Irish emigrants on shipboard in the River Mersey, about to embark for America, c. 1846

Immigration to the United States virtually ceased with the outbreak of the revolution. Before it could resume, the Napoleonic Wars effectively prevented travel across the Atlantic. It began again during the so-called Era of Good Feelings, which coincided with the administrations of James Monroe, but did not become significant until the 1830s. Many of the first emigrants from Ireland came to work upon the Erie Canal and then upon the host of other canal projects started in its wake. They then found work on the railroads. Many, perhaps most, were skilled workers. Often they had migrated first to England where they had acquired experience.

Suddenly, in the mid-1840s, the size and nature of Irish immigration changed drastically. The potato blight which destroyed the staple of the Irish diet produced famine. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were driven from their cottages and forced to emigrate -- most often to North America. Unlike the earlier migration, these people had no skills, no previous experience in adapting to a new country. They also had no money, few clothes, and very little hope. Most had no education. Further, despite a fierce loyalty to the Catholic Church, most had had little formal religious training. Catholicism had only been legalized a dozen years earlier.

Even before the famine, these people had been desparately poor, proverbially the poorest in Europe. Suddenly they found themselves evicted from "cottages" which had often been mere hovels. Family and neighbors fell victim to cholera and other infectious diseases. More died of the cholera outbreak than of hunger. The survivors who washed up on the shores of the United States and Canada had few resources of any kind to draw upon.

The easiest way to see the impact of the famine upon emigration rates is to examine annual totals. Through 1840 total emigration exceeded 100,000 only once, and Canada rivalled the United States as a destination. After 1845 totals climbed sharply; in 1849, almost 220,000 of the nearly 300,000 emigrants (73%) came to the U.S. In 1851 the Census of Ireland disclosed the overall impact of death, disease, and emigration:

The population as recorded by the Census Commission in 1851 was 6,552,385. The Commissioners stated that, had the Famine not occurred, the population would have been 9,018,799. The commissioners calculated that, as a percentage of the 1841 population, mortality from 1845 to 1850 was as follows:
1845 : 6.4%
1846 : 9.1%
1847 : 18.5%
1848 : 15.4%
1849 : 17.9%
1850 : 12.2%

The Census Commissioners wrote in their concluding report:
"In conclusion, we feel it will be gratifying to your excellency to find that although the population has been diminished in so remarkable a manner by famine, disease and emigration between 1841 and 1851, and has been since decreasing, the results of the Irish census of 1851 are, on the whole, satisfactory, demonstrating as they do the general advancement of the country."

 

Some historians view that concluding sentence, so full of bureaucratic good cheer and blindness, as emblematic of the overall British response to the Irish tragedy. Be that as it may, some sense of the famine experience is essential to understanding both the Irish experience in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s and the native American response to the Irish.

The place to start is Steve Taylor's Views of the Famine site at Vassar. He has collected materials from the London Times, Punch, Illustrated London News, and the Cork Examiner. Most Americans got their views of the famine from British sources. Liz Szabo's Interpreting the Irish Famine site at the University of Virginia includes numerous Irish newspaper reports, many contemporary illustrations, and New York Archbishop John Hughes's 1847 lecture on the causes of the famine. The Famine in Cavan provides materials about one country. In 1841 its population reached 243,158. Ten years later it was 174,064, a decline of over 28%. It continued to fall steadily over the next century, finally bottoming out at just over 50,000 where it remains to this day.

Conditions for many Irish immigrants to U.S. cities in the 1840s and 1850s were not much better than those they had left behind. They often crammed into shanty towns, living in shacks cobbled together out of discarded boards and other debris. Sanitation was haphazard at best. There were no streets but only paths which turned into ditches after a heavy rain. A remarkable source for life inside an Irish shanty town is a site at Cleveland State University which collects materials dealing with a murder in 1859. The victim, Rosa O'Malia, was a twenty-six-year-old resident of Cleveland's West Side. In the records of the coroner's jury are not only the gory details of the crime itself but also the testimony of O'Malia's neighbors. In addition to telling what they knew of the murder, they also describe a good deal about daily life.

Jobs were hard to find. Employers often advertised their unwillingness to take on the newcomers by hanging out "No Irish Need Apply" signs. Irish women did find work as domestics, stereotyped as "Biddies," short for Bridget. Irish men also became servants or took unskilled jobs in construction. Harper's Weekly, the most popular magazine of the day, routinely ran cartoons lampooning Bridget and Patrick. The overt hostility these cartoons convey is a measure of how unwelcome the Irish were. They also express some of the fear they inspired. They filled the jails, workhouses, poor farms and lunatic hospitals. Worcester, Massachusetts' Know-Nothing newspaper claimed in an editorial on the eve of that city's mayoraly contest in 1854:

. . . rum shops [have] sprung up at every corner of the street, drunkards staggered in every alley, while prostitution reared its brothels at every thoroughfare leading to us, and held carnival in the very heart of the city itself. Virtue was confronted on the streets by known harlots, young men decoyed to houses of infamy in open day, and beneath the very shadow of the Mayor's office, the courtesan bargained for the price of her embraces, and led her victims to a place of assignation.

All of this was because of the Irish. This reception did not surprise the Irish. They were used to English Protestants deriding their brogues, their religion, and their poverty. They had endured centuries of oppression. As harsh as the prejudice they encountered in the United States was, it paled in comparison to life in Ireland. "Skibbereen," an Irish-American ballad, captures the enduring quality of Irish hatred of the English and their sense of America as a place from which to regroup and then resume their centuries-old struggle.