“We are talking about one of the greatest tragediesOf the nineteenth century.”-Ian GibsonIrish-American. To some, this term merely designates one of the many ethnic groups which can be found in the United States; but to those who are Irish-American, it represents a people who faced a disaster of mammoth proportions and who managed to survive at great cost.
The Great Hunger of 1845 changed, or more often, destroyed the lives of millions of Irish, causing them to seek refuge from poverty and starvation in other, more prosperous countries. However, not all countries would accept these victims of the Potato Famine. After an immense burst of Irish immigration to Great Britain, the British Parliament began to halt Irish migrants from entering the country.
Thus, the only other land promising prosperity, liberty and an abundance of food was the United States. The potato crop’s failure caused millions to come to America hoping for a better life. Some never made it to America, others dispersed into Canada, and some died upon arriving in the new land. However, they all contribute to the rich story found herein.Emigrants, by definition, were people who could somehow find enough money to pay the passage, very often both for themselves and their families, to Great Britain or America. The average Irish immigrant was from a rural area, most often from the provinces of Connacht and Munster (Akenson 36). This immigrant could read (three-fourths of all migrants were literate). This immigrant and his family dispersed into one of the large cities.
Few wished to become American farmers after the famine, for it brought back memories of the old life (Bence-Jones 106). Many had dangerous jobs and experienced a poor quality of life. This immigrant settled somewhere along the Eastern seaboard. This created a strong social and political impact, because many Irish stayed together after the trip to America (Akenson 35).
Due to this immigrant’s rural history, he became and unskilled laborer, or domestic servant. And, because of their poor state of destitution, the average American associated this average Irish immigrant with the decline of the United States (36). While the poor immigrant defined the average Irish-American, more migrants actually came from wealthier famine-affected countries in the north and east of Ireland (O Grada, Black 47 113). Thus, the famine produced a radical shift in the regional origin of Irish immigrants. Those who were very wealthy probably would not have been drastically affected by the famine whereas those who migrated the most. However, the poorer element from counties such as Clare, Kerry, and Mayo had weak representation in the area of migration after 1846 (114).Everything that happened in Ireland during nineteenth century has indeed been overshadowed by the catastrophe which overtook the country between 1845 and 1851. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1851 was one of the great catastrophes of the nineteenth century and divides modern Irish history.
It was a disaster which poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for many generations to come, and had profound effects not only in Ireland itself, but in England and North America as well.Nineteenth-century Ireland was the most densely populated country in Europe: in 1800, its population was 4.5 million, and by 1841, it had risen to eight million (Kinealy 15).
Yet much of this population existed in condition of sorrow and misery lay in the dependence of the peasantry on just one staple crop, the potato; in western countries like Mayo and Galway, nine-tenths of the people ate nothing else (MacManus 602). Here was a disaster waiting to happen, made worst by the rapid rise in population in the first half of the century which forced the peasants to subsist on smaller plots of land (O Grada, The Great Irish Famine 63). The authorities of Ireland were not blind to the peril, for there had been a serious blight of the potato as far back as 1817 when thousands had died, and in 1824, a government commission had identified chronic overdependence on the potato crop as a potential menace to the population (Kinealy 45). In 1844, there had been another serious blight when half the potato crop had been lost, so that the special hardiness of Irish peasants had allowed many to survive (Percival 120).Hopes were high in the summer of 1845, however, when there was every sign of a fine, healthy crop of potatoes. But the weather that summer was curious and, in retrospect, sinister.
Summer heat was mingled with thunderstorms, mists, and big variations in temperature unusual in Ireland (Kinealy 44). So a superstitious peasantry wondered what lay in store for them. The first rumors of blight came from Cork in June, but as late as August peasants and farmers still expected a bumper crop of what they call “praites” (66).By mid-September, all this had changed.
The whole potato plant was changed into a filthy, odorous black mush, all the more appalling because the crop had seemed so healthy. Desperate people, seeing a year’s supply of food disappearing before their eyes, cast about for an explanation, and came up with bizarre ones which made the moon, fog, frost, easterly winds, and even the electricity from the summer storms responsible (O Grada, Black 47 79).The true villain in this tragedy was a humble fungus called Phytophthora infestans, brought to Ireland by ship from America which, unknown to peasantry, infested first the soil and then the potato plants. Because they did not, and could not in the state of existing scientific knowledge, know this, the peasants attempted to save their crops by hauling them out of the ground to dry or cutting away seemingly healthy bits to eat (Bence-Jones 106).
