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PAX, LUX ET VERITAS SINCE 1965
Post Irish Suffering on the Atlantic Passage
Created by John Eipper on 08/27/20 6:00 AM

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Irish Suffering on the Atlantic Passage (Patrick Mears, -Germany, 08/27/20 6:00 am)

In reading the recent WAIS exchange about slavery and the slave trade, I couldn't help but be reminded of the admittedly less deadly and dangerous voyages across the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans made by an estimated 1.1 million Irish during the Great Famine ("An Gorta Mór"). These souls departed from Ireland, sailing primarily to the United States and Canada, with smaller numbers resettling in Great Britain itself and in British possessions such as India and Australia. Deaths resulting from the Famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1855, have been estimated at 1 million and persons emigrating from Ireland on account of the Famine at an additional 1 million, which amounted then to one-quarter of the Emerald Isle's population.

The cause of the Great Famine was the "potato blight," which was caused by the parasite Phytophthora infestans. This parasite enters the potato plant through the plant's leaves and causes the potatoes growing under the ground to rot prior to harvesting. For Irish farmers and those others living on the edges of poverty in the 1840s, the potato was their main food source, and also broadly served as a fodder crop for Irish livestock.

By September 1845, the existence of the blight in Ireland began to be reported throughout the United Kingdom, and by the time that the disease and run its course, it had destroyed one-third to one-half of that year's crop. The next year was dramatically worse, with an estimated three-quarters of Ireland's potato crop being decimated by the pest. Because many Irish farmers and their families lived on small farms often situated on estates leased from members of the Anglo-Irish Aristocracy and typically depended on their own crops for their own food supply, the damage incurred by the Famine was catastrophic. Many of these families were initially forced by these circumstances to seek employment in work-relief projects, mostly funded by localities, and from which they received slight compensation.

Other families were forced to move from their leased farms into workhouses, where the family was divided up by age and sex, thereafter living apart from one another. As long as they were residents, they received food in exchange for their labor. Here is a brief film on the Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna, County Galway, which I had the opportunity to visit a few years ago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAoXOYi4o-8&t=54s .

Others were, however, simply were too destitute to pay their rent to their landlords and were thereafter forcibly evicted from their dwelling house, which was thereafter destroyed by the officials enforcing the eviction order. Many of these former tenants ended up dying from starvation, fever or some other, fatal disease at the side of a road or in the roofless ruins of their former homes. The Illustrated London News during this period published a series of stories depicting the tragedy of these unfortunate families with accompanying illustrations, some of which may be read and viewed here: https://viewsofthefamine.wordpress.com/illustrated-london-news/ .

The lucky ones, however, were those who were able to pay for passage on ships that would take them away from Ireland to new lands, where they settled and attempted to make a new life with their families. Many of these emigrants sailed in steerage class, the cheapest rate available, in side-wheeler passenger ships that regularly plied the transatlantic route between the British Isles and North America, while other, poorer passengers were forced to travel in what were labeled then as "coffin ships." These were smaller sailing vessels that were typically filthy and teeming with disease, thereby causing many passengers to die from fever transmitted during these voyages. Bodies of these passengers who died were often thrown overboard without ceremony. Food distributed to passengers was unhealthy and the ships' crews were often abusive to the passengers, especially young women traveling alone. These transatlantic crossings could last from 6 weeks to sometimes 12 weeks, when ships were blown off course towards Greenland and Baffin Island due to inclement weather.

In addition, many of these voyages terminated not by the ship's berthing in a calm and safe harbor but in a shipwreck in the open sea or just offshore from their intended destination, resulting in gruesome deaths from drowning. One of these shipwrecks, that of the brig St. John sailing from Galway Harbor with Irish passengers, was in 1849 caught in a violent storm off Cohasset, Massachusetts and sank, resulting in the deaths of many Famine emigrants. The aftermath of this disaster was witnessed by Henry David Thoreau and was later described by him in a published piece from 1855 entitled "The Shipwreck." Its text may be accessed here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Cape_Cod_(1865)_Thoreau/The_Shipwreck .

