- 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
Whatever Corcoran witnessed or took part in as a policeman may have been part of what led him to break his oath to the Crown. In August 1849 he was “relinquished” from his duties on suspicion of belonging to one of the secret agrarian societies that were violently resisting evictions. Before he could be arrested, he slipped aboard an emigrant ship and escaped to New York. There was little to distinguish him from his fellow immigrants when he landed in October 1849. But he quickly made a name for himself. He got work in a tavern and became a district leader for Tammany Hall, which was just awakening to the potential of the Irish vote, and he was an early member of the Fenian Brotherhood, the secret Irish revolutionary society fueled by the burning intent to revenge the famine and overthrow British rule in Ireland.
Five years after he arrived, Corcoran was elected a captain in a heavily Irish militia unit, the 69th New York. Not long afterward he was commended for helping defend the quarantine station on Staten Island, which a mob had attempted to burn. In 1860 the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) paid the first visit by a member of the royal family to the United States. The militia was ordered to parade in the prince’s honor; Corcoran, now the colonel of the 69th, refused to march his men for someone they called the “Famine Prince.” He was court-martialed for what in many eyes confirmed the worst suspicions of Irish disloyalty to American institutions.
The outbreak of the Civil War saved Corcoran from being cashiered. He returned to his regiment, which he commanded at Bull Run, where he was badly wounded and captured. Freed a year later in a prisoner exchange, he returned to service as head of his own “Irish Legion.” He again fell under an official cloud when he shot and killed an officer who had not only assaulted him, Corcoran said, but had called him “a damned Irish son of a bitch.” Before any official judgment could be reached, Corcoran died—partly as the result of his wounds—and was given a hero’s funeral in New York.
As with generations of immigrants to come, Irish and otherwise, Corcoran was eager for the opportunities that America had to offer and grateful when they proved real. He readily took on American citizenship and showed no hesitation about defending the Union. Yet he was equally unwilling to turn his back on the culture and people that had formed him. Fiercely loyal to his new homeland, he had no intention of abandoning his religion, disguising his ancestry, or detaching himself from the struggles of his native land. No one who observed Michael Corcoran could doubt that a powerful new element had been added to the American mix.
The month Michael Corcoran landed in New York, October 1849, Henry David Thoreau traveled to Cohasset, Massachusetts, to see the wreck of the St. John , a Boston-bound brig that had set sail from Ireland “laden with emigrants.” It was one of sixty emigrant ships lost between 1847 and 1853. Thoreau walked the beach and inspected the bodies collected there: “I saw many marble feet and matted heads as the cloths were raised, and one livid, swollen and mangled body of a drowned girl,—who probably had intended to go out to service in some American family. … Sometimes there were two or more children, or a parent and child, in the same box, and on the lid would perhaps be written with red chalk, ‘Bridget such-a-one, and sister’s child.’”
Besides what Thoreau tells us of the drowned girl, we know only that she sailed from Galway, part of a legion of Bridget such-a-ones. It’s possible that coming from the west, she was an Irish speaker; more than a third of the famine emigrants were. Perhaps she had relatives waiting for her. Perhaps not. Yet her corpse points to a larger story than the perils of the Atlantic crossing or the travails of a single season of immigrants. The dissolution of Irish rural life resulted in a bleak, narrow society of late marriage and of dowries carefully passed to single heirs, encouraging the young, especially girls, to emigrate. No other group of nineteenth-century immigrants had nearly the proportion of women as the Irish reached in the aftermath of the famine: more than 50 percent.
THE STRAINS ot adjustment were enormous, but the Irish reorganized themselves with remarkable speed and scope.
Encouraged, even expected, to make a contribution to the welfare of the parents and siblings they had left behind, Irishwomen worked in factories and mills. Irish maids became a fixture of bourgeois American life. Domestic service became so associated with the Irish that maids were often referred to generically as “Kathleens” or “Bridgets.” The work could be demeaning as well as demanding. In 1845 the antislavery crusader Abby Kelley visited fellow abolitionists in Pennsylvania. Her hosts’ Irish servant girl came to her in private and catalogued the work she had to perform for a dollar a week. “When I tried to console her and told her that we were trying to bring about a better state of things,” Kelley wrote, “a state in which she would be regarded as an equal, she wept like a child.”