Sunday, November 30, 2014

Putting it into Perspective - Irish, British, Famine and Immigration

To expand a little on what I posted before, for a lengthier history lesson, it's instructive to put the magnitude of the Famine into perspective. Ireland had been basically enslaved by the British, as the colonizing force, for 700 years (since ~1160). Land was divided among the British gentry and the native Irish became tenant farmers. Even with this servitude existence the population swelled from 5 million from about 1800 to 8 million by 1840. This population then underwent a drastic reduction during and just after the Famine to about 5 million within 20 years. Half died of starvation and about half emigrated overseas, to the U.S., England, Australia, and Canada[i]. With the greatest percentage, possibly 75%, ending up in America. The history of Ireland thus was of wretchedly poor people constantly emigrating from their homeland for nearly a century. In fact Ireland's population had been down as low as 4 million with the constant exodus. Given the normal population growths due to births this is even more drastic than the numbers would indicate. I believe the island of Ireland is about 5 million people now and only within the last decade has had a resurgence in vitality it has never known. For a while it was referred to as the Celtic Tiger. It would be a good time to visit as they are actively encouraging tourism and people returning to their roots. Due to this massive Diaspora it is estimated that 40 million Americans can trace their roots to Ireland (70 million internationally)!

Part of what had fueled the initial massive growth of population in the first half of the 19th century was in part due to the potato. Ironically there is a book written about it with a title "How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World". Ireland was particularly well suited to the potato. It was a relatively easy crop to raise, it tolerated poor soil, the climate was well matched to it (wet and overcast) and the nutrition from it was unparalleled. The Irish diet became all dependent on it since they raised a crop to pay for their rent to the British[ii] (usually grain crops). Their food crop was the potato which they could easily tend to and had enough nutrition to subsist on (four times the food content of grain and it did not require any further processing, it could be just dug up and ate.) I suggest the next time you are at the supermarket you find a big bag of potatoes, a 10 pound bag, at minimum, 15 pounds if you’re a male. Lift it up and peer at it….that's your diet for the day, each and every day, spread out in three meals a day!  The potato had enough nutrients and energy content to need little else. Now try to figure out a way to cook it up so that it was palatable, day after day after day after…. When the potato crop failed, due to a blight (phytophthora infestans, a fungus disease) that was imported from America to the European Continent, and then to Ireland, it ruined the crop, literally, almost overnight. (they say the stench from the rotting plants was unbearable.) This continued for a half a dozen years in a row. The cash crops used to pay their rents weren't sufficient for their own sustenance and pay for rent, so there were wholesale evictions. Homes were burnt to the ground by the landlords and people were turned out into the lanes to move on, many dying of starvation, right there in the lanes, while others were fortunate enough to get passage elsewhere, as our kin were.

Leaving Ireland, in the face of the overwhelming disaster of the famine, the immigrants were not greeted with ready acceptance. While we historically think of America as the land of opportunity that many immigrants eagerly sought out, this was, to most of them, forced exile. Dob e'iagean dom imeacht ge Meirice, or "I had to go to America", or "Going to America was a necessity"[iii].  Families held "American Wakes" for departing kin. To them it was like a death since once a family left it was unlikely that they'd even be seen again. Even in the subsistence existence of these poor people they dearly loved their island. In the collective conscience of those that remained there is a dating of this time as "pre"-famine and "post"-famine. The music, gaiety, tradition, and liveliness that characterized the time before the famine was reduced dramatically for generations afterwards. It is wonderful to see the energy return to modern Ireland.

Our kin did not leave all their problems and hardships behind in Ireland. While they had opportunities they also had untold challenges to surmount. It had been held as common knowledge of the time, that the "Average length of life of the immigrant after landing here is six years, and many insist less". "When the Irish arrived, many Irish Immigrants quickly learned that American seaports were inhabited by what they called 'Yankee Tricksters' who infested the docklands and tried to rob the unwary Irish of the little capital or possessions that they had. Those who escaped the human sharks of New York City, New Orleans, and other ports soon discovered that their new American employers were often as harsh and unsympathetic as their old landlords in Ireland"[iv]. Yet even with all this adversity our kin surmounted their obstacles and persevered.


In researching Irish in the U.S., for the time frame after the Famine, I find very few that were farmers. Most likely it was due to their poverty, having no money to purchase land, but even after being here awhile, when you would presumably think they might have acquired enough to purchase land, there still weren't many that had land. Part of this is due to their reluctance to rely on farming as a way of subsistence. You will, however, find droves of Irish that were the backbone of America's working class. Much of the canal systems of the Northeast were due to the Irish. Our own kin were drawn to the section of Missouri by the coal mines that underlay Lafayette and Ray counties. Per Young's History of Lafayette County Missouri, 1910, "the 'Lexington' coal is known to be superior to most any other in Missouri", and "Lafayette county's large coal fields have created a demand for miners….with two thousand miners engaged in this business, most of them foreigners, and while this population is rather transient, some of them have made permanent homes here." That's what our kin did for the first 50 years. The hardships that they still had to endure are etched in the pens of the enumerators on the National census returns every decade. From that we can see how seasonal the work was. In each of the census is a question about how many months during the previous year that a man had been out of work. We see that number to be anywhere from 3-7 months in many cases. (you can just make out the 3 mos. and 5 mos. in the included 1880 and 1900 census copies, respectively). How did they survive in the interim? Personally, as someone with a roundness of belly that has never gone without a meal, I can't imagine.



[i] Keating, John. Irish Famine Facts. Dublin, Ireland: Teagasc, 1996

[ii] In David McCullough's biographical book entitled "John Adams", Simon & Schuster, he quotes John Adams letter to the Boston Gazzette (ca. 1874), "America has every right to determine its own destiny…", or "could face the subjugation of the kind inflicted on Ireland..." and.."..face the prospect of living, like the Irish, on potatoes and water..."
Powerful insight by this great man that steered the course of our country to shake off the tyrany of Britain, lest it follow the course of history that took the Irish another nearly 150 years to free most of the island (not all the 32 counties as was desired, leaving Northern Ireland still to continue to move towards making it, in my own hopes, "whole" sometime in the future).
It is also instructive of this statement to put things in perspective. The subsistence nature of the Irish existance on the potato was not a recent situation prior to the Great Famine, but something that existed for more than a century before, if not more.

[iii] Kerby Miller and Paul Wagner. Out of Ireland. Washington, D.C.: Elliott & Clarke, 1994

[iv] Kerby Miller and Paul Wagner. Out of Ireland. Washington, D.C.: Elliott & Clarke, 1994