The Irish passengers who endured these hardships, and who would endure more and different difficulties after disembarking in Boston, New York City, Quebec or Montreal, have been described by one perceptive author in a recently published book as follows:

"The Irish who travelled to Britain and America in the mid-nineteenth century were among the most innocent and fearful of all emigrants and the least prepared for exile. Reared for the most part in a pre-industrial countryside, most would have lived out their lives within a twenty-mile radius of their birthplace but for the calamity that overwhelmed them. Many spoke no English, and the idiom and accent of those who did were often incomprehensible to English or American ears. In Ireland, in addition to their actual existences, most lived also in the imagined alternative cosmos of fairies and spirits, ancestral inventions designed to humanize the rural landscape, and which did not accommodate at all to harsh urban environments in Britain and America. On the voyage, emigrant innocence was manifested in swift mood changes, from despair to elation and vice versa, engendered by the slightest changes in circumstances, and more strikingly in the manner in which refuge was sought from misery in the comfort of music and dance. Contemporary diaries, letters and pictorial illustrations plentifully feature dancers on or below decks, twisting to jigs, reels and hornpipes to the accompaniment of pipe- and fiddle-music, testimony to a merriment consciously fabricated to ward off the fears of fever and shipwreck."

Ciarán Ó Murchadha, The Great Famine: Ireland's Agony (1845-1852), Continuum International Publishing Group, London (2011), at page 155.

My Irish great-grandparents, Patrick Mears and Catherine Purtle Mears from County Limerick, and Philip Cronin and Mary Ann O'Leary Cronin from County Cork, were among those persons who withstood the many dangers and risks of an Atlantic crossing in order to resettle in a "Brave New World," which they hoped and prayed would be better than the disrupted and deadly world that they had left. Both sets of these forebears were successful in creating new lives and new families in what soon would become their new homeland--Genesee and Lapeer Counties in Southeast Michigan. Both families acquired farms and were very successful in expanding the acreage of these farms and making them profitable. I suspect that if they are somewhere up there looking down, they are pleased to see the end results of their daring moves to better themselves and to create lines of descendants that carry on their heartfelt work.

N.B. For a first-person record of an Atlantic crossing during the Famine, see the Diary of Robert Whyte, a
"Protestant gentleman" who is believed to have been a professional writer and who traveled from Dublin to Grosse Ile, Canada, the former Canadian quarantine station on an island in the St. Lawrence River near the city of Quebec. Whyte's diary was published under the title, 1847 Famine Ship Diary: The Journey of an Irish Coffin Ship, in 1994 by Mercier Press, Cork, Ireland. Grosse Ile is now the site of a 15-meter tall, Irish Celtic Cross dedicated in 1909 to the sufferings and deaths that occurred at the quarantine station during the Famine Years.

Here is a link to a description of the site and its relevant history. https://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/grosse-ile-canadas-island-famine-memorial/ .

JE comments:  Beautifully written.  This is not only Irish history; it is American history.  The US has seven times more "Irishmen" (and women) than Ireland itself.  I doubt there is any other nationality that compares.  Patrick Mears reminds us that the passage for the impoverished Irish was only slightly less horrific than for the enslaved Africans.  To be sure, the Irish weren't subjected to sale as chattel upon arrival--although many indentured or indebted immigrants were anything but "free."

Perhaps Pat can answer this question:  what percentage of the arrivals knew no English?  One would assume that language was one of the few "advantages" enjoyed by the Irish settling in the US and Canada.


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  • How Many Irish Immigrants in US Knew English? (Patrick Mears, -Germany 08/28/20 3:01 AM)
    John E was curious about how many Irish Famine emigrants that settled in the US (and in other countries) knew English.

    I have never seen any statistics on this. I suspect, however, that not many of them were fluent in the English language. Those that were fluent and lived in the 26 southern counties were likely residing in the large cities, such as Dublin and Cork, and had a better chance of employment in those areas. Failing that, these people may have simply crossed over to England and pursued work opportunities there. I recently came across an estimate that approximately 200,000 Famine emigrants did just that--they sailed on available boats across the Irish Sea, and those that were financially strapped took livestock transports to English ports. During these journeys, these emigrants lacked food and protection from the weather during the crossing to Liverpool and other western ports, even though the livestock were often covered and fed. Upon arrival in Liverpool, for example, many of these emigrants found employment in railroad construction as "navvies" (there was a tremendous railway boom at the time in England), and in the industrial centers of Manchester and Birmingham. They then decided to stay and put down roots in England, Wales and Scotland.


    In contrast, I would wager that most Famine emigrants from outside the Pale of Settlement, viz, those that lived along the West and Southwest coasts of Ireland and a good distance eastward from there knew very little English; they were unable to read or write English but could perhaps get by in a basic existence with a rudimentary English vocabulary. Nevertheless, sources that I have read posit that many of these could speak basic Irish, even though the regional dialects were so different throughout the island, such that a Corkman would have difficulty understanding someone from Donegal. And writing Irish for these people was probably a rare feat--Irish is a very complex language to learn for composition purposes, as I am constantly reminded on a daily basis. I know from US Census records that my Mears great-grandparents (Patrick Mears and Catherine Purtle Mears) could neither read nor write English, which has caused son Eddie and me to sometimes tear out our hair when trying to track down key information about these two forebears. I have run across in official records in the US and Ireland that spell my great-grandfather's last name as "Meere," "Mier," "Mear," "Mearis," and "Myers." It appears that the current spelling of my last name was finally settled when my grandfather, Edward Francis Mears, finally adopted the current (and hopefully final) version of my surname after the death of his father.


