Thirteen Ed Online
Lesson Plans
Irish-Americans: Work and Song
Overview Procedures for Teachers Organizers for Students

Procedures for teachers is divided into four sections:
Prep -- Preparing for the lesson
Steps -- Conducting the lesson
Extensions -- Additional activities
Community Connections -- Real world actions for students after completion of the lesson


Before teaching this lesson, bookmark all of the Web sites used in the lesson and create a word-processing document with all of the Web sites listed as hyperlinks, so that students can access the sites. (Note: It's a good idea to preview these sites before presenting them to your class.) Make sure that your computer has necessary media players, like RealPlayer, to show streaming clips (if applicable). Cue the MAY THE ROAD RISE TO MEET YOU videotape to the beginning of the first segment.

Media Components

Computer Resources:
  • Modem: 56.6 Kbps or faster.
  • Browser: Netscape Navigator 4.0 or above or Internet Explorer 4.0 or above. Macintosh computer: System 8.1 or above and at least 32 MB of RAM.
  • Personal computer (Pentium II 350 MHz or Celeron 600 MHz) running Windows® 95 or higher and at least 32 MB of RAM
  • Software: Any presentation software such as Power Point or Hyperstudio (optional)


Students will need the following supplies:

  • computers with the capacities indicated above
  • notebook or journal
  • pens/pencils

    Teachers will need the following:

  • Board and/or chart paper
  • Ideally a screen on which to project the video clips
  • Handouts of Web resources if computers are not available in the classroom

    Web Resources:
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    Introductory Activity:

  • Explain to your students that you will be viewing a segment of video about immigrants to the United States. Instruct your students to watch and listen to the clip and record the answers to the questions below on their Student Organizer. Begin the video "May the Road Rise to Meet You" where you see an image of two black and white photographs (one with two girls in it, the other with one girl in it) and you hear a woman singing. Stop the video when you see an image of three children in the snow in front of the house and hear that the song has stopped.
    • Describe the people in the photos. How old are these photos? Are they all from the same time period? How are the people dressed? What do they look like?
    • From which country did these people emigrate?
    • Describe the song that is playing in the clip. What instruments do you hear?
    Discuss the clip and the questions with your students. Explain that Irish immigration to the United States skyrocketed in the 1840’s and 1850’s, coinciding with the Potato Famine in Ireland. Large-scale immigration of people from Ireland continued throughout the rest of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly to cities like New York and Boston. Irish immigrants faced much discrimination in this country because of their nationality and religion.

  • Despite their large numbers, Irish immigrants still faced much discrimination. It was difficult for these immigrants to find work, and it was not uncommon for job postings to state "No Irish Need Apply." Some people also believed that these immigrants were unclean and that they drank too much alcohol, prompting the nickname "shanty Irish." Explain to students that they will be looking at a songsheet from the Library of Congress from the American Memory Series, . This link leads you to the Search engine for the American Memory Series. To find the songsheet for the song "No Irish Need Apply," type the title into the search engine and it will provide you with the desired image.

    As a group, read through the lyrics of the song and have students record their observations and answers to the following questions on their Student Organizers:
    • What is the song about?
    • What does the title of the song mean?
    • What is the tone of the song? How do you know that?
    • Why is the job advertisement included at the top of the sheet?
    • Do you know of any other examples of job discrimination? Explain.
    • How does language help or hurt an immigrant looking for work?
    Discuss these questions with your students.
    • What purpose do folk songs serve? How do they help groups to rally together and seek justice?
    • Can you think of other folk songs that refer to discrimination?
    • What other groups have faced discrimination in the job market, both in the past and in the present?

  • Next, explain to your students that you will be looking at another video clip about Irish immigrants. In this clip, they will be learning about some of the work that Irish immigrant men were able to get. Instruct students to record their observations and the answer to the questions on their Student Organizer. Play the video from the image of the blacksmith with the short dark hair and when the narrator says "A growing America had plenty of work for us." Stop the video when the narrator says "It was a cruel joke with too much truth to it," and you see the black and white image of the men working on the skyscraper.
    • Describe the images of the men working. What jobs did the men have? How were they dressed? Does it appear that there is a standard of safety for workers? Would you want to do these jobs?
    • According to the narrator, what did the Irish build?
    • What does "You’ll never see a gray-haired Irishman" mean? Why is it a cruel joke?
    Discuss the clip and questions with your students.
    • These men agreed to take these dangerous jobs. Were they still suffering from discrimination? Why or why not?
    • Do Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans still face discrimination today? Explain your answer.
    • What other groups of immigrants come to this country now? Do they face discrimination? Why or why not?

