- 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
Female employment was a source of independence and adaptation to American life, but above all, it was a wellspring of the money that poured back into Ireland, rescuing families from starvation and financing a selfperpetuating chain of emigration that would stretch across generations. At the height of the famine, Mrs. Nicholson marveled that “the Irish in America, and in all other countries where they are scattered, were sending one continued train of remittances, to the utter astonishment of the Postmasters.” In the famine decade more than £8.4 million was remitted for passage out of the British Isles. The British colonial secretary was delighted that the outflow of Irish was being funded at no expense to the government and surprised to discover that“such feelings of family affection, and such fidelity and firmness of purpose, should exist so generally among the lower classes.” In Massachusetts, Edward Evereft Hale was struck by the generosity of the Irish but worried that their “clannish” spirit of sharing might drag them down together. “For example,” he wrote, “it is within my own observation, that in the winter of 1850 to 1851, fourteen persons, fresh from Ireland, came in on the cabin hospitality of a woman in Worcester, because she was the cousin of one of the party.”
The strains of adjustment to America were enormous. The itinerant work of railroad building, which many took part in, and high rates of disease, accidental death, and alcohol abuse put tremendous pressure on families. Irishwomen were more likely to be widowed or deserted than their American counterparts. But amid the epic transformation of potato-growing tenants into urban laborers, moving from the tightly woven fabric of Irish townlands to the freewheeling environment of American cities, what was most remarkable of all was the speed and scope with which the Irish reorganized themselves. Within little more than a generation they translated their numbers into control of the Democratic party in the major cities and turned municipal patronage into an immediate and pragmatic method for softening the ravages of boom-and-bust capitalism. Barred from the privileged circle of high finance, equipped with few entrepreneurial skills, suspicious through experience of theories that made capital accumulation a supreme good, the Irish spearheaded the rise of organized labor.
The greatest manifestation of their effort to regroup was the Catholic Church, which was elevated from an ingredient in Irish life to its center, the bulwark of a culture that had lost its language and almost disintegrated beneath the catastrophe of the famine. In America as well as Ireland, vocations to the priesthood and sisterhood soared. Catholic parishes became the defining institution of Irish neighborhoods. Catholic schools, hospitals, and asylums created a vast social welfare network. Catholic nuns founded protectories and orphanages that countered the placing-out system, which took hundreds of thousands of immigrant children and shipped them west to “Christian” (Protestant) homes. Eventually these institutions were influential in establishing the obligation of the state to the support of dependent children.
The Catholic Church was the strongest institutional link in the exodus from Ireland and adjustment to America. It was the enduring monument to the effects of the famine: to the sexual repression and religious devotionalism that followed it; to the quest for respectability amid jarring dislocation and pervasive discrimination; and to the discipline, cohesion, and solidarity that allowed the Irish to survive, progress, and eventually reach undreamed-of levels of success. Only after a century and a half, when the Irish had erased almost every trace of their once seemingly ineradicable status as outsiders, would the power of the church begin to wane.
For Irish Catholics in America, the famine was the forge of their identity, fire and anvil, the scattering time of flight and dissolution, and the moment of regathering that would one day make them an influential part of the world’s most powerful democracy. The famine was rarely recalled in its specifics. There was no record made of its horrors or complexities. The blistering humiliations it inflicted and the divisions it exacerbated—the way it fell hardest on the landless Irish-speaking poor—were subsumed in a bitter and near-universal detestation of British rule in Ireland. Yet, unspoken, unexamined, largely lost to conscious memory, the famine was threaded into Irish America’s attitudes, expectations, and institutions. The Irish-American film director John Ford said that he was drawn to making the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath because in the Depression-era saga of Okies evicted from the land and left to wander and starve he recognized the story of his own ancestors.