Franciscan Spirit Blog

The Famine That Brought the Irish to America

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It was a cruel act of nature that got out of control.
It was a disaster destined to happen given a centuries-old history of oppression.
It was a social trauma which festered due to callous indifference, if not bad faith, on the part of the British government.
It was a calamity permitted to degenerate into widespread misery under the prevailing economic notion that the market would correct itself.
It was a signal from God.
It was a natural event that created an opportunity for the British to engage in social engineering, fast-forwarding the “primitive” Irish into “civilization” by weaning them from the poor man’s crop, the potato.
It was the Irish potato famine.

The Great Famine of 1845-1850 is one of the most highly charged chapters of Irish history. Whatever lay behind and beneath the so-called “potato famine” that wracked Ireland 150 years ago—the viewpoints are many and often contentious—the Famine has moved to center stage. Following decades of limited, cautious, sometimes circumspect discussion, Irish voices are increasingly being heard on the subject—those of historians, writers, poets and social commentators as well as everyday citizens.


Hearing Irish Voices

This past summer I traveled to Ireland to listen to some of those voices through a program sponsored by the Institute of Irish Studies. As a participant in the Institute’s course on “The Culmination of Horror: The Famine in Ireland,” I was there to get a firsthand perspective on the impact of the terrible blight which infested the potato beginning in the mid-1840’s.

I learned about the estimated 1.5 million Irish people who died of starvation or disease during the Great Famine and of the approximately 1.2 million more who left their homeland in a frantic attempt to outwit death, often boarding the infamous “coffin ships” bound for North America and Australia. Most of the names of those who died will forever remain unknown to us; it was the most vulnerable and the “least important” who did not survive in Ireland or on the long, precarious journey by ship. But many of us know well and, indeed, revere the names and memories of our ancestors who managed to outlast the Famine in Ireland or survive the weeks and months at sea on their way to new lives in a new land.

During our two-week course, based at Trinity College Dublin, I had the opportunity to hear some of the Irish voices who are speaking and writing about the Famine. (The year 1997 marks the 150th anniversary of so-called Black ‘47, considered the worst year of the five-year disaster.) The course, which included interdisciplinary lectures, also took us to Famine museums at Cobh, County Cork, and Thurles, County Tipperary, and to the now-thriving town of Skibbereen, one of the most well-known and well-documented victims of famine and fever in the 1840’s.

Even today the stories, sights and sounds have a dreadful potency: ghostly potato ridges along otherwise picturesque rural landscapes; cemeteries with simple unmarked stones where individual Famine victims lie as well as mass burial pits holding thousands of nameless dead; documented accounts of weakened children and adults, thought to be dead, almost buried alive; remnants of Famine era walls and roads carefully constructed but leading nowhere, ill-conceived legacies of the public works program; shells of disease-infested workhouses where the most destitute were housed and where dependency was discouraged through a harsh regime of work and segregation of families by sex and age; accounts of the breakdown of a nation’s entire social fabric, including its most treasured rituals and customs.


Safe to Look Back Now?

“Maybe one can only commemorate when one is at a safe distance,” says Dr. Margaret Kelleher, who teaches English at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. “The silence has been tenacious” at many levels, she notes, including in the popular memory, in literature, among historians. She understands that, in the past, the Famine has been used to fuel anger and political resistance, and that there is a reluctance on the part of many in Ireland today, both in the Republic and in the North, to go down that dangerous road. But the silence stems from more than political sensitivities, she believes.

To discuss the Famine, says Dr. Kelleher, is to risk tapping “immense depths of pain,” including the reality that during the Famine “some people gained as some people suffered.” The kinds of choices people had to make, for example, about what to do with the limited food available is not easily talked about even now. But, she says, “our duty is to remember with a complexity that does not dilute the horror or avoid it.”

