Those living in mid-19th century Ireland faced dire circumstances, as a “fungus-like infection” destroyed Irish potato crops. However, the crisis was caused more than a crop failure, it revealed the consequences of discriminatory social, economic, and political policies that were tied to British control of Ireland. These came together to create what is often called the Great Famine or the Great Hunger. Despite the devastation of potato crops, historians explain that colonial business relationships led farmers to export food to Great Britain. “In cases such as livestock and butter, research suggests that exports may have actually increased during the Potato Famine.” As a consequence of the famine, and the policies that supported the British colonization of Ireland, life expectancy in dropped almost in half, to just over 19 years. Millions more died from hunger, and hundreds of thousands took to the seas to start new lives.
In A Different Mirror, Ronald Takaki explains that the situation, even before the potato blight led many to leave their homeland to start new lives.
“By the thousands, Irish were leaving for America, where there was ‘room for all – employment for all and success for many.’ Letters from friends and family in the United States glowingly described riches ‘growing like grass’ and the boundlessness of a country where there was no tyranny or oppression from landlords. Between 1815 and 1845, one million Irish came to America” (134).
When the Potato blight hit in 1845, the exodus sped up. In the 10 years between 1845-1855, through death and migration, Ireland lost a third of its population. One million Irish traveled aboard what became known as coffin ships to the U.S., desperate to make it to the promised land. During this period, the Irish population in cities across the Northeast, including Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, grew rapidly, leading the number of Irish to exceed that of all other immigrant groups.
On a personal level, decisions to leave home were complicated. Who had the money to flee? If a family had saved enough money for passage across the sea, who they select to make the voyage? Often times, those that left Ireland never saw their families ever again. Yet the connections expressed in letters and in money being sent home, often saved lived.
Below is a selection of primary sources and quotations that offer additional insight into the decisions 19th-century Irish emigrants made to leave their homes for the United States.
“I would not live in Ireland now,
for she’s a fallen land,
And the tyrant’s heel is on her neck,
With her reeking blood-stained hand.
There’s not a foot of Irish ground, but’s trodden
down by slaves,
Who die unwept, and then are flung, like dogs, into their graves”
“My father holds 5 acres of land,
It was not enough to support us all,
Which banished me from my native land.
My holdings here I can’t endure since here
No longer can I stay.
I take my lot and leave this spot and try
the land of liberty”
“When I set out for Lowell,
Some factory for to find,
I left my native country
And all my friends behind
But now I am in Lowell,
And summon’d by the bell,
I think less of the factory
Than my native dell.
The Factory bell begins to ring
And we must all obey,
And to our old employment go,
Or else be turned away.
Come all ye weary factory girls,
I’ll have you understand,
I’m going to leave the factory
And return to my native land.”
All the sources in this chapter can be found, along with additional historical context in Ronald Takaki’s A Different MirroeL A History of Multicultural America.