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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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CelticShamrock Gifts


Far from Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore

famine soup kitchen

Waiting for the Soup Kitchen

by Suzanne Barrett

By March of 1847 an epidemic of fever ran rampant throughout Ireland. In the town of Skibbereen, West Cork Ireland, fever could be found in almost every household. The epidemic in workhouses reached its peak in April, and by May the situation in Dublin was still critical.

Sir John Burgoyne, chairman of the Dublin Relief Commission told Charles Trevelyan that at the principal fever hospital "every corner, including the cellars and a number of tents, were filled ... all insufficient, and a number of applicants sent away to spread disaster through the city." The epidemic began to subside by September, but continued until October 1848.

An item of curious significance during the famine is the record of Irish exports. By the 1840s, Ireland had become the granary of Britain, exporting sufficient grain to feed two million people a year. In addition, Ireland supplied horses, ponies, bones, lard, animal skins, honey, rags, shoes, soap, glue, and seed.

During the height of the famine, some of the most stricken parts of the country were exporting foodstuffs to Britain. In the first nine months of 1847, seventy-five ships sailed from Tralee to Liverpool, mostly carrying grain. In the same period, six vessels sailed from Kilrush in County Clare to Glasgow carrying a total of 6,624 barrels of oats. Throughout 1847, both Indian corn and potatoes were exported from Ireland. And in the same nine months of 1847, 56,557 firkins (one firkin equals nine gallons) of butter were exported to Bristol and 34,852 firkins to Liverpool from the Butter Exchange at Cork.

the irish famineSpirits export was brisk during the famine as well. During 1847, six million gallons of grain spirit were consumed within Ireland, while nearly a million and a half gallons of ale, stout, porter, and whiskey were shipped abroad. This represented a disguised export of grain. Equally serious for Ireland was the refusal of the British government to waive or lower the freight charges of goods imported into Britain. These charges were volatile, and after the disastrous potato crop of 1846, charges rose to three times their normal rate. Isaac Butt, former Professor of Political Economy at Trinity, posed the question: "If ministers resolved to trust the lives of the Irish people to private enterprise, was it not common sense and common justice to them that private enterprise should be unencumbered by any restrictions in the execution of the task of supplying, at the notice of a few months, provisions to five million people."

The Whig government's decision not to intervene in the marketplace but to use public relief as a means of helping was a disaster. In 1846-47 it is estimated that 400,000 people died from lack of food. In many areas, the wages paid for relief works was too low to purchase food during a period of "famine" prices. At this same time, huge amounts of food left Ireland, and it wasn't until the following spring that imports became substantial. The belief that England could have prevented the tragedy made the rounds of more than nationalist quarters. That belief traveled with the hundreds of thousands who fled Ireland and planted itself in Irish communities of America, Canada, and Britain.

To the Irishman who never wanted to leave his "green shamrock shore", he now had two choices: remain and die, or emigrate. Thus, one and a half million Irish people boarded ships in the harbors of Queenstown (now Cobh), Belfast, Limerick, Sligo, Dublin, Waterford, and a number of smaller ports in the west.

In March 1847, the United States imposed severe Passenger Acts to stem the flood of destitute emigrants. Passage was raised to seven pounds, but still the emigrants came. In such a hurry to get away, they often sailed directly from the smaller Irish ports where enforcement of the Passenger Acts proved impossible. 85,000 left from south and western ports in 1847, sailing on antique ships that were over-crowded and lacked the required quotas of provisions and water. A typical "coffin ship" was the 330 ton barque Elizabeth and Sarah, which sailed from Killala, Co. Mayo in July 1846 and landed in Quebec in September. She had been built in 1762. Her list of passengers was certified by the officer to be 212, but in reality she carried 276. She should have carried 12,532 gallons of water, but had only 8,700 gallons in leaky casks. The Passenger Act of 1842 required that seven pounds of provisions be given out each week to every passenger. No distribution was ever made in the Elisabeth and Sarah. She carried thirty-six berths, of which four were taken by the crew. The remaining thirty-two were shared by 276 passengers, who otherwise slept on the floor. No sanitary facilities of any kind were provided. The state of the vessel was "horrible and disgusting beyond the power of language to describe."

Through the incompetence of the captain, the voyage took eight weeks. Passengers starved and were tortured by thirst. Forty-two died during the voyage. The ship broke down and was towed into the St. Lawrence by a steamer sent by Immigration Officer Alexander Carlisle Buchanan at his own expense.

