No city on the planet was growing faster than New York.
By 1845 it was home to 70,000 Irish immigrants, 65,000 immigrants born elsewhere and 235,000 American born residents. From 1783 to 1845 the city’s populations had grown by 50% per decade for six decades. Few believed it could continue growing that fast.
Yet within the very holds of those ships which carried the Irish and Germans to America lay the seeds of a catastrophe that would make the flood of immigrants seem minute.
The ships that brought the immigrants here returned with American exports and among those goods in late 1844 were sacks of American grown seed potatoes which would sprout into a full plant if buried underground. They were sold throughout Great Britain, but especially Ireland whose poorest inhabitants ate potatoes for every meal, day after day.
The hundreds of thousands of Irish women who planted these seed potatoes were unaware they were infested with a fungus. Science days the fungus originated in the Peruvian guano used to fertilize American fields. It had escaped notice because it did not thrive in the hot dry summers ofAmerica.
But Ireland, cool and damp all year round provided the perfect breeding ground. Through air borne spores it traveled throughout Ireland and over the sea to Scotland and England, utterly destroying potato crops wherever it went.
The failure of the potato crop in Ireland between 1845 – 1849 and the famine that followed caused an exodus of unprecedented proporations, one of the largest outpourings of people from one continent to another in all of human history.
In Europe the resulting food shortages led to the revolutions of 1848, each of which was crushed by autocratic regimes. Hundreds of thousands fled their homelands and unprecedented numbers of continental Europeans began arriving in New York.
But it was from a starving Ireland that a famine stricken multitude of wretched poor arrived in New York.
When the potato famine struck Ireland in 1845 it struck a devastating blow to several million men and women whose diets consisted prmarily or entirely of potatoes. That first year the blight destroyed only 30 – 40% of the crop and while it caused great harm, government, church and family assistance kept actual starvation rare.
All Ireland waited anxiously for the 1846 harvest knowing that if it was not plentiful those on the brink would begin to starve. From planting through mid-summer the stalks grew and blossomed. They seemed perfectly healthy. But below the moist surface the fungus was thriving. Within a week the crop was devastated.
The wretched poor were left “wringing their hands and wailing bitterly the destruction that had left them foodless.” Ninety percent of the potato crop was destroyed by the fungus. By autumn people all over Ireland began to starve or die of starvation related disease.
Irish freedom fighter John Mitchel “saw sights that will never wholly leave the eyes that beheld them; cowering wretches, almost naked in the savage weather, prowling the turnip fields and endeavoring to grub up roots.” Skeletal figures dressed in rags became a common sight all across Ireland, exhibiting the common symptoms of starvation – bloated bellies and bloody diarrhea. Death became omnipresent, particularly in southwest Ireland.
All of Ireland was still under British rule of course and it is generally agreed today that the death toll would not have been so horrific had the British government not handled the crisis with such cold hearted ineptitude. Prime Minister Lord John Russel maintained that much of the crisis was the fault of the Irish themselves, seeking handouts rather than sufficiently exerting themselves. Sounds familiar.
Public works projects were started but the laborers were so debilitated from hunger and given so little food in return, lest they prefer this work to their usual employment. Thousands died while participating in “public works.”
Many in England felt that “Irish wealth should pay for Irish poverty” meaning Irish landlords should foot the bill.. This became the justification for cutting back on assistance which might have saved thousands.
Between 1846 – 1851, 1.1 million Irish men, women and children died ofstarvation. Record numbers would flee to the United States if they could raise the money needed for the passage. Many fled to Canada because the boats were less filled and the fare was cheaper than to New York.
The hardest hit were not able to emigrate for in addition to the fare one had to provide most of one’s own food for a 4 to 6 week journey. Only with the assistance of others could the destitute afford to leave. Some 50,000 had their tickets paid for by their landlords who calculated it was cheaper to pay them to emigrate than support them in the poorhouse.
Another 25,000 left with the assistance of religious organizations but in all this amounted to no more than 5% of the total. The vast majority made it to America only with the support of family members who had gone before. And thousands of Irish-Americans answered the call, sending money and ship tickets to help loved ones escape.
In 1847 “Black 47,” Irish immigration tripled from pre-famine levels and these figures excluded tens of thousands who landed in Canada and made their way overland to New York.
Referring to it as the hungry invasion, the Times of London called the Irish exodus of 1847 “one of the ost marvelous events in the annals of human migration. The miserable circumstances under which the majority left their homes…thousands of miles over which the dreary pilgrimage was protracted, the fearful casualties of the voyage by shipwreck, by famine and by fever, constituted a fact which we believe to be entirely without precedent.”
The Times went on to call the lack of government assistance to the starving “forever a stain on Great Britain.
It was, the Times recognized, “a movement which has exceeded all human experience.”
And 1847 would only be the tip of the iceberg as those who made it to America in 1846 – 47 paid for additional loved ones to immigrate in subsequent years. Remittances made it possible for those left behind to leave. The lucky recipients immediately booked passage “to what they now called the Land of Liberty and Plenty.”
By 1850 Irish immigration reached 5 times the pre-famine levels. By the end of the 1850s, 2.1 million Irish men, women and childrent – out of a pre-famine population of 8 million – had fled their country. Of that total 1.5 million came to the United States and a million of those landed in New York.
What did these starving immigrants go through to get to America?
The typical Irish immigrant during the famine years would have walked to Cork, Dublin or Belfast or some other Irish port and taken a steamship to Liverpool, the departure point for 3 our of 4 famine Irish sailing to the United States. The steamship voyage to Liverpool was an ordeal in itself. Most could not afford the price of a ticket which would grant them access to the interior of the vessal. They rode on the deck the entire overnight voyage – 30 hours from Cork – outside on a deck without even benches.
It was a night on the open Irish Sea, while cattle and livestock were protected inside, exposed to fierce winds and persistent sea spray or rainstorms. In Liverpool they ran the gauntlet of scammers and ticket brokers ready to relieve them of what little money they might have.
If they were lucky, their ship had a regular schedule and sailed for America on time. If not, they had to wait in Liverpool until the vessel was filled to overflowing. The poor would be sleeping on the streets, waiting to go. Some waited weeks, their ship sailing on the whim of the owner when its total cargo yielded a profit.
Their trans-Atlantic ships, still powered by sail took weeks to reach New York or Canada. The fastest sailing ship at the time made the crossing in 29 days. Most took six to eight weeks. Some took months.
The weak would die on the “coffin ships” from lack of sufficient food (they had to supply their own), drinking water, typhus or cholera. Toward the end of the famine some ships arrived with 30% of their skeletal passengers already dead.
But they came by the millions, fleeing a land of starvation and a government that didn’t care.
Sixty years later my grandparents would make the voyage as the millions poured out ot Italy for a new life for their children. It was the Irish who paved the way for the nationalities to come.
What was the voyage like for the Irish? More about the conditions they faced on the ships in the next post.