“We are talking about one of the greatest tragedies
Of the nineteenth century.”
Irish-American. To some, this term merely designates one of the many ethnic groups which can be found in the United States; but to those who are Irish-American, it represents a people who faced a disaster of mammoth proportions and who managed to survive at great cost. The Great Hunger of 1845 changed, or more often, destroyed the lives of millions of Irish, causing them to seek refuge from poverty and starvation in other, more prosperous countries. However, not all countries would accept these victims of the Potato Famine. After an immense burst of Irish immigration to Great Britain, the British Parliament began to halt Irish migrants from entering the country. Thus, the only other land promising prosperity, liberty and an abundance of food was the United States. The potato crop’s failure caused millions to come to America hoping for a better life. Some never made it to America, others dispersed into Canada, and some died upon arriving in the new land. However, they all contribute to the rich story found herein.
Emigrants, by definition, were people who could somehow find enough money to pay the passage, very often both for themselves and their families, to Great Britain or America. The average Irish immigrant was from a rural area, most often from the provinces of Connacht and Munster (Akenson 36). This immigrant could read (three-fourths of all migrants were literate). This immigrant and his family dispersed into one of the large cities. Few wished to become American farmers after the famine, for it brought back memories of the old life (Bence-Jones 106). Many had dangerous jobs and experienced a poor quality of life. This immigrant settled somewhere along the Eastern seaboard. This created a strong social and political impact, because many Irish stayed together after the trip to America (Akenson 35). Due to this immigrant’s rural history, he became and unskilled laborer, or domestic servant. And, because of their poor state of destitution, the average American associated this average Irish immigrant with the decline of the United States (36).
While the poor immigrant defined the average Irish-American, more migrants actually came from wealthier famine-affected countries in the north and east of Ireland (O Grada, Black 47 113). Thus, the famine produced a radical shift in the regional origin of Irish immigrants. Those who were very wealthy probably would not have been drastically affected by the famine whereas those who migrated the most. However, the poorer element from counties such as Clare, Kerry, and Mayo had weak representation in the area of migration after 1846 (114).
Everything that happened in Ireland during nineteenth century has indeed been overshadowed by the catastrophe which overtook the country between 1845 and 1851....