The Irish Famine: A Disaster Poised to Strike
In the early 1800s, the impoverished and rapidly growing rural population of Ireland had become almost totally dependent on one crop. Only the potato could produce enough food to sustain families farming the tiny plots of land the Irish peasants had been forced onto by British landlords.
The lowly potato was an agricultural marvel, but staking the lives of an entire population on it was enormously risky.
Sporadic potato crop failures had plagued Ireland in the 1700s and early 1800s. And in the mid-1840s a blight caused by a fungus struck potato plants across all of Ireland.
The failure of essentially the entire potato crop for several years led to unprecedented disaster. And Ireland and America would be changed forever.
Significance of the Great Famine
The Irish Famine, which in Ireland became known as "The Great Hunger," was the great turning point in Irish history. It changed the society forever, most strikingly by greatly reducing the population.
In 1841 Ireland's population was more than eight million. It has been estimated that at least one million died of starvation and disease in the late 1840s, and at least another one million emigrated during the Famine period.
The Famine hardened resentment toward the British who ruled Ireland. And nationalist movements in Ireland, which had always ended in failure, would now have a powerful new component: sympathetic Irish immigrants living in America.
Scientific Cause of the Irish Famine
The botanical cause of the Great Famine was a virulent fungus (Phytophthora infestans), spread by the wind, that first appeared on the leaves of potato plants in September and October of 1845. The diseased plants withered with shocking speed. When the potatoes were dug up for harvest, they were found to be rotting.
Poor farmers discovered the potatoes they could normally store and use as provisions for six months had quickly turned inedible.
Modern potato farmers spray plants to prevent blight. But in the 1840s the blight was not well understood, and unfounded theories spread as rumors. Panic set in.
The failure of the potato harvest in 1845 was repeated the following year, as well as in 1847.
Social Causes of the Great Irish Famine
In the early 1800s, a large part of the Irish population lived as impoverished tenant farmers, generally in debt to British landlords. The need to survive on small plots of rented land created the perilous situation where vast numbers of people depended on the potato crop for survival.
Historians have long noted that while Irish peasants were forced to subsist on potatoes, other crops were being grown in Ireland, and food was exported for market in England and elsewhere. Beef cattle raised in Ireland were also exported for English tables.
British Government Reaction
The response of the British government to the calamity in Ireland has long been a focus of controversy. Government relief efforts were launched, but they were often ineffective. And modern commentators have noted that economic doctrine in 1840s Britain generally accepted that poor people were bound to suffer and that government intervention was not warranted.
The issue of English culpability in the catastrophe in Ireland made headlines in the 1990s, during commemorations marking the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine. Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed regret over England's role in 1997, during commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the Famine. The New York Times reported at the time that "Mr. Blair stopped short of making a full apology on behalf of his country."
It is impossible to determine precise numbers of the dead from starvation and disease. Many victims were buried in mass graves, their names unrecorded.
It has been estimated that at least a half-million Irish tenants were evicted during the Famine years.
In some places, particularly in the west of Ireland, entire communities simply ceased to exist. The residents either died, were driven off the land, or chose to find a better life in America.
Irish emigration to America proceeded at a modest pace in the decades before the Great Famine. It has been estimated that only 5,000 Irish immigrants per year arrived in the United States prior to 1830.
The Great Famine increased those numbers astronomically, and documented arrivals during the Famine years are well over a half-million. It is assumed that many more arrived undocumented, such as by landing first in Canada and simply walking into the United States.
By 1850 the population of New York City was said to be 26 percent Irish. An article headlined "Ireland in America" in the New York Times on April 2, 1852 recounted the continuing arrivals:
On Sunday last three thousand emigrants arrived at this port. On Monday there were over two thousand. On Tuesday over five thousand arrived. On Wednesday the number was over two thousand. Thus in four days twelve thousand persons were landed for the first time upon American shores. A population greater than that of some of the largest and most flourishing villages of this State was thus added to the City of New York within ninety-six hours.
Irish in a New World
The flood of Irish into the United States had a profound effect, especially in urban centers where the Irish exerted political influence and often were the backbone of municipal government, most notably the police and fire departments. In the Civil War, entire regiments were composed of Irish troops, such as those of New York's famed Irish Brigade.
In 1858, the Irish community in New York City had demonstrated that it was in America to stay. Led by a politically powerful immigrant, Archbishop John Hughes, the Irish began building the largest church in New York City. They called it St. Patrick's Cathedral, and it would replace a modest cathedral, also named for Ireland's patron saint, in lower Manhattan. Construction was halted during the Civil War, but the enormous cathedral was finally finished in 1878.
Thirty years after the Great Famine, the twin spires of St. Patrick's dominated the skyline of New York City. And on the docks of lower Manhattan, the Irish kept arriving.
Vintage Images: Ireland in the 19th Century