In their ignorance this was understandable, because the leaves of the plant had black spots with a whitish mould underneath, and they could not know that once the fungus had established itself, both potato and stalk were doomed. Equally incomprehensible was the sinister speed with which the blight spread, so that by early 1846 every county in Ireland was affected. In fact, wind, rain, and insects carried the fungus spores to other potato plants (Kinealy 58).The impact of the total blight of the potato crop on the Irish population was devastating. In desperation, people tried to find other materials to eat. Mussels and other seafood were more vehemently seized at the coast, and sheep stealing increased markedly (O Grada, The Great Irish Famine 63). Some lucky ones caught wild game; others tried eating plants. But nothing could fill the gap left by the stricken potato.
In Ireland’s dire emergency, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin called for prayers in all Catholic churches that God would ease the calamity upon them.The British authorities were not unaware of the extent of the problem in Ireland. However, from the outset, the British government was completely unprepared for the massive scale of disaster. The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, was a reasonable man, and thus he ordered a scientific commission to inquire immediately into the causes of the blight (MacManus 603). This produced useless advice for starving Irish, and it also contributed to the quick depletion of Britain’s Irish relief fund.
Peel reverted to more practical measures, but ones that were entrapped in the bleak economy theory of the day. This was called “political economy,” and was the most extreme form imaginable of market economies; it meant that in no circumstances might the government interfere with the market, and no doctrine could have been less suited to the Irish crisis of the 1840s (Bence-Jones 106). This system forbade the giving of food to the starving Irish because such an action would be an interference with natural market laws, and interfere with prices so that merchants would hold back from the market. Nonetheless, Peel knew that by the beginning of 1846, a quarter of the population was on the verge of starvation, and something had to be done (Macintyre 228).
However, none of Peel’s, nor any other British administrator’s, actions had any major effect on the starving Irish. The British dealt with the crisis by conducting misdeed after misdeed, misspending after misspending, and blunder after blunder. The funds designated for helping the Irish did anything but that: they were used for futile attempts of reviving the potato crop and employing Irish farmers to do frivolous, useless work. To make matters worse, Parliament put into effect harsh laws upon the poor in Ireland. These laws include the Vagrancy Act, which stated that if one was found idly wandering with no means of support, he was imprisoned. Also, the British foreclosed many houses with no justification, which caused many people to be sent to jail in lieu of the Vagrancy Act. Realizing that staying in Ireland was, in effect, digging their own graves, droves of Irish fled the country, looking for a better place (MacManus 606).
There was a strong British influence in the migration of the Irish. In December of 1846, British Prime Minister Lord John Russell, evaluated that “nothing can effectually and immediately save the country without an extensive emigration.” (Percival 119). Emigration to Britain became overwhelmed and began to send the Irish back.
This was devastating to the poorest of the migrants because it was extremely cheap to travel to Great Britain.While Britain was sending boats full of Irish back home, America continued to accept them (125). This is why so many migrated directly to the United States; they knew that they would be accepted without question. Two contributing factors caused the Irish-Americans to be the slowest in making the transition between laborer and non-laborer in the U.S.
Firstly, because they arrived with little or no means of living and support, due to the ravishing famine (O Grada, Black 47 109). Secondly, most of the skilled workers were the first to migrate, and were accepted by Great Britain.The Potato Famine greatly altered the patterns in which the Irish migrated.
Between 1821 and 1851, 42% of all U.S. immigrants were Irish (Akenson 36).
The number of immigrants prior to the famine was small. 700,000 arrived in the U.S. between 1820 and 1840, which averages about 35,000 every year (Bence-Jones 105). The famine caused these statistics to greatly increase: 1,700,000 immigrated in the next 20 years (Bence-Jones 105). By 1850, 26% of New York’s population was Irish.
In 1851, four years after the height of the famine, immigration had reached a peak of 216,000 people in one year (105). By 1855, Irish-Americans made up one-fifth of Boston’s population (105). Long-term effects can be seen by the fact that by 1860, 5% of the American population had Irish ancestry (Akenson 35).The Great Famine also had an effect on the demography of migration. In 1846, 6.1% of all Irish immigrants were farmers. From 1846 to 1851, 11.2% were farmers (O Grada Black ’47 110).
