Were Your Ancestors From a “Shi*hole Country”? Ireland During the Great Famine

Were Your Ancestors From a “Shi*hole Country”? Ireland During the Great Famine

It's important to remember that many of our ancestors came from "shithole countries". Our family history is valuable, no matter where we come from.


This engraving in The Illustrated London News of Dec. 16, 1848, depicts an Irish family being evicted and their home dismantled. Getty Images.


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:


    • 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.”




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.”

A famine memorial in Dublin. Getty Images.

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  1. Yes, thank you for going there. The Irish had it hard. But I also wish that you further and looked into the forced takings of people in Africa and their shipment (it wasn’t passage in the “ocean travel” sense) to America to be sold, as well as the post 1865 emmigration here. Remember, there is chain emmigration, and there were those who were chained.

  2. First off Durbin lied just like that creep who wrote that book who didn’t interview anyone. That was a private meeting & other people there said while he may have used saltier language than Republican presidents usually do, he did not say that. I have spent allot of money with this rag & I just renewed my subscription. I want it cancelled. I know most of the lying media are the same but as long as you kept your lying opinions to yourself I was okay. You people forced that hack Obama on us for 8 freaking miserable years & we had to put up with it because republicans are freaking cowards. Now we have a man in thee who represents the rest of the country not just the east or west snobby coasts. You are incredibly dumb to bring your politics into your magazine. Please send my money back. I got the last issue please deduct that but send back my money. Remember more than half the country voted for him so that means a good possibility that half your customers also voted for him.

    • I would agree with the above comments. You really could have written his article and addressed all the things you did without making the left turn into the world of politics. Simply no reason whatsoever to use the word you did in describing Ireland. Remember…no matter where someone came from back in the days you describe, they came and went through all the necessary avenues to come here and become one of us. They didn’t come here and flaunt the laws of the land. They were happy to become naturalized and sign a document that pledged their allegiance to this country and denounced their former countries. Unlike so many of today’s illegal immigrants.

      Again…no need to take the route you did. By doing so and using the language you did you join those that you so obviously feel are in the wrong!

    • Regardless of your political views, a refund should not be issued because the comments are a clear violation of the agreed upon code of conduct. Or maybe you tweeted that you didn’t say what you said.

  3. Thanks for an excellent article describing the reality of immigration. I am constantly humbled to learn the hardships that my ancestors experienced, and am grateful that they were able to come to America and be given the opportunity to live successful lives.
    And for those who seem to be looking to somehow take offense, they must not have read the article; there is nothing political or disrespectful in this description of the immigrant experience, in this case Ireland.

  4. I am so sorry you thought you had to use that title for this article. What were you thinking? Even though the article may not have any political/racist/etc.,etc.,etc. connotations to it, the mere use of the term “S***hole” automatically generates a political connotation. Why don’t you just add to the level of misinformation/bigotry/hate/anger/etc., etc., etc., this country is experiencing? Do you not see that you, Diane Haddad, are part of the problem? Jeesh. I would expect far more professionalism from someone in your position. Leave your personal opinions at home.

  5. Do not get political! you will lose customers. Basic business sense. Durbin has been known to make up stories. Trump never said it!! I have Irish ancestry and they were dominated ruthlessly by the English. The people were good the government was a Shi_hole government. Same as Haiti is now thanks to their government. Another political comment and I am gone. This is where I go to get away from all the dirty politics and fake newsers. Do not ruin it

  6. It is important to understand that the immigration question is what is at stake here and genealogy has landed squarely in the public eye as a political issue. Specific comments aside, clear debates are occurring that threaten the reality of a path to the United States that many of our ancestors took. This article is addressing the realities of life for many in our past and raises the vital question – who will we be as a nation today when it comes to immigration? That question is relevant no matter what side of the political aisle you call your own. I am glad to see that these issues were recognized as vital not only to politicians, but to those who choose to honor the past through genealogical pursuits. Thank you for the article.

