The Great Famine and the Subsequent Emigration

       It seems that just as the recall of the Nazi years in Europe precipitates in Jews everywhere a profound sense of anguish (and rightly so), so the recall of the Great Famine in Ireland between the years 1845 and 1853 produces a similar anguish in Irish people even to this day, allowing of course for the fact that the details of this catastrophe are dulled both by time and by some romanticism. One hesitates to pause for any length of time to describe the Famine, but at the same time it must be noted that it was the sole and pivotal cause of Irish immigration to the United States in the middle of the last century.

       There were some Irish who had come to this country in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some of them were Catholics but very few. The English Penal Laws for Irish Catholics, which were not abrogated until 1829, all put precluded the Catholic Irish from even thinking about such a violent break with their past, bad as that past was. Moreover, the traditional clanishness of the Irish family made the prospect of emigrating even less likely. There were laborers who came here In the 1820's to work on the canals of Ohio, but they came from Belfast. Many of these people had been drafted by the English from the poor in the South of Ireland to work on the channels of Belfast. Once these were dug, they were free to return to the poverty from which they had come, or to emigrate from Belfast to work on the canals in America. Some did emigrate, only to .....




Lonely independence
is still the rule in
in remote regions of the

Whitewashed cottage--
three rooms on one
level--a home in
County Ddenegal.

Spotless interior
is headed by a
peat-burning fire-
place and oven

By the courtesy of
Time-Life Books, Inc.



find that the fevers and the inhuman conditions with which the canal workers lived in Ohio brought them an early death. Cemeteries along the Ohio Canal at places like Peninsula reveal the marked graves of a few of these men; most of them, however, were buried in unmarked graves. They seldom married, they had no time for courting, and there are few descendants here today who can trace their roots back to these early Irish Catholic canal workers. Their story is basically a tragedy about which, except for the research of William Hickey, has yet to be written.

       It was a different thing with the Famine Irish. They were free to emigrate if they could raise the money to do so. The pattern of their stories was much the same for all. They were driven by a sense of desperation and a very real fear that the very tight family, deprived of its livelihood by a suddenly unproductive land, might become extinct. They did not particularly want to leave Ireland; they knew little, if anything, about America other than the hope that it might allow them to survive. No other immigrant group came to this Country moved by such a crisis and with such reluctance than did the Famine Irish.

       Statistics perhaps tell the story best. There were over eight million people living in Ireland in 1845; by 1853 there were five million people living in Ireland. Eighty-five percent of those who left Ireland listed their place of designation as the United States. In the subsequent half century, another three million Irish came to America although it is true that in the Famine .....




years more Germans came to the United States than Irish, for every German who came here, 33 remained at home. The unique thing about the Irish emigration is that during a fifty-year period one of every five people emigrated.

       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.

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