Saturday, August 28, 2010

An overview of the famine, and Irish in America

I'm starting to realize what an overwhelming project this is, trying to blog about such a large event in history. I'm not one to just gloss over important details because I feel the actual story lies in those details. I'm sure not enough of you are interested to follow what would need to be ten posts probably - I haven't really even started properly, really - so I think I will just summarize as best I can and hope those of you who are indeed interested will follow up and do some research on your own.

I wanted to go into more detail about the land system in Ireland, touch on Plantation Ireland set up by those British who followed Henry VIII's Church of England; touch on how some of those things were the seeds of the division in Ireland we see today.

I wanted to talk about the important people and the politicians that were in power during the famine. The relief efforts. The work houses. The road projects where three-quarters of a million people were put on public works. I wanted to tell how the people didn't know about the strange foods being given to them through the government's programs to relieve their hunger; how, as my friend mentioned in an earlier comment, the Indian corn purchased from America was totally strange to these people and they didn't even have the proper mills to mill the hard kernals fine enough to make porridge of it, so, finally, a lot of it was brought over from America already milled. They still didn't know how to cook it or what to make with it.

I wanted to talk about the gradual weakening and the dying of the children; how people were found next to roads and in the fields and on their farms, just lying there. The death carts, reminiscent of the Black Plague or of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. But I probably couldn't describe that adequately anyway.

And I wanted to try and explain the fearful emigration to unknown lands, that vast diaspora of the Irish people. I wanted to convey how fearful they were as they left Ireland forever, how terrible were the ships and the voyage, almost like slave ships, packed with people not used to the sea, fearful, still not fed, dying still from hunger and disease on those ships. How they must have wanted to return to their homeland even to face starvation there instead of those terrible ships!

I wanted to try and describe how they were received like animals, placed in quarantine, taken advantage of, made fun of, made to live in dungeon-like tenements in filthy New York City in double basement tenements that were below the water and sewer level.

I wanted to try and tell of their humiliation and how they were ridiculed and discriminated against in their new land of opportunity.
But I also wanted to try and tell the story of human survival, and how America was made so much better because of the arrival of the Irish (as well as many sons and daughters of Scotland - Scots like Andrew Carnegie who would build his enormous steel empire in Pittsburgh. Incidentally, Pittsburgh doesn't rhyme with Edinburgh.)

These things are not for a small blog, but for several books. I hope you will investigate some of these things on your own. I think few of you realize, even Americans, the incredible impact these people, these survivors, had on America. The Irish cleaned our toilets and built our railroads. They tended our children and became maids and worked in our mines. They fought our wars, some taken right off the ships into the army.

The story of the Irish in America is truly the real story of America herself. A story of survival. A story of renewal. A story, eventually, of redemption.

Finally, in January of 1961, a descendent of those exiles walked into the Oval Office of the White house and became our president.

In the U.S. today, 11.9% of the population (36,278,332) self-identifies itself as being of Irish descent. I don't know how many of them have been back to Ireland to visit the land of their ancestors, and I know most non-Americans reading this don't consider them Irish at all, and put them in the same category, or even further removed, as today's Irish who have voluntarily left Ireland to live in Great Britain or Europe due to hardship and living conditions in modern Ireland. But, in America, these people are Irish still. You see, they didn't leave Ireland because they didn't like Ireland, or because they wanted to live somewhere else and morn for Ireland like today's transplants in England. These left Ireland because to stay in Ireland was to die.

John F. Kennedy; Maureen Ohara; George M. Cohen

James Braddock; Michael McGivney; Ronald Reagan

Victor Herbert; Eugene O'Neil; Ed Sullivan

Grace Kelly; F. Scott Fitzgerald


"It is that quality of the Irish--that remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination--that is needed more than ever today. The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not. It matters not how small a nation is that seeks world peace and freedom, for, to paraphrase a citizen of my country, 'The humblest nation of all the world, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of Error.'" —President Kennedy's address to the Irish Parliament, June 1963.

