While some Irish settlers moved to what is today Mississippi when the British ruled West Florida, the first major Irish presence in the state came when the Spanish took the colony back after the American War of Independence. With Roman Catholicism the established religion, Irish priests came to serve in the Natchez District. These priests were exiles from British rule in Ireland who came from the Irish seminary in Salamanca, Spain. Some of these priests were well liked by the predominantly American and Protestant population, but a few could be overzealous in their Catholicism, resulting in trouble for the Spanish governors.
These priests left with their Spanish sponsors in 1798. For the next few decades, the predominant Irish presence in the state was Protestant. Political refugee Alexander Campbell became the Natchez city clerk in 1811. Gerard Brandon, who served as Mississippi’s governor in the mid-1820s, was the son and grandson of Irish immigrants. Frederick Stanton arrived in Natchez from Ireland via New Orleans in 1818 to practice medicine, but by the time of his death in 1859, he had become a very substantial planter. His house, Stanton Hall, originally called Belfast, takes up a Natchez city block, providing a testament to his wealth and status. Other descendants of Scots-Irish settlers in Virginia and the Carolinas made their way to Mississippi after Indian Removal in the 1820s and 1830s, seeking land and cotton wealth.
Some Irish Catholics also began to take advantage of the “Flush Times” in Mississippi. Unlike their Protestant Scots-Irish compatriots, however, they lacked large amounts of capital and family connections. Nonetheless, members of this wave found niches in the rapidly growing state. For example, a sizable community grew near Paulding, in Jasper County, a stagecoach stop on the line between New Orleans and Nashville. In 1837 residents there founded the state’s second Catholic parish. Irish Catholic farmers from East Georgia came to Camden and Madison Counties in search of new cotton land in the 1840s and founded the settlement of Sulphur Springs. It attracted Irish immigrants from New Orleans and soon boasted a Catholic church and school.
The advent of the Great Famine pushed more than two million people out of Ireland between that 1845 and 1855, and some came to Mississippi. For the most part, these immigrants were very poor and found opportunity in urban areas. In 1860 the state boasted almost four thousand Irish-born residents, most in either Natchez or Vicksburg but with other groups concentrated in Jackson, Port Gibson, Biloxi, and Holly Springs. The most rural parts of the state had the fewest Irish: for example, Issaquena County had one Irish-born resident, while Jones and Greene Counties had none.
Most of these famine Irish were laborers who found a niche at the lower end of the cotton economy. They dug ditches for planters, loaded and unloaded steamboats, and waited tables in hotels along the coast. The burgeoning public works projects of the 1850s also provided opportunity. For example, the construction of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad brought gangs of Irish laborers to eastern Mississippi in the 1850s. Those higher on the socioeconomic scale usually worked as artisans or in merchandising. Irish women worked primarily as washerwomen and in other menial jobs but occasionally could improve their condition. In general, however, the Irish lived in the worst housing and were prone to serious problems, including alcoholism, violence, and crime.
Despite the harsh conditions, the Irish stayed in antebellum Mississippi thanks to community institutions, particularly Catholic churches and schools, usually operated by Irish and Irish-American nuns. While the early church leadership in Mississippi was not Irish, Irish priests, nuns, and laity formed the backbone of the Diocese of Natchez, which had been founded in 1837.
More prosperous Irish immigrants founded their own societies. The most active was the Hibernian Society in Natchez. Middle-class Irish also took an active interest in Irish and American politics, showing a particular penchant for political journalism. James Hagan edited the Vicksburg Sentinel, for example, and Logan Power edited the Jackson Mississippian. The most important antebellum Irish editor, Richard Elward, made Natchez’s Mississippi Free Trader the most important proponent of states’ rights outside of South Carolina. Less prominent Irish also took part in politics, strongly supporting the proimmigrant Democratic Party, especially in the mid-1850s.
The Irish followed the Democratic Party in support of secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860. The vast majority of Irish did not own slaves, and a few challenged the racial status quo. Most notably, Patrick Lynch married a Louisiana slave, and their son, John Roy Lynch, became Mississippi’s first black congressman. However, most Irish did not object to slavery. Irishmen fought in numerous Confederate units, including the Natchez Fencibles, the Adams Light Guards of Natchez, and the Jasper Grays of Paulding. The Vicksburg Irish staffed two units, the Shamrock Guards and the Sarsfield Southrons (named for a late seventeenth-century Irish hero).
The Irish sealed their place as white southerners through their Confederate service, and the Civil War marked the high point of Irish immigration to Mississippi. The state subsequently plunged into grinding poverty, losing its allure for Irish immigrants. The Catholic Church continued to feature a notable Irish influence, however. Irish-born bishops Thomas Heslin and John Gunn led the church in Mississippi between 1889 and 1924, and Irish priests and nuns continued to come to the state until the 1980s. Indeed, the greatest institutional legacy of the Irish in Mississippi is the numerous Catholic churches and schools.
In the 2010 census, more than 109,000 Mississippians (5.3% of the population) claimed Irish ancestry.
- William Henry Elder, Civil War Diary (1862–1865) of Bishop William Henry Elder, Bishop of Natchez, ed. R. D. Gerow (1961)
- David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815–1865 (2001)
- Jack D. L. Holmes, Journal of Mississippi History (March 1987)
- Michael Namorato, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1911–1984: A History (1998)
- Charles E. Nolan, St. Mary’s of Natchez: The History of a Southern Catholic Congregation, 1716–1988 (1992)
- James J. Pillar, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1837–1865 (1964)