For Dr. Donal McCartney, ascribing blame is not the point. The professor emeritus of history at University College Dublin sees a complex picture in the official response to the Famine: a mixture of “stupidity” and “incompetence,” but “good intentions” as well.

“‘The Great Famine,’” Dr. McCartney says, pronouncing the words slowly and solemnly. “It’s bad enough at that.” As one concerned that the Famine is used to fill young Irish minds with a hatred of the British government for its sometimes anemic and ineffective handling of the disastrous upheaval in its nearby colony, Dr. McCartney is equally opposed to avoiding the subject in an effort “to eliminate all the tears and stresses from history.”

With the benefit of hindsight, social historians can now offer convincing evidence that significant portions of rural Ireland in the 1840’s were ripe for trouble. Indeed, ominous social undercurrents had been churning for hundreds of years, beginning with what Dr. McCartney calls Britain’s ultimately successful “conquest of Ireland” dating from the 16th century.

By confiscating Irish-owned land and “planting” the island with Protestant English and Scottish landlords, the British introduced a new landed class politically loyal to the Empire. The social gulf and the divided political and religious loyalties between landlord and worker would only grow over the centuries to come.

The Penal Laws of the late 17th century forbidding Catholics to own, purchase or inherit land left a bitter taste. Then, in 1800, came the Act of Union that officially abolished the independent Irish Parliament in Dublin; henceforth the British Parliament supervised affairs from London.

The disappearance of Ireland’s own Parliament is no idle historical point of interest, says Dr. Kevin Whelan, research scholar with the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. It means, he says carefully, that “the Famine [of 1845-50] did not occur in Ireland, but in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” that had been created by the Act of Union. But that was not all.

The socioeconomic hierarchy created by the 16th-century “plantation” efforts left landlords, mostly Protestant but some Catholic, at the top of the ladder. Below them were ever smaller farmers, including so-called cottiers who lived in one-room cabins and, on the lowest rung, the utterly vulnerable tenant farmers.

While many of the landlords were absentees living in England or in Dublin’s Georgian houses, they or their sub-landlords were only too happy to have their on-site agents parcel out the land in increasingly smaller plots. The landlords’ ultimate goal was to get as much rent as they could from as many tenants as possible.

The pre-Famine Irish unwittingly cooperated, marrying early and having large families. The population, which had doubled between 1750 and 1800, doubled yet again in 1841 to just over eight million people. Among them were two million landless laborers. As the population escalated and the gap widened between rich and poor, so did the latter’s dependence on the ecological miracle crop of the day: the potato. On the eve of the Famine, approximately 25 percent of the population lived off the potato while another 50 percent were virtually dependent on it for subsistence.


Poverty, Population, Potatoes

Then, in 1845, came reports of potatoes going black in some fields. One third of the crop was lost. What was dismissed by some as “just a bad year” was followed in 1846 and again in 1847 by a decline in three quarters of the potato crop. The potato fungus (phytophthora infestans) which had migrated in the late 1500’s from Peru and ultimately moved from the United States to Europe, had planted itself deeply and disastrously in the Irish soil.

“The cruelty of the timing of the Famine,” says Dr. Whelan, “was that it came precisely when the economic and demographic curves were most out of synch.” The irony continued. In response to the disaster, impoverished farmers sold any cash crops they could, becoming ever more dependent on the potato.

Suddenly, unmistakably, Ireland was facing the worst famine in European history. The odor of decaying potatoes pervaded the land. Hardest hit was the vast impoverished underclass, outwitted by three potent enemies: poverty, population and the diseased potato.

Increasingly gruesome realities haunted the tiny island which soon was overrun with hunger and disease. What few farm animals there were died off. People sold their boats to buy food and ate the following year’s seed potatoes. Entire families desperately turned to anything they could consume, including grass, in a futile effort to stay alive.

