- Historic Sites
The Coming Of The Green
The Irish built America’s roads and canals, fought in its wars, and triumphed over poverty and discrimination: it was a grand battle indeed
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
Then someone would have to be found who could read the letter because Irish Catholics for nearly a hundred years had been forbidden schooling and were almost one hundred per cent illiterate. The man who read the letter might be a priest or one of the “hedge schoolteachers”—one who tried to combat illiteracy, at the risk of deportation, by conducting a secret school behind a hedge or in some remote sod schoolhouse, with a guard posted to give warning should any government official or stranger approach.
Every word was received like a jewel. Sentences were read and reread and marveled over. “I’m learning to write, as you can see,” the letter would state in laborious print and with many words misspelled. “Schools here are free for everyone.” And at that there would be a silence of wonder that such a thing could be possible.
“We eat every day here like we would eat in Ireland at Christmas. Any man may speak what is on his mind without the least fear. If a man will work, he need never go hungry.”
That last was the favorite phrase. To be in a place where you never had to be hungry again, where winter wasn’t something to dread because of the lack of food, where children didn’t whimper at night from hunger pains—that was the greatest marvel of all.
In almost every case the letter expressed the hope that those to whom it was addressed would be able to come to America someday. A little money might be enclosed toward the fare of a brother or a father or a mother. And these letters, combined with the increasingly miserable conditions in Ireland, moved first hundreds and then thousands of Irishmen and their families to migrate.
But first came the huge problem of raising the fare. In 1816 passage to America was about six or seven pounds per head—thirty to thirty-five dollars. That was a large sum to raise, and every means was employed to acquire it. What few possessions the family had were sold; relatives in America sent what they could; a few landlords sometimes helped. With the development of pedigreed animals, cattle had become a more profitable crop than tenants. Corn likewise provided heavy profits. Tenants had to be cleared off the lands to provide pasturage, and it seemed wiser to help them to America rather than leave them in Ireland, a roaming, homeless, and lawless herd constituting a grave menace to both health and property. Usually the decision to leave had to be made many months ahead of the departure date so that every possible source of passage money could be employed to the full.
But more than passage money had to be found. There was food to be provided for a voyage that might take from lour to ten weeks on a sailing vessel. Clothes were needed for the children. And a little extra money would also be needed in case of delay at the port of departure until favorable winds permitted the emigrant ship to clear port. Before leaving his plot of land for the New World, the emigrant planted as many potatoes as he could and delayed his departure, if he could manage it, until after the crop was harvested. For food, he took with him sacks of potatoes, and his neighbors filled out his meager store with what they could spare from their own harvest.
Finally came the great day. The family took a last look around at the sod house, barely distinguishable from the turfy ground above which it rose only a few feet; at the blackthorn hedge that they would never again see white with blossoms in the spring; at the blue mountains that fringe almost every horizon in Ireland. The peasant parts hard with his land, however miserably he has lived upon it. It is his mother, his blood, and his bone; and the wrench away from it is like dying or maybe like being born. No man ever felt for a city as the peasant feels for the soil he has tilled. And so before they left, one member of the family would reach down and pick up a handful of the earth and put it in a cloth, to be kept to ease the anguish of the parting.
And then down the road—a road at once of sorrow and of hope: the long, long road to the sea and the end of life in Ireland. The emigrants went on foot, barefoot to save whatever shoes they possessed. And they pushed barrows that contained their possessions and on which the smaller children could ride when they were tired. The barrows were part of the fare. They would have to be sold when the port city was reached. The money was needed, every penny of it calculated. Not a farthing of it could be spared. The men worried about the money, going over the budget again and again. But the women had a grim confidence. “We’ll manage somehow,” they said, as women have been saying in every country of the world since the beginning of time.
The seaport marked the start of the 3,000-mile gantlet that the emigrant family now had to run. It was the start of a grim contest in which the stakes were the survival of the family.
Whatever port the Irish emigrant picked as his point of departure—Londonderry or Belfast in the north, Dublin in the east, Waterford or Cork in the south, or Galway in the west—he was the special prey of rapacious boardinghouse keepers, shipping brokers, and confidence tricksters, all intent upon extracting what they could of his precious little board of money.
It was not uncommon for passenger agents and boardinghouse keepers to conspire to delay the departure of the emigrant so that more money could be extracted from him, the agent taking a commission. The professional advisers, posing as friends, bewildered the emigrant with a list of articles that he should buy and without which he or his children could not hope to survive on the big Atlantic crossing.