- Historic Sites
The Tragedy Of Bridget Such-a-one
A hundred and fifty years ago famine in Ireland fostered a desperate, unprecedented mass migration to America. Neither country has been the same since.
December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
Docked at last on South Street, crew and passengers dispersed. As they left, young Redburn wondered at the fate of those who had survived the gantlet of hunger and emigration but now seemed exhausted and broken: “How, then, with these emigrants, who, three thousand miles from home, suddenly found themselves, deprived of brothers and husbands, with but a few pounds, or perhaps but a few shillings, to buy food in a strange land?”
Other Americans shared such doubts, and for many the answer was that the Catholic Irish were a threat to the country’s prosperity and liberty. Nativists focused on Irish poverty as a function of Irish character, a result of their addiction to “rum and Romanism.” When the Irish banded together to form religious, fraternal, and labor organizations aimed at improving their lot, this was taken as proof of their conspiratorial clannishness. Near the end of the famine decade, in 1854, the American party, which was formed to halt the incursion of foreigners and Catholics, controlled the legislatures of most New England states as well as those of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and California. For a time it was the most successful third-party movement in American history.
The poverty of the Irish, while only a part of the famine story, was not merely a figment of the nativist imagination. The cities of the Northeast faced problems of public order that wouldn’t be repeated until after World War II. The newcomers didn’t invent street gangs or rioting or machine politics—all pre-dated the arrival of the famine Irish—but the deluge of masses of disoriented, disorganized, unskilled alien labor raised an unprecedented sense of alarm. In 1851 it was estimated that one out of every six New Yorkers was a pauper. Of the 113,000 people residing in jails, workhouses, hospitals, or asylums or receiving public or private charity, threequarters were foreign-born, the bulk of them Irish.
New York State formally opened its first immigrant depot in 1855 at Castle Garden, its purpose to bring order to the process of arrival. Three decades later, under federal control, the depot was moved to Ellis Island. Golden or not, the door America erected at its entryway was a legacy of the famine.
By the autumn of 1849, when Melville wrote of the travails of his company of tired and poor Irish immigrants, Asiatic cholera had arrived in New York. It spread as far west as St. Louis and took thousands of lives. At that same moment, two real-life immigrants reached American shores, and, for all their differences—one was an ex-policeman fleeing arrest, the other a young woman seeking work—they embodied much of the pain and the promise of the famine years.
MORE than half of the immigrants were women, and female employment became a source of independence and adaptation
Michael Corcoran was the son of an Irishman who had made a career in the Royal Army. In 1845, at the age of eighteen, Corcoran joined the Revenue Police, which, along with the Irish Constabulary, was organized along military lines. He was posted to Donegal to help suppress the trade in illicit liquor. The advent of the famine heightened the role of the constabulary and the army in Ireland, already the most policed and garrisoned part of the British Isles. By 1848 their combined total was at an all-time high of forty thousand—almost twice the size of the expeditionary force that the British government would soon send to the Crimea at a cost nine times what it spent on famine relief in Ireland.
Whether Corcoran, as a member of the Revenue Police, was called to the support of the army or constabulary is unknown. Both forces were active during the famine, especially in areas like Donegal. They helped distribute relief as well as guarantee the all-important rights of property. In the latter capacity they not only assisted in mass clearances but guarded the convoys that carried grain and beef to England throughout the famine. The image of those convoys became a touchstone of Irish bitterness in later years, alleged proof of the charge leveled by the Irish nationalist John Mitchel that “the Almighty indeed sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”
Over the course of the famine, more grain may have entered Ireland than left. But often the imports didn’t reach the most distressed parts of the country, or were spoiled by the time they did. Unfamiliar with processing or cooking the yellow corn imported from America, people were made sick by it. The memory of soldiers and police guarding precious stores of food from the starving wasn’t an invention. Mrs. Nicholson testified to the sight of wellfed, well-armed soldiers and “haggard, meagre, squalid skeletons … grouped in starving multitudes around them.” In 1847—“Black ’47,” the Irish called it—two thousand people were transported to Australia for cattle stealing. On Spike Island, in Cork Harbor, three hundred adolescents were imprisoned for “taking bread while starving.”