The Tragedy Of Bridget Such-a-one

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All this was prelude to the transformation that the Irish Famine brought. The famine represented the greatest concentration of civilian suffering and death in Western Europe between the Thirty Years’ War and World War II. It rearranged the physical and mental landscape of Ireland, sweeping away a language and a way of life, and within a generation made a people steeped in rural traditions into the most urbanized ethnic group in North America.

Of the eight and a half million people in Ireland in 1845, a million perished from hunger and the fever and disease that stalked, jackal-like, in its wake. Between 1845 and 1855, in an unprecedented movement of people that was often less an organized migration than a panic, a mass unraveling, more than two million people left, for England and Australia and the great majority for North America.

 

It was part of the continuum of the transatlantic movement of people, but the famine migration was also different and extraordinary. Particularly in the densely populated townlands of the south and west of Ireland, where the bonds of culture and community went deep, the famine broke the traditional ties of Irish society. More people left Ireland in the decade of the famine than had in the previous 250 years. The exodus from Cork, Tipperary, Kerry, Galway, Clare, Mayo, and Donegal became a self-perpetuating process of removal. It swept aside all the old reluctance of the people to let go of their one hope for survival—the land —and made emigration an expectation rather than an exception.

Just as the mass flight of the famine years dissolved the underpinnings of the Irish countryside, its impact on America was profound. From independence to 1845 the Republic had absorbed about 1.6 million immigrants, the great majority Protestants looking to settle on the land. The annual number of Irish arriving in the United States tripled between 1843 and 1846, from 23,000 to 70,000. By 1851 it had reached a peak of 219,000, almost ten times what it had been less than a decade before.

Between 1845 and 1855 Irish Catholic immigration approached that of all groups over the previous seventy years, and the condition of these Irish sometimes bore more resemblance to modern-day “boat people” than to the immigrants arriving from Germany and Scandinavia. In an 1855 address to the Massachusetts legislature, Gov. Henry J. Gardner went back to classical history to find a comparable event. The scale of Irish immigration and the inmates it had deposited in the commonwealth’s prisons and asylums called to mind, the governor said, the “horde of foreign barbarians” that had overthrown the Roman Empire.

The cause of this influx was the blight that attacked the potatoes of Ireland in the late summer of 1845. It is estimated that the potato crop represented about 60 percent of Ireland’s annual food supply. Almost three and a half million people relied on it for the est part of their diet. The dreadful implications of a sudden and universal threat to the potato, which were instantaneously clear to Irish laborers and government officials alike, threw into dramatic relief the precarious condition of large parts of the population even in the best of times.

A decade earlier, in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville had made a tour of Ireland. “You cannot imagine,” he wrote his father soon after landing, “what a complexity of miseries five centuries of oppression, civil disorder, and religious hostility have piled on this poor people.” The poverty he subsequently witnessed was, he recorded, “such as I did not imagine existed in this world. It is a frightening thing, I assure you, to see a whole population reduced to fasting like Trappists, and not being sure of surviving to the next harvest, which is still not expected for another ten days.” The same year as Tocqueville’s visit, a German traveler in Kilkenny, in the relatively prosperous eastern part of the country, watched as a mother collected the skins of gooseberries that had been spit on the ground and fed them to her child.

Among the more unusual witnesses to the extent of Irish poverty was Asenath Nicholson, a widowed American temperance crusader and Protestant evangelist, who arrived from New York on the eve of the famine to distribute Bibles among the Catholic poor and stayed to become a one-woman relief expedition. Mrs. Nicholson told of giving a “sweet biscuit” to an obviously famished child, who held it in her hand and stared at it. “How is it,” Mrs. Nicholson asked the child’s mother, “she cannot be hungry?” The mother replied that the child had never seen such a delicacy before and “cannot think of parting with it.” Mrs. Nicholson marveled that “such self-denial in a child was quite beyond my comprehension, but so inured are these people to want, that their endurance and selfcontrol are almost beyond belief.”

The anecdotes of visitors were confirmed by a commission of inquiry formed to study the extent of Irish poverty. Reporting in 1835, the commission noted that two-fifths of the population lived in “fourth-class accommodations"—one-room windowless mud cabins—and at least two and a half million people annually required some assistance in order to avoid starvation.