The largest emigration was to British North America because passage was cheaper. Canada, however, was unprepared for the number of emigrants, and totally unprepared for their appalling condition. The hospital at Grosse Île held 150 beds. By mid 1847, the ranks of the fever victims swelled to over 2,500, and at one point, 88 ships lay along a two-mile stretch of the St. Lawrence River, unable to land their ill and starving passengers. Typhus and disentary claimed over 5,200 lives, including some of the doctors who treated them.

Shiploads of emigrants arrived weekly, all of the passengers in poor condition, and fever aboard each vessel. Some of the passengers were in the final stages of disease and near death, many were starving, still more barely clothed. The condition of the emigrants shocked many communities who had not expected to see such deprivation. Still they were not without charity. Poorhouses, orphanages, and soup kitchens were established. However, many of the survivors were so weak in body and spirit they did not survive the harsh Canadian winter. It is estimated that of the 100,000 emigrants who left Ireland in 1847, 20,000 died in Canada, 5,300 died on Grosse Île, 14,706 died in Montreal, Quebec, Kingston, and Toronto, 1,120 died in New Brunswick, and 17,000 died on the voyage over.

In a beautiful wooded hollow on Grosse Île, a four-sided monument commemorates those who died with these words:

"In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains
of 5,294 persons, who, flying from pestilence
and famine in Ireland in the year 1847,
found in America but a grave."

causes of the famineLess hospitality awaited the emigrants who landed in the United States. The U.S. populace was anti-British, anti-Catholic, and anti-Irish. Not only had the costs of passage been increased for ships arriving in the United States, but the Passenger Act of 1847 had harsh regulations governing the landing of passengers. New York and Boston required the masters of vessels to give a bond that no passenger would become a burden upon society--$10. per head in New York, $1000. for each sick, aged or incapacitated passenger in Boston. Ships carrying sick passengers were refused right to enter Boston Harbor and were made to put to sea again.

On June 17, 1847, the brig Seraph arrived from Cork with 118 cases of fever on board. Her passengers were in such a state of starvation, the British Consul had to go down to her with cases of food. Finally she was denied landing and forced to go to St. John, New Brunswick.

Eventually, about half the surviving Irish emigrants flowed from British North America down to the United States, mostly able-bodied men. If they found work and established themselves, their families joined them. If not, the families were forced to rely of the generosity of Canadian charity.

The Irish poor were excluded and feared in the United States, even though that country did much to send donated money to Ireland. And finally, the generosity of Americans ended and the country was faced with the prospect of what to do with the huge numbers of appallingly destitute famine emigrants who swelled the cities' rolls. In 1845, the population of Boston was 114,366. An estimated 37,000 emigrants poured into the city in the twelve months of 1847. Infuriated Boston authorities, horrified by the physical state and destitution of these masses of immigrants declared Massachusetts the "moral cesspool of the civilized world."

The poor immigrant had never been welcomed, but because he was strong and willing to do any type of manual labor, he became useful in the building of America's canals, railroads, roadways, and in the mines.

Very little was done to assist the immigrants in 1847. The first emigrant society formed in 1850, but even during that time, the immigrant lived in deplorable slums, sleeping as many as eighteen persons in an 18 foot by five foot high cellar without windows. The Irish, having no technical skills, were forced into casual labor, cleaning stables, operating pushcarts, loading and unloading vessels. They were exploited by greedy landlords who found them shelter in rickety tenements of deplorable filth and squalor. The immigrants, who had known no better conditions in Ireland, did not expect more, and so they continued to live in the worst slums imaginable.

Despite extreme conditions, the Irish were survivors, and by 1850, over 2,200 Irish girls had found employment as domestic servants in Boston homes.

New York was a rougher city, and received about half the emigrant Irish population. By 1847, New York was bursting at the seams with tens of thousands of emigrant Irish pouring into the city. They camped everywhere, were exploited as in Boston. They kept pigs in vacant lots, and let them loose to forage at night. Cattle could be seen meandering through the streets. Offensive tasks such as animal slaughtering, horse-skinning, bone boiling, and glue making was done in the tenement yards, making a stench that could be smelled for miles. Shanties sprang up everywhere, and health problems soared.

The Irish were the most unfortunate of the emigrants. They became children of the slums, the poorest members of society and the least respected. It took them the longest to be assimilated, and they waited the longest before opportunities were made available to them.

In her book, The Great Hunger, Cecil Woodham-Smith says "The story of the Irish in the New World is not a romantic story of liberty and success, but the history of a bitter struggle, as bitter, as painful, though not as long-drawn-out as the struggle by which the Irish at last won the right to be a nation."

Forthcoming features will detail the Irish struggle for acceptance, the rise of Tammany Hall, "lace curtain" Irish, and the Irish-American effort to free Ireland.

Arriving to take the emigrant ship

The Emigrant Ship

All sketches are in the public domain.

Until next time.

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