Famine Memorial, Dublin, Ireland. (Photo courtesy AlanMc, WikiCommons)
As I’ve been researching my family tree, I keep coming back to one question: why did my ancestors leave Ireland?
Confession: I know very little about the country where so much of my heritage was born. For that matter, I know very little about American history, other than the major events. And I’m pretty fuzzy on a lot of them, too.
I’ve heard of the Irish potato famine but know nothing about what it was, the havoc it caused, and the poverty and hunger that drove the Irish to America.
I know nothing about the religious differences that have divided Ireland for generations; “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was just a U2 song, right? And how can Catholics and Protestants be at war in this modern, tolerant world, anyway?
Like I said, I’m clueless. And yet, the little I have learned about my family makes all of those issues in history alive for the first time.
It seems that my first Irish ancestors arrived in America in about 1847, with my great, great, great, great grandmother Mary Branagan. A few years later, in 1850, my great, great, great, great grandfather John Maloney immigrated; he and Mary Branagan would marry in 1852 in Cummington, MA and have, among other children, a son named Charles.
My great, great, great grandparents Michael and Catherine Touhey Larkin came to the U.S. in 1857; they had an infant daughter Mary with them. Michael and Catherine went on to have seven more children, five of whom lived. One of them was Annie.
On November 21, 1883, Annie Larkin married Charles Maloney, thus uniting one branch of my Irish family tree.
I have no records showing the exact dates of immigration for anyone on this side of the Irish family tree, where in Ireland they’re from, when exactly they came, or in what occupations anyone was employed while in Ireland. I know when John Maloney arrived in Massachusetts, he worked as a farm hand while the rest of the family, as they grew, worked in the woolen mills.
In fact, my entire family is filled with family who worked in the woolen mills. When Charles was 12, he was employed in the woolen mills; so far that’s the youngest I’ve seen but with 10 years in between each census, it’s not unlikely that some of my ancestors who are in their early 20s were employed as spinners and sewers as children or teens.
I’ve asked myself more than a few times what life in Ireland must have been like. Because in America, things weren’t all the cozy, at least looking back from the comfort of my modern home. No running water. No sanitation. A nation on the verge of Civil War. Jobs in mills were long and difficult.
And yet wave after wave of immigrants came, believing that what they would find here would be better than what they left behind. And it sounds like, in the case of Irish immigrants during this time, they were right.
In the book “Immigrants in America: The Irish Americans”, author Karen Price Hossell explains that the plight of Irish Catholics in the middle of the 19th century was worsened by British penal laws of the 17th century depriving them of the abilty to own land. By the early 1800s, she writes, ”Catholics owned about 7 percent of the land in Ireland, even though they made up mor ethan 80 percent of the population.” While the penal laws were repealed in 1829, by then the damage was done. The Catholics were too poor to buy land even if they could.
And then, there was the potato blight.
In 1845, a potato blight that had first affected England and parts of Europe spread to Ireland. That year, about 30 to 40 percent of the potato crop in Ireland was destroyed, but the following year nearly all of the potato crops in the country were ruined.
I don’t think we realize how well-fed we are in America.
It’s difficult to imagine today that an entire country could starve because of the failure of one crop. In modern America, we’re used to going to the grocery store and enjoying a selection of fresh meats, vegetables, and fruits that are not always even in season.
But for the Irish on the 1800s, meat was a rarity and the grain and other crops grown on the estates of landlords, as well as the livestock, was exported to England. As my mother likes to say, the cobbler’s children went barefoot.
So without the potato, the people of Ireland starved. They ate grass, seaweed, the rare cabbage. An inconsistent diet; if they weren’t starving they were sick from what they could find to eat. The Irish who worked the land as tenants found themselves in increasingly dire circumstances when they were evicted by landowners who were not obligated to provide them shelter.
In short, it was a desperate, desperate time.
It’s difficult to sit here in 21st century America and imagine that the failure of crops of potatoes could send an entire country into a devastating famine. And yet, it happened.
To put this into a little perspective, Quakers in Ireland offered some relieve by opening soup kitchens; by July 1847 there were about 2,000 soup kitchens serving hot meals to three million people every day.
The Poor Law Extension Act of 1847, an extension of the 1838 act establishing workhouses for the poor, offered shelter – all the suffering had to do was turn over their land and agree to live in appaling, overcrowed, unsanitary, disease-ridden conditions. By 1851, three hundred thousand people lived in workhouses, and there was a waiting list of many more.
Monetary donations came from the US, India and other countries and while the blight was less severe in 1847, the crop of potatoes was sparse. The famine continued in this fashion until 1850, when the blight ended as quickly and mysteriously as it began.
Hossell writes that the English has little sympathy for the increasingly dire situation, owing to the fact that the English were predominantly Protestant and the suffering Irish were Catholics. (Ah, now the conflict in Ireland is starting to make sense.) In fact, the British response to the Irish famine is charged issue, referred to as “genocide by starvation”.
It was during the years of this devastation that my family began to arrive on U.S. shores. They weren’t alone. In 1840 about 1 million of the 17 million people living in America were of Irish descent; by 1854, that number more than doubled.
For the first time I am beginning to understand what drove them here, poverty I can’t imagine and perhaps a religious persecution that suddenly clears up the conflict in Ireland.
Like I said, I don’t know exactly where in Ireland they came from, or exactly why. But given the conditions in Ireland at the time, it makes sense that the potato famine was a catalyst, at least for the earliest of immigrants. Working in a woolen mill, living in a house, not facing famine, I suppose those things were a better life despite the fact that it doesn’t seem that way looking backward.
And it explains the deep Catholic roots of my family in Massachusetts. Not like today’s evangelical Christians spreading a doctrine, but in a lifestyle way. My family is Catholic. That’s just who they were. (It also explains why it was such a big deal that, as a teenager, I make my first communion. Despite the fact that both of my parents grew up Catholic, I grew up in a loosely faithful evangelical family and as such didn’t engage in those religious rites. But how that all came about is another story for another day.)
That’s just who we are, I guess. Devoted family, deeply faithful to their beliefs, willing to work for a better life for their children.
In other words, American.