The famine also altered family migration. 50.8% of those reaching New York in 1846 traveled with at least one other person having the same last name, compared to the 57.9% who reached New York between 1847 and 1851 (108). Another unique aspect of the famine-inspired immigration is the ratio of male/female immigrants. There were equal numbers of Irish men and Irish women who migrated to the U.S. between 1846 and 1851 (Akenson 35).
This is because the only escape for women was emigration: this was their only means of getting a job or getting married. Both of these occurrences would ensure the woman’s financial stability.Despite these astounding numbers, not all migrants were fortunate enough to experience life in the new world. 6,100 people died on the voyage across the ocean. 4,100 people died on their arrival to the world of promise and prosperity.
5,200 people would die after being admitted to a U.S. hospital. And 1,900 people would die in the city or town in which they planned on building their new life (MacManus 610).Not all immigrants arrived in America by direct passage.
There were many backdoor entrances to the U.S. made by Irish. Canada was controlled by Britain at the time, and was more that happy to allow Irish to travel downriver from Canada for free. The British went so far as to offer free passage across the ocean to Canada in order to not only rid Canada of Irish, but also the motherland itself (Akenson 37).
Despite the fact that millions of people migrated from Ireland because they thought of it as a solution to the famine, it actually was not. Emigration was not an effective form of disaster relief because it did not target those who were at greatest risk of dying (111). This is because those were at the greatest risk of dying were usually the poorest of the peasants. By the time they realized they had to leave Ireland, it was already too late for them. They were without land, without money, without food, and without energy. Statistics show that for emigration to have been a truly effective remedy during the famine, the out migration from the poorer counties would gave to have been much higher (O Grada, The Great Irish Famine 121).The famine triggered off a population decline that lasted in Ireland as a whole until the 1900s and in many rural areas until current times. This is often seen as the famine’s most important legacy.
The famine certainly provided the spur, but the persistence of population decline is perhaps better explained as the consequence of how low living standards were in Ireland prior to 1845. The post-1845 exodus was due to the pull of outside forces in the sense that it persisted despite rising living standards at home (130). The famine meant that emigration peaked earlier in Ireland than in other countries participating in the great trans-Atlantic voyage. The Irish outflow was so greatremoving one third to one half of each rising generationthat it provoked repeated warnings of depopulation (134). The Irish emigration rate declined more or less steadily in the post-famine century, and the proportion of those born in Ireland living abroad had peaked by the turn of the century (Perceval 138).In the end, however, the Potato Famine’s effect on Irish migration had positive long-term results (Solnit 31). Although the great majority of the famine immigrants remained poor, later generations were better equipped and found that previous generations had paved a more receptive environment for them (MacIntyre, 112).
In American cities they could attend flourishing Catholic churches with large Irish congregations; they could read Irish newspapers and seek work with city councils dominated by Irish politicians. Some new arrivals went into business and prospered. Many men joined the city service departments, the police, the fire service, while many women became teachers (MacManus 44). Irish people gradually became accepted as respectable American citizens. The prejudice diminished, and then slowly disappeared. Ironically enough, the United States was the cause of the Potato Famine, yet it was also a solution. What if that fate-altering American ship never traveled to Ireland, thus not introducing the fungus to the Irish potato crop? Irish-Americans would not be the same, and would have little power in today’s world. Not only was the famine immigration important to Irish contemporaries because it was their only chance of survival, but it was also important for Irish contemporaries of present because the original Irish-Americans suffered in order to make their descendents’ lives better today.
WORKS CITEDAkenson, Donald Harman. The United States and Ireland,Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.Bence-Jones, Mark.
The Remarkable Irish, New York: DavidMcKay Company, Inc., 1966.Kinealy, Christine. The Great Calamity: The Irish Famine,Boulder: Roberts Rhinehart Publishers, 1995.
MacIntyre, Angus. The Liberator: Daniel O’Conell and the Irish Party, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1965.MacManus, Seumas. The Story for the Irish Race, Old Greenwich: The Devin-Adair Company, 1979.
O’Cathaoir, Brendan. Famine Diary, Dublin: Irish AcademicPress, 1999.O Grada, Cormac. Black ’47 and Beyond, Princeton UniversityPress, 1999.—. The Great Irish Famine.
Cambridge University Press, 1999.Percival, John. The Great Famine: Ireland’s Potato Famine,New York: Viewer Books, 1995.
Solnit, Rebecca. A Book of Migrations. New York: Verso, 1997.Somerville, Alexander.
Letters from Ireland During the Famine of 1847, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1994.