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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Great Irish Famine

By Tom Morrow

The great influx of Irish immigrants to the United States during the mid-1800s can be attributed to the potato.

The great Irish potato famine in 1845, was an unusual blight, which devastated Ireland’s potato crop, the basic staple in the population. The majority of people depended upon the tuber for their diet. Most Irish peasants rented small plots of land from absentee British landlords, and because an acre of potatoes could support a family for a year, it became vital to survival.

Potatoes are nutritious and easy to grow, requiring minimal labor, training or equipment. A spade is all that’s required. When the blight struck, the potatoes turned slimy, black, and rotten in just days after they were dug from the ground.

A variety of causes were suspected, from static electricity to smoke bellowing from railroad locomotives, even the vapors from volcanoes. The actual cause was a fungus that had traveled from North America to Ireland.

The blight resulted in what became known as “Famine Fever,” killing thousands of people suffering from cholera, dysentery, scurvy, typhus, and infestations of lice. Those trying to combat conditions reported seeing children crying with pain and looking “like skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that little was left but bones.”

Masses of bodies were buried without coffins only a few inches below the soil. Some 750,000 Irishmen died from the famine over the next decade to around 1855.

Despite pleas from the small population of well-to-do Irish as well as some British living in Ireland, the British-controlled government did little to help, merely forcing hundreds of thousands of peasants into workhouses.

Within the first five years of what was known among the Irish as “The Great Hunger,” the population of Ireland had been reduced by 25 percent.

Ireland wasn’t the only country to be struck by the fungus, known as Phytophthora infestans, it reached into northern Europe, primarily Norway, causing famine in that country. A great number of Norwegians also migrated to other countries in the New World and other parts of Europe.

During the decade of the famine, more than 2 million Irishmen left their homeland, migrating to the U.S., Canada, England, and Australia.

While most of the immigrants thought they would be going to a better place, in reality, the Irish were treated like second-class citizens, especially in the United States. Jobs that were available ranged from being servants and housekeepers for the women, and hard construction labor for the men. Many were uneducated, which limited the job possibilities. Enlisting in the military was commonplace for many of the young men. A good number of cities, most notably New York, hired the Irish for their police force, primarily because of their ability to police their own populace.

It took many years before being Irish didn’t hold a certain stigma in society. The discrimination of being Irish ranked just above being an African-American for much of the last half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century.

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