From Irishman to American, 100 years ago

Willie Diggin, undated.

My grandfather’s May 1913 emigration from Kerry and June 1922 naturalization as a U.S. citizen frame Ireland’s revolutionary period in our family. Willie Diggin was among 156,000 Irish who sailed to America between the pre-Great War rise of unionist and nationalist militias, partition of the island, and outbreak of civil war among southern republicans. (See tables at bottom.)

He was “admitted as a citizen” at a June 15, 1922, “special term” session of the U.S. District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh. Details such as this date, his name, physical characteristics, and address were typed within blank spaces of the pre-printed “United States of America Certificate of Naturalization” form. Willie and the clerk of the  court each signed Certificate No. 1830933, which came wrapped in a tri-fold black leather cover produced by the Naturalization Publishing Co. of Pittsburgh.

Among 170,447 U.S. naturalizations in 1922, many would have been Irish natives who had lived in America for at least five years, as required by law. The U.S. government did not begin to compile data on the number of aliens naturalized by country or region of former allegiance until July 1, 1922, two weeks after Willie became an American.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 16, 1922.

Nationality and nationalism were topical on both sides of the Atlantic in June 1922. In Ireland, the first general election of the 28-county Irish Free State was held the day after Willie’s naturalization. Sinn Féin supporters of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that ended the war with Britain prevailed over the party’s anti-treaty faction. Part the campaign debate focused on the “Oath of Allegiance” that included “the common citizenship of Ireland and Great Britain” as forming the British Commonwealth of Nations. Anti-treaty candidates argued against the oath, and partition of the six-county Northern Ireland, as antithetical to the republic declared in 1919.

A few days after the Irish election, The Pittsburgh Press published an editorial about America’s challenges to assimilate its many immigrants, the “different ingredients into our huge melting pot.” It continued:

Is the meaning of the word ‘American’ changing as much as some of the students of our national life–particularly those specializing on immigration–fear and declare? … Does the immigrant become an American by the mere act of taking up his residence here, or by receiving naturalization papers, or must he acquire new ideas, a new point of view. … Historians say Rome broke down under the effort (to harmonize and merge many races). America is confident she will succeed where the Roman empire failed. But shall we succeed without due regard for the difficulties of the program.[1]”The Modern Babel”, The Pittsburgh Press, June 19, 1922.

In Washington, D.C., Congress legislated the Cable Act,  which was passed in September. It restored citizenship to American-born women who had married non-citizen husbands and lost their citizenship under the Expatriation Act of 1907. The new law reversed the discriminatory law that set married women’s citizenship according to that of their husbands and enabled white women to retain their U.S. citizenship despite marriages to foreign men.[2]Cable Act of 1922, from

Other changes in immigration laws and naturalization requirements meant that when Willie married a Kerry women in 1924, she did not immediately become a U.S. citizen, while their six daughters were Americans upon birth. My grandmother wasn’t naturalized until September 1939. The cause of her delay is unclear to me, though most likely due to raising six children.

Irish immigrants in America:

1910:  1,352,155
1920:  1,037,233
 1930:    923,642

From Ireland to America by year:

1912: 25, 879
1913: 27,876
1914: 24,688 (WWI begins in August)
1915: 14,185
1916:   8,639 (Easter Rising in April)
1917:   5,406
1918:      331 (WWI ends in November)
1919:     474  (Irish war)
1920:   9,591 (Irish war)
1921: 28,435 (Irish war, truce in July.)
1922: 10,579 (Includes Northern Ireland. Civil War begins in June.)

11-year total: 156,083[3]All data from “Historical Statistics of the United States, 1789 – 1945”, Chapter B. Population Characteristics and Migration (Series B 1-352).


1 ”The Modern Babel”, The Pittsburgh Press, June 19, 1922.
2 Cable Act of 1922, from
3 All data from “Historical Statistics of the United States, 1789 – 1945”, Chapter B. Population Characteristics and Migration (Series B 1-352).