Food riots erupted as people saw grains and other foods being exported or grew impatient for long-awaited relief works. Typhus and cholera were rampant, inducing a fear and dread not experienced since the Black Death in the Middle Ages. Dead bodies rotted in fields and along roadsides, or were eaten by rats and dogs. Entire families succumbed to famine and disease behind their cottage doors in a final attempt to preserve a sense of privacy and dignity.

In the end, some made their final journey to mass graves on carts stacked high with bodies. Still others were transported via hinged coffins which, ingeniously and insidiously, could be used time and again.

The Irish and the British and, indeed, the world, were caught off guard and scrambled to respond. A number of temporary relief programs were immediately introduced by the British to alleviate the suffering. Donated food arrived, often at the initiation of Irish-Americans. British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel made arrangements for Indian corn (maize) to be imported from the United States. Even those who were alarmed at the growing disaster misread the scope and strength of what would prove to be a five-year assault on the Irish economy, to say nothing of the Irish spirit.

Added to that, says Dr. Whelan, was the pre-Famine British conviction that the Irish were “Celtic” and “other,” that they were “papists who were backward and primitive and who needed to be fast-forwarded into civilization. The British saw the potato as a root crop for a primitive people.” Furthermore, the notion of so-called providentialism was powerful at the time. People who held to it, Dr. Whelan explains, believed that “the Famine would do permanent good out of transient evil…. God was delivering a signal to Ireland, and they should not interfere too much with the will of God.” They included Charles Trevelyan, who served during the Famine as assistant secretary of the treasury and had major responsibility for relief efforts.

Meanwhile, the predominant laissez-faire economic policy (meaning “let be”) held that it was simply not government’s job to interfere with the free market or to provide aid for its citizens; people were to be self-sufficient, and charity would only weaken them.


Safety Nets Destroyed

The response to the Famine was a patchwork of on-again, off-again relief programs too often administered with a when-is-this-ever-going-to-end attitude. These included so-called workhouses for the utterly destitute but which, in fact, became punitive, oppressive and disease-ridden facilities dreaded by all but the most desperate.

Works programs designed to employ men at such tasks as building public roads faltered for many reasons, including halfhearted support on the part of landowners as well as greed and inefficiency. As the crops failed again in 1846 and food prices rose higher, an increasing number of people, often starving, were employed building roads which often led nowhere or were located in deserted areas where they were not needed. As more and more men scrambled to earn a little money—if they had the energy to work—millions more were succumbing to starvation.

The Soup Kitchen Act of early 1847 sought to replace the overburdened relief works system with temporary feeding facilities. The kitchens were to function only briefly, until the harvest in September offered relief. Meanwhile, the number of people engaged in relief work was drastically cut even before the soup kitchens had been established. In some areas, angry, despairing crowds demanded work and rejected the idea of queuing in public for food that, in many cases, was of such poor quality that it offered little nutrition.

A small number of privately run soup kitchens engaged in “souperism,” distributing food to people only if they promised to give up the Catholic faith and become Protestant, or trying to induce the masses by serving meat-filled soup on Fridays, when Catholics were still forbidden to eat meat.

Still, some of the official relief programs worked miracles, extending if not saving lives. Also, the St. Vincent de Paul Society sprang into action. Particularly noble and successful efforts were made by the Quakers, who numbered only 3,000 out of a population of more than 8 million. Still, they succeeded in saving many lives through their organized distribution of food and their refusal to proselytize. “We will never know how many lives were saved as a result” of these efforts, says Rob Goodbody, a member of the History Committee of the Society of Friends, “but in the folk memory of Ireland, Quakers are known as people who helped during the Famine.”

By the time the soup kitchens were closed in September 1847, three million people had been fed each day, but the systems that had been put into place grew less effective while the desperate masses grew weaker. Famine and disease overrode the land, and large numbers of poor tenant farmers were evicted from their small plots of land.

