the devastation of ireland -- 9/03/19

Today's selection -- from The Bonanza King by Gregory Crouch. By the 1600s, England had conquered and subjugated Ireland, confiscating most of its land and limiting the economic opportunities of its people. By the 1800s, that had created devastation. Then came the potato famine:

"Grinding need wore at the foundations of nineteenth-century Ireland. Walls of loose-stacked stone slathered in mud enclosed the one­-room shelters that housed fully half the Irish population. Most didn't have windows. A roof of tree branches, sod, and leaky thatch protected them from the worst of the Atlantic rains; an open peat fire warmed them through the dark winter months. Beds and blankets were rare luxuries. Most Irish families slept on bare dirt floors alongside their domestic an­imals. A British government official reporting on the living conditions of the Irish peasantry noted that 'in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water. . . . Pigs and manure constitute their only property.' ...

"In the eyes of Ireland's Gaelic Catholic majority, theirs was a conquered country, subjugated to the foreign English crown since the mid-seventeenth century. Although Catholics con­stituted more than three-quarters of Ireland's population, by 1800, 95 percent of the country's land had passed into the hands of English or Anglo-Irish Protestant aristocrats. Interested only in extracting rents and raising grain and cattle for cash sale in England, those absentee owners typically spent the bounty of the Irish countryside supporting lavish life­styles in England while the laborers and tenants who worked their estates endured desperate poverty.

"Irish tenants exchanged their labor for the lease on the small plots of dirt they needed to feed themselves. On such meager acreages, only the potato yielded sufficiently to feed a family. Poor Irish men and women ate them at almost every meal. Chronically indigent, often underfed, un­able to purchase land, deprived of political power, and ferociously dis­criminated against for the sin of being Catholic, more than a million people left Ireland in the first four decades of the nineteenth century. ...

"In 1800, some 35,000 Irish men and women lived in the United States. ... Forty years later, that number had bloated to 663,000, the over­whelming majority of them poor and barely educated. Unskilled laborers nailed to the cross of extreme poverty, most Irish male immigrants did casual day labor, taking whatever employment they could find. Ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week, they performed the brutal, back­breaking toil nobody else would do, for paltry wages, digging sewers and canals, excavating foundations, loading ships and wagons, carrying hods of bricks and mortar for skilled masons, paving streets, and building railroad beds. Irish women worked as washerwomen and domestic ser­vants, or sewed piecework in the needle trades. Widows took in boarders and collected rags they recycled into 'shoddy,' a cheap cloth made from shredded scraps of wool. In New York City, Irish peddlers lugged mer­chandise to every neighborhood, hawking sweet corn, oranges, root beer, bread, charcoal, clams, oysters, buttons, thread, fiddle strings, cigars, sus­penders, and a host of other inexpensive items. Rag-clad Irish children scavenged wood, coal, scrap metal, and glass, swept street crossings for tips, shined shoes, dealt apples and individual matches, and sold news­papers.

Scene at Skibbereen during the Great Famine, by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879),
commissioned by The Illustrated London News, 1847.

"Rather than be grateful for their inexpensive labor and service, es­tablished Yankee Protestants despised the Irish immigrants, scorning them as 'superstitious papists' and 'illiterate ditch diggers.' ... The twin millstones of being Irish and Catholic kept most Irish immigrants firmly anchored to the bottom of the Amer­ican social spectrum.

"[Then] disaster had hit Ireland.

"The nutrition of Irish tenant farmers and their families depended almost entirely on potatoes. Over the course of just a few days in the late sum­mer of 1845, Ireland's millions of subsistence farmers watched in horror as the leaves of previously healthy potato plants blackened, curled, and withered. Dug potatoes emerged from the ground full and healthy, but quickly shriveled to repulsive, inedible slime. The disease ravaged about half of the island's potato crop in 1845. The next year, the blight destroyed nearly every potato in Ireland. An Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger, gripped the land.

"Potato yields didn't recover for five long years. The population of Ire­land collapsed. Starvation and disease killed a million and a half Irish men, women, and children out of a prefamine population of about eight million. Another million fled the country, most to the United States, where they inundated the port cities of the eastern seaboard. Fully 650,000 wretched Irish men, women, and children settled in New York City during the famine years.

"Predictably, the influx provoked a backlash among native-born Americans. Anti-Catholic Yankees regarded the newest wave of desti­tute, starving refugees as 'Saint Patrick's vermin.' Many businesses ­and some entire industries -- refused to hire Irishmen."




Gregory Crouch


The Bonanza King




Copyright 2018 by Gregory Crouch


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