    Learning Activities:

  • Explain to your students that you are going to focus on understanding the experience of the Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans who worked on the railroads. Irish immigrants were instrumental in building the railroad system in the country. This was backbreaking, dangerous work. A popular saying of the late nineteenth century was "There’s an Irishman buried under every tie of that road."

    To do this exploration, students are going to view primary sources and they must analyze these sources to gather information. They will also be looking at secondary-source information from Web sites. When using both the primary and secondary sources, students must take complete notes because they will need to use these notes for the culminating activity. Distribute the Historical Sources Organizer to help students take notes thoroughly.

    Students will be looking at images from the American Memory Series at the Library of Congress, This link leads you to the Search engine for the Ameican Memory Series. To find the images listed below, type the titles into the search engine and it will provide you with the desired images.
    Railroad workers eating lunch, Windsor Locks, Connecticut
    Railroad workers, Conway, Pennsylvania
    Railroad workers, Minneapolis, Minnesota
    Railroad workers, Salida, Colorado
    Railroad workers at camp
    Houses for railroad workers, Greene County, Georgia.
    Divide the students into small groups, with access to the Internet or with prints of the images listed above. Instruct them to look at each of the images and discuss them, focusing on the people, place, and details in the image. After talking about the image, have the students record their observations of each photo on their Student Organizer. After they have viewed all of the images, have each group share and discuss their observations.

  • Now that the students have a background about Irish railroad workers, have them view the National Park Service’s Web site "Railroad Construction Scene" Instruct them to read the text, which focuses on the details of laying railroad tracks for the Transcontinental Railroad. On their Student Organizers, have students take detailed notes from the article about the process of creating the railroad. Discuss the article with your students, answering any questions that they may have.

  • Next, explain to students that you are going to continue your exploration of the experience of Irish railroad workers by looking at popular folk songs. The lyrics of these songs express the difficulty of the railroad work:
    Drill, Ye Tarriers: tunebook/america/drill.htm
    Poor Paddy Works on the Railway: Lyrics/LPs/RedRoses/Paddy.html
    Read these song lyrics with your students. Have them record their observations on their Student Organizers.
    • What is the song about?
    • What is the tone of the song? How do you know that?
    • What people are mentioned? Who are they?
    • What does the song tell us about railroad work?

    Note: For an extension of this step, purchase recordings of these songs. With your students, examine how the music adds to the feeling and tone of the song.

    Culminating Activity:

  • Once students have demonstrated a deeper understanding of the experience of Irish immigrants who worked on building the railroads, explain that they will be writing their own "folk songs" about these experiences. Divide the students into groups of three. Using their notes, have them re-write lyrics to old tunes (such as "I’ve Been Working on the Railroad" and "This Old Man") or current favorites to reflect what these Irish railroad workers went through. They should use as many specific examples from their notes as possible.

    After each group has written a song, have them perform it for the class. Discuss the songs with the students.
    • What examples did the groups include in their songs?
    • Overall, how would you describe the work that the Irish immigrants did on the railroads?
    • How does their experiences compare with the work experiences of other immigrant groups today?


    Cross-Curricular Extensions:
    • Literature – investigate how the experiences of Irish immigrant workers are reflected in poems, short stories, novels, and plays. Examine both period and modern texts. Suggested literature includes: Frank McCourt, "Angela's Ashes" and "’Tis"; William Kennedy, "Ironweed," "Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game," and "The Flaming Corsage"; Alice McDermott "Charming Billy" and "At Weddings and Wakes"; Caledonia Kearns, "Cabbage and Bones: An Anthology of Irish-American Women's Fiction."
    • Women’s Studies – Irish women who immigrated to this country often worked in domestic positions. Research the experiences of these women.
    • U.S. History – Building the Transcontinental Railroad was a national debate. Examine the arguments of those who both supported and opposed the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Research the railroad companies and the key players involved the Railroad’s construction.
    Community Connections:
    • Contact local groups that help immigrants who are new to the United States. Learn about the difficulties that these people face in this country and the services that these groups provide. Share what you learn with other classes in the school.
    • When viewing the selections from the American Memory Series from the Library of Congress, click on the thumbnail view of the image to be directed to a larger view of the image.

    Overview | Procedures for Teachers | Organizers for Students