Evicted families took shelter wherever they could, including roadside ditches. Others lurched to the nearest workhouse if it was not too distant and if room was available. A limited number of the evicted were given a small sum of money by their landlords for the purpose of emigrating. While these landlords were initially praised for their generosity, the practice soon came to be seen as enforced exile—nothing like the pre-Famine emigration among the mostly young and strong who were leaving Ireland by choice. The estimated 1.2 million people who emigrated in 1846-52 were further induced by newspaper ads and placards urging them to leave.

They certainly were in no position to be selective about the conditions under which they traveled. Many of the so-called coffin ships, often unseaworthy, were stuffed with humans themselves unfit for the difficult journey. An unknown number died at sea as the sick and the healthy were cooped up together for weeks on overcrowded ships with unsanitary conditions, rotten food and foul water. Typhus was so prevalent it became known as “ship fever.”

Those who crossed the Atlantic more likely landed in Canada, which charged lower fares and which offered more relaxed immigration rules than did the United States. But most of those who survived the weeks at sea and successfully passed through the quarantine station ultimately headed for the United States—by the back door, if necessary. “The immigrants were lemmings rushing to America, and nothing was going to stop them,” says Joseph Robins, a retired social historian in Dublin.

Americans did not readily welcome what they saw as hordes of impoverished and diseased immigrants unfit for almost any kind of work. Still, the new arrivals flocked to the large cities, where they lived in slum areas and picked up work as unskilled labor. Only 10 percent headed to the familiar rural areas in search of a life with which they had been familiar in Ireland. The land had betrayed them once; the fear was that it just might happen again.

Back in Ireland, the Famine continued with a vengeance and the torrent of emigration continued. By 1850 the worst was over and the potato crop had recovered some of its strength. But some provinces within Ireland had lost 25 percent of their populations to starvation and disease, with three fifths of the deaths among children under 10 and adults over 60.

The other losses were harder to calculate, but of equally staggering dimensions. “No modern historian would argue the case for genocide,” says Kevin Whelan, but the Famine was certainly “ethnocidal” in that it “led to the destruction of a culture” and the “unraveling” of so much of what had been. “The Famine,” he says, “ripped gaping holes in the moral membranes of Irish society, leaving only the biological husk. It was a bomb that left demographic shrapnel.”

Bonds between people had come apart. Solidarity, neighborliness, the safety nets of Irish life were destroyed. The Irish experience of death, once a communal affair, was replaced by a “numbness,” according to Whelan. People were “isolated” and “devoid of direction, drained of hope.” There was a pervasive “sense of sadness and despondency in the culture.” Even the Irish language came close to dying out: Of the estimated 1.2 million who died, three quarters of them spoke Gaelic, as did a significant number of emigrants. The Irish language was “increasingly marginalized.” It came to be “something which belonged to the private world, to family, to home only.”


Melancholy Comforts of the Church

Into the vacuum created by the trauma of the Great Famine stepped a more public and assertive Roman Catholic Church. The Famine helped to give birth to a new form of Catholicism in Ireland, one characterized by an emphasis on devotional practices and forms of piety not formerly seen. Mass attendance increased, devotion to the rosary flowered, seminaries and convents were built to prepare ever-growing numbers of men and women seeking to give their lives in service to God.

This same “devotional revolution,” as historians call it, also could be found in America’s newest immigrants who had fled their famine-ridden land. Upon their arrival in the 1840’s and beyond, they found an existing Church made up of people who were better educated and of a higher socioeconomic class than they, says Dr. Jim O’Toole, associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “The established American Catholics of the day were of a more intellectual bent and found themselves drawn to reading the spiritual classics or the Bible,” Dr. O’Toole told St. Anthony Messenger in a telephone interview.

The freshness and vigor of the new immigrants’ faith and the depth of their religiosity had a strong impact on the still-new Catholic Church in the United States. Not surprisingly, says Dr. O’Toole, the new immigrants brought “a more devotional, a more emotional approach to religion.” Practices like Forty Hours, the rosary and the Sacred Heart spoke to them. Such devotions tapped into the melancholy strain of Famine immigrants.