    JE comments:  I learn something from each and every one of Pat Mears's WAIS posts.  US popular imagination, versed in images of Boston cops and The Gangs of New York, assume that all the Irish immigrants spoke English, albeit with that endearing brogue.  The facts were rather different.  We also forget that the Irish arrivals in the US were widely despised, and the first anti-immigration Nativist reaction, the "Know-Nothing Party," arose as a response to the "Irish problem"--crime in the streets, foreigners on the dole, Papist intrigue, etc.  The Know-Nothings were officially called the Native American Party, which shows how meanings can dramatically change over the years.


    Returning to the language issue, didn't the hardscrabble tenant-farmers in Ireland need at least a minimal knowledge of English to understand their Anglo-Protestant overlords?  Or did most of these landowners learn some Irish?


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    • "Pale of Settlement": Ireland and Russia (Edward Jajko, USA 08/29/20 3:58 AM)
      I must admit that I'm strong neither in Irish history nor historiography, but is "Pale of Settlement" the term that is used for "the West and Southwest coasts of Ireland and a good distance eastwards," as Patrick Mears, no, Mier, no, Mear (the singular form?), no, Mearis, no, Myers--he's Jewish?--oh, whatever, says in his posting of August 28?

      Is this a borrowing? As far as I know, "Pale of Settlement" (черта оседлосли) (דער תחום-המושב) is a specific term of art that refers to the western areas of the Russian Empire to which the majority of Jews under Czarist rule were confined. I know that the Czars ruled over and stole vast territories of the earth, but the Emerald Isle?


      JE comments:  "Pale" comes from the Latin palus, stake, and (literally) suggests a fenced-off area.  Compare this with the Spanish Palo Alto, "tall stick," which refers to the town's namesake coast redwood.  In the Irish case, the Pale was the area around Dublin always controlled by the English monarch.  The implication was that the lands outside the Pale were barbaric, suitable only for rustic folk with behavior "beyond the pale."


      I sense the Russian and Irish "Pales" arose independently, although the Irish one dates back longer.  The Russian Pale was established under Catherine the Great, in 1791.


      What do we know about the Anglo-Irish Protestants who controlled most of Ireland's land?  Pat Mears, next, follows up.


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      • "Pale of Settlement": Ireland and Russia; from Michael Frank (John Eipper, USA 08/31/20 4:14 AM)
        Reader Michael Frank sent this comment in response to Edward Jajko (August 29th):

        The original Russian term for Russia's "Pale of Settlement" area literally translates "boundary of permanent residence of Jews." This was shortened to "boundary of settlement" in the 1850s.


        I believe the English translation, Pale of Settlement, is attributable to Michael Davitt. Davitt, among his various careers, was a freelance reporter working for the Hearst papers. He was sent to Russia to cover the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. His legacy is an exhaustive journalistic opus, summarized in his book Within the Pale. As it happens, Davitt was Irish, and a Republican. The primary focus of his life was representing the counties "beyond the pale," and more than likely imported the term from his homeland. I'm not aware of any English language citation predating Davitt.


        JE comments:  Michael Frank introduced himself as a lifelong New Yorker and the retired Chief Information Officer of the Bank of New York's institutional brokerage subsidiary.  His contribution here solves the Russia-Ireland riddle.  The Czarist "pale" had nothing to do with Ireland until an Irishman made the connection.


        Thanks for writing in, Michael!  Here's Wikipedia on your fellow Michael (Davitt; 1846-1906).  A fascinating figure, who was both an Irish Republican and an advocate of Zionism.  Read more:


        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Davitt


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    • Anglo-Irish Landlords and Language (Patrick Mears, -Germany 08/29/20 4:36 AM)
      In his comments to my post of August 28th, John E asked to what extent Irish tenants of Anglo-Irish Ascendancy landlords were able to communicate in English with those landlords concerning leasing arrangements, payment of rent and the growing and harvesting of crops raised on the leased parcels.