  7. Really? Was this your attempt by getting someone to read your article? Try taking out the hot button political garbage and stick to facts. The content of your article applied to the entire Irish of my ancestors from Mayo. But you did go there and frankly it typified journalists who do have “to go there” in a desperate attempt to get readers. I would have read your article and shared it with fellow genealogists…but you went there. Sad.

  8. Thank you so much for this, Diane. It is MUCH appreciated. (But please call it the Great Hunger rather than the Great Famine. The sad fact, as you mentioned in your article, is that it wasn’t actually a famine, because there was plenty of food, which was exported.) Anyway, thank you again.

  9. Great article and a timely reminder that immigrants today have a lot in common with immigrant ancestors who left their homes to find better opportunities. Thanks Diane Haddad and Family Tree Mag!

  10. By DNA I am 17% Irish, My son 20%, so his father was a little Irish, too, also 20% English. What you have not mentioned in your article was the White Slavery Issue of the Irish and the Scots and even the Poor English, Since the British started their colonization of America , West Indies and the East Indies, and later Australia. They stole children off the streets and adults and sold them into slavery as Indentured servants. These people were sentenced to a term of indenture by their capturers many not to be released even after that was served.
    If you were poor, and came afoul of the law in any manner you could be shipped off to the colonies, most to their deaths. Kidnapped the word come of this practice.

    Word Origin and History for kidnap
    verb. 1680s, compound of kid (n.) “child” and nap “snatch away,” variant of nab; originally “steal children to provide servants and laborers in the American colonies.” Related: Kidnapped ; kidnapping.

    We are led to believe that indentured servants choose their fate, some did the from what I am learning now most did not. check out books “White Cargo” by Jordon and Walsh and the work done by Richard Hayes Phillips, Ph. D. in his three volume White Slave Children Trilogy. The information is truly eye opening. if you look to this you will find they had to enact laws to stop the abuse and the outcome of this slavery.

  11. I agree with Lisa Q, Nancy P, Jim J, Sharon P, Lucy S, Bob B, Maria G, Thomas H, Laurie G, Betty C, and Jacquelyn B about bringing politics into genealogy. It is NOT necessary. It only brings strife into an area of researching your family. Genealogy is a way to put politics behind us and gives us an outlet away from what is going on in the world and yet give meaning to our ancestors. The comment to bring Chain Migration into the Fact that some people came to the USA chained together is a stretch of the imagination. Both things are completely different. In fact Mr. Durbin saying that chain Migration is hurtful is very hypocritical of him because he used the term Chain Migration on the floor of Congress in 2013. Diane H brought Shi*hole into this conversation and should be reprimanded by her superiors….And I hope that my comments are listed because the first time that I wrote something on 18 Jan, they were censored and did not appear here. 🙂

  12. Is Family Tree Magazine going to continue making genealogy POLITICAL.?

    I am extremely disappointed that you, the editor of a genealogical magazine will do so. Are you going to start writing articles on North vs South? The world wars? Who is correct and who isn’t? You will lose your readers. I hope you get the message that Genealogy is a passion that beginner,s intermediates, and professional genealogists love to do and we do not need or want your political views. Hopefully, your advertisers and publisher, F & W, know that you are doing them a disservice. Take a look at the list of magazines they publish.

    BTW, I too, am a successful publisher/editor of Irish descent.

  13. Congratulations to you and your staff for having the courage to remind all of us that the conditions which forced our ancestors to leave their homelands were exactly the same as what many people in the world face today. Immigrants have been disparaged, descriminated against, and denied civil rights whether they came on their own or were dragged in chains.

    You didn’t create the term s*h*l. Your article, however, did show how hurtful and damaging words are when they are used existencially by persons in power and against people who struggle to overcome forces beyond their control. These are the stories that must be told and retold so as to remind us where we came from and that we are more than our circumstances.

    • Hi Vicci,

      We appreciate all feedback we receive on our website, but are often unable to reply to each and every comment we receive. Thank you for your input and for sharing your thoughts.