All 8 of John F. Kennedy's great-grandparents emigrated from Ireland during the general time period of the Great Famine. On his mother's side, the Fitzgeralds were from rural County Limerick (Bruff.) His father's line, the Kennedys, were from County Wexford (Duganstown.)


  1. In the U.S., we forget about the hardship facing immigrants who are caucasian because, once those of African descent moved north (from the old plantation system in the southern states), the differences between various original nationalities became less important.

    One great writer of Irish descent covered much of the changes as they occurred in Chicago in the early 20th century. James T. Farrell wrote a long series of books covering the Irish community (as intermixed with the Jewish and other recent or second-generation immigrants), and many of his short stories cover the race riots in Chicago, which killed dozens of people. But until African Americans became the national pariah, Jews and Irish were the chosen groups to exclude from work and housing opportunities.

    Then again, those of Asian descent were treated horribly, and much of the discrimination was federally mandated. Only the native Americans have been treated worse.

    It's hard for me to wrestle with, that my beloved "Land of Opportunity" is also a "Land of Prejudice."

    Keep going with the posts. I find them fascinating! And the memorial you've pictured above is heart-breaking.

  2. Great post. I was "doing" my family tree about ten years ago. Half of my mother's side is Irish but it was really difficult to get the records before about 1850. They went over to England after this.
    Re the prejudice - on my first ever visit to the States in 1987 I was absolutely lambasted by a young Irish American guy in a bar in Boston. I couldn't believe that, on hearing my English accent, he thought it was OK to blame the entire Irish experience on me.

  3. @Expat mum, there was a huge fire in the Irish Public Records Office that destroyed the records between 1820 and 1850 or thereabouts. It makes it hard for any of us to go beyond those dates. And I too have been on the receiving end of blame, in spite of having been born in Dublin of two Irish parents.

  4. You raise a very important and often neglected point, in this series of posts.
    That the conditions endured by african slaves exported to the Americas was equalled by the conditions endured by the Irish. Their plight was, in a way, worse. Whilst slaves, once bought by a slave-owner, were valuable property, and needed to be kept alive, the irish were treated by their new country as expendable. nobody seemed to care whether they lived or died. For many of the poor, Irish, Scots, Welsh, and English too, thrown out of their homes and off the land where their families had lived for generations, the only hope was to travel to a new land, and try, against all odds, to survive.
    For some of these, indentured labour was the way forward, the only one possible. A starving person will grasp at any chance, and many, on being offered food and shelter, in exchange for a mark on a piece of paper, took it. They effectively sold themselves, their wives, their children, into slavery.
    "In 1855, Frederic Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed New York's Central Park, was in Alabama on a pleasure trip and saw bales of cotton being thrown from a considerable height into a cargo ship's hold. The men tossing the bales somewhat recklessly into the hold were Negroes, the men in the hold were Irish.

    Olmsted inquired about this to a shipworker. "Oh," said the worker, "the niggers are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything.""

  5. Gosh,
    As an Irish person reading your post, i was really moved.

    This part of our history never becomes comfortable or less fascinating for me, and i feel you paint a very real picture of this part of Irish history.

    I love the JFK quote also...

    many thanks and regards,


  6. I don't know much about this and I should. I will be doing some research. I don't think I appreciated how horrific the conditions where regarding the famine, how desperate so many immigrants were.

    But I appreciate that immigrants have, over and over, brought new strengths, new perspectives, new talents, new cultural references not to mention backs and minds to help build the nation we have today. Often they did so because they had no other choice, and it took unfathomable fortitude and resilience to succeed in horrific conditions. That fortitude and resilience have served the nation well as well. We would not be what we are today without them.

    It's one reason I'm not anti-immigration today. I know dozens and dozens of experts of European and Asian and African descent in my line of work. Latin American, too.

    Today, it's more likely the latter cleaning toilets and caring for children and picking crops while facing the same revulsion. And it's desperation that bring them here, too.



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