      From what I have read over the years, many of these landlords, especially those that were "super rich" for their times, were not overly engaged with the operation and economy of their Irish estates. Many of them had residences in England and spent a great deal of their time away from "John Bull's Other Island." Nevertheless, these landlords, when they visited their holdings, lived in great comfort in their "Big Houses"--the large manor houses on their estates. Some of these houses are still owned and occupied by members of this Aristocracy, and probably the most notable of these owners are the Dukes of Devonshire, who have owned Lismore Castle in northern County Waterford since 1753, and which anchors holdings of approximately 8,000 acres nearby. Birr Castle in the small town of Birr in County Offaly continues to be owned and occupied by the Parsons family, one of whose members built at the time of the Great Famine the world's largest telescope, that still graces the grounds of the castle. However, many more of these Big Houses are now in the hands of later owners, e.g. Lissadell House in County Sligo, which was formerly owned by the Anglo-Irish Gore-Booth Family. One famous resident of this house was Constance Gore-Booth (1868-1927), better known to the world as Constance Markievicz. The current owners of Lissadell are two married lawyers from Dublin. Other Big Houses have been converted to commercial use, e.g. Bantry House in the town of Bantry, West Cork, A portion of this beautiful manor house on Bantry Bay is dedicated to B&B use and the remaining areas are occupied by the descendants of Richard White, the Earl of Bantry.


      For a useful mental picture of the life and times of these noble owners, one should read the significant number of novels and short story collections have been written over the years concerning these landed estates in Ireland during English rule and their occupants. Some suggested readings are (i) Castle Rackrent (1800) and The Absentee (1812), both of which were penned by Maria Edgeworth; (ii) The Irish R.M. (1899/1908), a collection of related short stories co-authored by Edith Somerville and her second cousin, Violet Martin (a/k/a "Martin Ross"); and The Last September (1929), by Elizabeth Bowen.


      Practically speaking, although some agricultural tenants of the Big Houses of Ireland, particularly those who leased large portions of these estates and then relet certain areas to subtenants, likely had a good command of English and could interact with estate owners on a somewhat-equal basis, most tenants possessed little accumulated wealth and, especially in areas beyond the "Pale of Settlement," these tenants were not likely to have possessed a working knowledge of the English language. However, those tenants who could only communicate in Irish were likely to have been able to understand their duties and to discharge them through interactions with bilingual land agents retained by the Big House owners. Undoubtedly, owners with many tenants speaking only Irish likely hired only those agents who were fluent in at least spoken Irish, so as to enable this important communication. Again I have not seen any statistics that would give us a sharper picture of how many of these bilingual land agents there were in the days prior to 1885, which was the date on which the first Irish Land Purchase Act was passed by the English Parliament. That year marked the beginning of the demise of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy in Ireland, triggered by the constant sale of portions of their estates to tenants. Pursuant to this statute and similar legislation that followed, the British government advanced loans and other financial incentives to these tenants, which enabled them to purchase their plots on these estates and also provided certain financial incentives to the Ascendancy landlords to sell large portions of their estates to their tenants. Other than the precious few members of the Ascendancy that still own and occupy significant estates and Big Houses in Ireland, such as the Earls of Devonshire of the Cavendish family, most of these large estates have disappeared.


      Finally, for a good overview of the Landed Estates system of land ownership in Ireland, see the following article: http://www.askaboutireland.ie/reading-room/history-heritage/big-houses-of-ireland/welcome-to-the-cork-archi/background-to-landed-esta/


      JE comments:  Pat, I'll always inundate you with questions on this topic, as your posts show me how little I know of Irish history.  Please tell us about the Irish Land Purchase Act of 1885.  What was the inspiration for loosening the grip of the Anglo-Irish (Protestant) landlords?  Was the Act a cause, or more of a symptom, of the rising nationalism among the Irish Catholics?  I'm also curious if any of the purchases were made with "remittances" sent home by members of the Irish diaspora.


      Finally, it's interesting that the books you cite all have female authors.  Was the domesticity of estate life considered the "pale" of women only?


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      • Decline of the Anglo-Irish Aristocracy (Harry Papasotiriou, Greece 08/29/20 8:00 AM)

        A very comprehensive and dispassionate book on the fall of the
        aristocracy across the United Kingdom is David Cannadine's The Decline
        and Fall of the British Aristocracy
        (Anchor Books, 1990).


        It has much
        to say about the decline of the aristocracy in Ireland.  A key measure
        was the Irish Local Government Act of 1898, passed by the conservative
        Salisbury government to ameliorate the worst aspects of absentee
        landlordism and stem the Irish drive for Home Rule. It contributed to
        the selling by aristocrats of their estates in Ireland but did not end
        the Irish nationalist drive for independence.


        JE comments:  Interesting:  London believed that reining in the absentee landlords would pacify the restive Irish.  The opposite seems to have occurred.  Empires rarely found the Goldilocks Mean of providing "just enough" autonomy.  Too little and you have rebellion.  Too much and you get pretty much the same thing.  The moral:  avoid empires.

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