that extend back to the 1700s in the Colonies. I have traced them from what is now Vermont to Quebec, to New York, to Illinois, to South Dakota, to North Dakota and to California, where she was born.

    Our son married a woman who is 1/4 Irish and 1/2 Persian.

    One of these days we hope to visit to Ireland.