The emphasis on piety helped the immigrants cope with their hard lives, the uncertainty with which they lived, their limited leisure. Most of them were blue-collar, working-class laborers whose lives were hardly glamorous. They built the tenements, streetcars, railroads and sewers of America’s growing cities.

For such people, says Dr. O’Toole, religious piety “gave them emotional directness,” a way to feel they were in close communication with a God who was with them in their everyday struggles. Devotion to the Sacred Heart, for example, “is bound up with suffering,” he points out. “It is not surprising to find such devotional and theological emphasis from people undergoing what they were.” For the post-Famine immigrants, “religion was used as a direct comfort.”

Perhaps more surprising, at least at first glance, is the number of Famine and post-Famine Irish who quickly rose to the highest ranks within the Catholic Church in America. Clearly, says Dr. O’Toole, who served as the first archivist for the Archdiocese of Boston (1978-86), “the hierarchy in America is dominated by the Irish, many of them immigrants or certainly first generation,” from the Civil War at least to World War I. Studies of parish clergy also reflect the Irish influence.

Serving the Church, he points out, was a way of serving God as well as “advancing the fortunes of the family.” As Famine and post-Famine families began to move into the middle class, it was almost common for them to include a priest among the other professions represented, such as lawyer and doctor.

The possibility of “advancement” was even more true for women who entered religious life and thereby received a better education than would have been available. The religious life “allowed women to become professional teachers and hospital administrators,” says Dr. O’Toole, “to enter careers otherwise closed to women.”

Early Church leaders included John Hughes, archbishop of New York, a pre-Famine immigrant who served during the mid-19th century and began the construction of St. Patrick Cathedral. John Ireland, who served as archbishop of St. Paul, arrived in the U.S. from Ireland at age 10. He gained a reputation as an outspoken enthusiast for American freedom and activism. William O’Connell, the early 20th-century cardinal-archbishop of Boston, is the subject of Dr. O’Toole’s book, Militant and Triumphant: William O’Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston (University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).

The son of Famine immigrants, O’Connell “represents the maturing of the Famine children and their generation,” says Dr. O’Toole. While the numbers of young Irish women in America who gave their lives to religious service were many and they provided the most direct, personal contact with their fellow immigrants through the parish school, the hospital and the orphanage, their names are less known to us.


Remembrance and Revival

While the Church flourished in America with the new blood provided by Famine immigrants, the same was occurring in Ireland itself. Indeed, as neo-Gothic churches, seminaries and convents became part of the landscape, the entire country was beginning to reinvent itself through a Celtic revival, a literary revival, the return of Irish dance and sports.

Kevin Whelan characterizes it as “a delayed response to the Famine” which succeeded in putting Ireland “on a new plane. And we are doing the same today,” he says. “The Ireland of today is born out of the Famine. Until recently, we have been under its shadow, but now we are revisiting, reinterpreting, reimagining it. Maybe now we have sufficient distance to look at it.”

Even the British, through their Prime Minister Tony Blair, are looking anew at the 150-year-old Famine. In a letter to organizers of an event which commemorated the Famine earlier this year, Mr. Blair spoke of the “deep scars” that had been caused and expressed regret at his country’s response.

“Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy,” Blair said shortly after his election last May. “That one million people died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today.”

Some, looking for an apology, heard close to that in Blair’s statement. But Ireland’s former president, Mary Robinson, who participated in many Famine commemorations during 1997 before taking up her new post as U.N. high commissioner for human rights, sees no room for bitterness. “Let us not be prisoners of our history,” she insists. “The best possible commemoration of the men and women who died in that Famine, who were cast up on other shores because of it, is to take their dispossession into the present with us, to help others who now suffer in a similar way.”

Judy Ball ancestors hail from County Tipperary and County Cork and is a former editor at Franciscan Media.

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