Irish Americans of Cleveland
History of the Cleveland Irish
from The Irish Americans & Their Communities of Cleveland
by Nelson J. Callihan &
William F. Hickey
The emigration of the Irish, while steadily increasing after 1830, exploded during the years of the Great Famine. It began in 1845, when an unusually cold and wet winter, followed by a like spring, created the conditions for a blight of the potato crop throughout the land. Since the Irish diet consisted mainly of two foods, potatoes and fish, the failure of the potato crop left the inhabitants little choice but to emigrate.
This massive flow of Irish immigrants to America had special characteristics. Most of the people who left were young, usually between age fifteen and thirty-five. Thus the very young and the elderly were left behind, hoping that the emigrant would earn enough money in his first year here to bring the rest of the family out to America. There was a certain urgency in ail of this. In the presence of the Famine, a family generally liquidated all its assets, and sent out its strongest member who had the burden of finding and keeping a job in America. He, or often she, was expected to earn enough money to bring the rest of his family to this country within a year. The time limit was important since there was very little left for the family in Ireland to live on once it had sold all its possessions. Most families could not last much more than a year without starving. This procedure placed a great burden on the one chosen to go to America first. Often enough, he or she failed. Sometimes the problem was an inability to get a job; sometimes money earned to be sent back to Ireland was squandered on alcohol, and sometimes illness precluded any saving of money. As a result, families waiting in Ireland died, and the quilt of the first immigrant was so overwhelming that the immigrant was rendered useless in his new country, which was hardly the land of milk and honey about which he had dreamed.
The voyage to the United States on the Cunard Sailing Ships for the Famine Irish was of special importance. The conditions on these ships were the worst encountered by any immigrant group. The whole ordeal cost $37 in steerage. The immigrant was expected to bring enough food to last the six weeks journey from Queenstown to New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Montreal. He was to buy fresh water, when it was available, from the ship's captain. He was allowed only two hours a day on deck. Worst of all, in the steerage of these ships, deadly and contagious diseases often sprung up; sometimes only one in ten survived the voyage. The survivors landed here ill and feeble, hardly able to begin the backbreaking work which was all that was available to them in their new-found land.