Ireland could’ve been described as a “shithole country” during the potato famine of 1845 to 1849, when about a million of our Irish ancestors fled to the United States. These are the conditions they left:
- Each year of the famine, Ireland lost one third to three-quarters to of its potato crop. The potato was the main source of food for a third of the population, as well as a food source for livestock.
- Diseases like typhus, cholera and dysentary raged through the malnourished population, killing an estimated million people.Cork artist James Mahoney wrote to the Illustrated London News, “I saw the dying, the living, and the dead, lying indiscriminately upon the same floor, without anything between them and the cold earth, save a few miserable rags upon them. To point to any particular house as a proof of this would be a waste of time, as all were in the same state; and, not a single house out of 500 could boast of being free from death and fever.”
- Landlords evicted tenants en masse, often “tumbling” (destroying) tenants’ dwellings to force them out. Roughly 350,000 individuals were driven out of their homes, according to L. Perry Curtis, Jr., in Notice to Quit: The Great Famine Evictions (CorkUniversity Press).
- As the population starved, Ireland’s exports of grain and other food continued. In 1847, the worst year of the famine, almost 4,000 ships carried food from Ireland to the major ports of Britain.
Millions of Americans Descend From Famine Immigrants
The descendants of these famine immigrants to America became factory workers, police officers, firefighters, soldiers and politicians. At least one (me) became a magazine editor.
Another descendant of famine immigrants, US senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, said this in 1966:
“We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people before God, before the law and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because the laws of God command it, although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.”