- 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
Most, however, survived this initial test. They lingered ashore until boardinghouse keeper and shipping broker had extracted the last possible farthing from them, until confidence men and other leeches had taken all they could. And then came the announcement that their ship was ready and they were to get down to such and such a wharf with their wives and children, their belongings, and food for the crossing.
Most, though not all, of the immigration holds were pesthouses. It this was an immigration ship, one that earned its way by hauling human cargo across the Atlantic, the hold was a gloomy, largish cubicle evilly lit by primitive oil lamps and crammed with rough bunks, one atop the other, on which were pallets of straw. They were the worst kind of sleeping quarters; but for the immigrants they were to be, in foul weather that might last for weeks, their living quarters. Here they would dress and undress without a pretense at privacy. Here they would cook and eat and make whatever laundry arrangements they might. Here children would spend day after day in hot, oxygen-depleted air, lying on the bunks because there was nowhere else for them to go. Here sudden murderous fights would break out when nerves cracked. Here there was never any quiet—day or night. There was always the noise of crying children, quarreling, the groaning of the sick, the mutter of unending prayer.
Of sanitary facilities, until governments stepped in to regulate matters, there were none. “Ship lever,” a kind of typhus resulting from lice that abounded in the straw pallets, was common. “Rotten throat” (probably a streptococcal infection) was the daily hazard of young and old. In the immigration hold the peasant lost the last of his possessions—privacy. On a long journey of foul weather he sank to an animal level, and the younger women were constantly in danger lrom a trew whose morals were questionable.
Food often ran out because the immigrants had little real knowledge of how long the journey would take. They then had to buy food from the ship’s stores, and the prices were piratical. Water was almost always rationed; there was enough perhaps to drink, but none for washing. The Irish immigrants debarking in New York or Boston were covered with sores and scabs from itch, and they had not been able to clean themselves for sometimes as long as two months.
The ships themselves were frequently undermanned and overloaded by murderous owners. “Coffin ships” were a feature of maritime life in the early 1800’s. These were vessels sent to sea so overladen that they must founder in heavy weather, that was the calm intention of the shipowner, who heavily insured his vessel and made a profit from its sinking. Immigrants were sometimes forced to make their voyages in such coffin ships, for to wait in port for a safer vessel meant spending in boardinghouses the money needed for the passage. It was not until 1876 that Samuel Plimsoll was able to carry through Parliament a law establishing a Plimsoll line on cargo vessels beyond which the vessel was not to be loaded.
Not all voyages were bad, however. Usually the bad and good were mixed together. In foul weather, when hatches had to be battened down, the immigrants were confined to the hold, while the waters thundered like judgment around them. But in fair weather they could go on deck, and on mild nights they would dance reels and jigs to the tune of a fiddle, or they would sing songs, often in Gaelic.
There were usually several storytellers among them, for the tradition of the spoken folk tale still lives in Ireland, sustained at one period as a result of the enforced illiteracy of the people. The tales these storytellers related fascinated young and old, and even the crew would join the immigrants to listen to them. They related how Oisin, the son of Finn, visited the Land of the Ever Young; and how the magic spear of Lugh had to be kept in a pot of poppy seeds to slake its thirst for blood; and how the warriors of the great Finn had taken it as their motto that “a man lives alter death but not alter honor”; and how Cuchullin, with a spear in his side, had tied himself to a post so that he might die on his feet facing his enemies.
These tales the Irish carried with them, with their handfuls of Irish soil, across the Atlantic to America. Wretched, illiterate, and unskilled, incapable of so much as signing their own names, they still had within them a shining literary treasure. The tales were not memorized and retold by rote. Each storyteller embellished the tale as he desired, and the most popular were those whose imagination was the tidiest and who could make words skip and jump or walk slow with sorrow as if they were living things.
Such, then, were the Irish immigrants, who in an increasing tide swept down the roads of Ireland to the sea and, risking all on one pitch, crossed the great ocean to the Land of the Ever Young.
New York and Boston, in the early nineteenth century, were almost country towns. Both were ports, to be sure, and had on their water fronts their tough sections. They had also some factories and machine shops, but largely they were mercantile and residential.