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The Great Hunger: Making America Home

Posted by Pam Velazquez on March 18, 2013 in Guest Bloggers, Social Media

Born and raised in New England, I grew up hearing about the celebrations that take place in Boston every year on St. Patrick’s Day. To say my boyfriend and I were excited to be experiencing it for ourselves for the first time was an understatement. Driving into the city to meet up with friends, we really had no idea what we were getting into. While live Irish music filled the streets, there were lines out the door of every restaurant, pub and club. People were dressed head-to-toe in green, and you could tell they’d been in Boston all day.

 

As we walked the crowded streets, an old saying popped into my head: “Everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day” and it got the genealogist in me thinking.

 

From 1845 until 1850, Ireland’s population of 8.5 million people suffered immensely of starvation and disease due to one of the 19th century’s greatest catastrophes, “The Great Hunger.” Brought on by potato crops devastated by a disease known as potato blight, one third of Ireland’s population — which depended on the potato as their main source of food — watched helplessly as their crops were ravaged. To make matters worse, the British government added to Ireland’s suffering by continuing to export large quantities of food and livestock from Ireland despite the fact that people were dying of hunger.

While a million people died of starvation and disease, half a million people were evicted from their homes, thrown into a life of poverty. As a result, in a desperate attempt to survive, two million of them left Ireland emigrating to England, Scotland, Australia, Canada and the United States.

 

Although Boston was quick to respond to the potato famine, sending 800 tons of food, supplies and clothing to Ireland in March 1847, Bostonians were less than thrilled when Irish refugees began pouring into their city by the thousands. In 1847 alone, 37,000 sick and impoverished Irish immigrants landed in Boston settling along the city’s waterfront in cramped shacks. Fleeing their homeland in hope of survival and opportunity, our Irish ancestors were faced with intolerance and adversity.

 

As they settled into their run-down flats, our ancestors were then confronted with the challenge of finding work. Due to anti-Irish job discrimination and lack of experience, many found themselves working as servants, which lead to some Americans viewing the Irish as an uneducated servant race. If they weren’t working as servants they took up jobs in factories and worked as laborers. Resented by the American working class for their willingness to work for meager wages, their determination to make it in America was unjustly viewed as greedy and desperate.

 

Ostracized for their religion and ridiculed for their home life, the Irish were discriminated against on many different levels. Many parents decided to scrap popular Irish names such as Bridget and Patrick in an attempt to Americanize their children, while escaping the derogatory meanings the names had taken on in America. It wasn’t uncommon to find cartoons regularly featured in Boston newspapers depicting the Irish as immoral, illiterate alcoholics who were always looking for a party and a fight.

 

As I walked the streets of Boston with my boyfriend and friends, I found it impossible not to smile. Surrounded by a sea of people dressed in green, I couldn’t help but wonder how my ancestors would have felt seeing their descendants openly celebrating their Irish heritage in the streets.

 

Leaving behind the starvation and poverty they faced in Ireland for a fresh start and chance of survival in America was hardly an easy transition. Thanks to their hard work, determination and resilience they were able to survive the famine and make America home.

 

By Kris Williams

Twitter: @KrisWilliams81

13 comments

Comments
1 Yelyfish08March 19, 2013 at 8:59 am

Very interesting facts about the Irish. I had no idea all the ordeals the had to face.

2 Krissy WorthMarch 19, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Thanks so much for writing that. I think more people need to know just how awful it was for the Irish. In college I took Irish American History and learned so much I never knew about my history. They don’t teach you these things in grade school. I wish more people knew just what they had to overcome. Great article!

3 Mary Brawley FuatMarch 19, 2013 at 8:59 pm

“The Great Hunger” by Cecil Woodham-Smith is one of the best books I have ever read. Kris Williams gives a nice synopsis of the content; but the details are extraordinary. I believe that everyone of Irish descent should find out about this cataclysmic event in our history. Through my research on ancestry.com, I found that my 2x great grandmother came to New York in 1849. This book helped me realize what she may have gone through in those years. Her inferred experience explains some of the personality traits of the Irish side of my family, specifically a grim fatalism mixed with hope for the future, deep faith, and an expansive love, warmth, and caring for family and friends. It’s as if they understand the common foundation of humanity.

4 Steven W. ChambersMarch 20, 2013 at 7:55 pm

yes i agree Kris Williams does great work. with those of us whom are decedent from Ireland it reminds me how far we as Celts have come.

5 Lisa Sullivan TaiseyMarch 21, 2013 at 3:43 am

Beautifully written. A lost piece of history. My grandmothers birth certificate said her name was Bridget. My uncle said for all these years he never knew his own mothers REAL first name because she went by Delia Frances…

6 Brklyn BridgeMarch 22, 2013 at 7:56 am

Quinnipiac University’s “Great Hunger Museum”

Newly opened in September, 2012, this will ensure that the Irish famine and its tremendous impact on American history will not soon be forgotten.

http://ighm.nfshost.com/

7 BrklynBridgeMarch 22, 2013 at 8:41 am

Quinnipiac University’s “Great Hunger Museum”

Newly opened in Hamdem, CT, September, 2012, this endeavor ensures that the great famine and its tremendous impact on American history will not soon be forgotten.

http://ighm.nfshost.com/

8 Mike SchindlerMarch 23, 2013 at 6:56 am

And, ultimately the Irish did prevail and become vital in the growth of America. They were willing to do what ever they could do to improve their lot, and in so doing helped all Americans.

9 Cheryl CotterMarch 24, 2013 at 7:42 am

The Irish were deliberately starved by the British who exported thousands of tons of food guarded by soldiers. Yes the crops failed, but there was more than enough food, it was simply carted off to feed other people – i.e. ENGLAND. This was a Holocaust, not a famine. Go look at the numbers at the Irish Holocausts sites, and weep.

10 Oliver CromwellMarch 24, 2013 at 9:14 am

@Cheryl Cotter.

It was Irish merchants who exported food from Ireland not the British government. But I wouldn’t expect some dumb plastic paddy from America to know any real history.

11 Cheryl CotterApril 2, 2013 at 9:10 pm

My information comes from your IRISH websites laddie. Foot in mouth a problem for you?

12 betty buffettApril 4, 2013 at 11:57 am

while one a bus tour of the country side a few years ago, everyone on the bus wanted to stop for drinks at a house with a thatched roof (I suspect the bus driver was in cahoots with the owner of the cottage, as most of them are when they bring tourists to certain businesses). However, I took a walk outside and up the road a ways. In an ovegrown patch of grass/hay, and by the roadside, I saw a rickety iron fence and gate with words indicating that it was a burial ground. Inside the gate was a marker stating that this was an area of unmarked graves of victims of the famine. Also in the area was a small stone monument with similar wording. It affected me for the rest of the day, and I think about it even today, much more than a mug of beer would have. I’m sorry the others didn’t take that walk with me, to really get a feel for part of
the history of the country.

13 phoebe finchApril 14, 2013 at 6:25 am

Good writing. As a resident if Boston I can attest to some of the points in the article. However, every ethnic group goes through similar conditions. I am a Scot.

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