americans send food to ireland -- 4/20/20

Today's selection -- from Voyage of Mercy by Stephen Puleo. Ireland suffered from a devastating famine in the 1840s, and its population dropped by almost 25 percent from death and from the famished leaving for the shores of other countries. The famine was caused in large part by the policies of Ireland's English colonial overlords, but England did little to provide Ireland with relief in its hour of desperate need. In stark contrast, Americans went to great lengths to provide the Irish with food:

"I had known some­thing about the [USS] Jamestown voyage [from America to provide famine relief to Ireland] before researching this book, but I was completely unaware of the enormous scope of the U.S. relief effort to Ireland in 1847-48, the widespread generosity of Americans from all walks of life during a time when the very act of survival and supporting one's own family presented a grueling daily challenge and was far from guaranteed.

"That Americans from across the United States contributed to Irish relief was extraordinary enough, but it was the nature of most of their donations that was most impressive. This was not a matter of entering credit card information or dropping off a bag of canned goods, though these are certainly generous acts in their own right. While many people sent small amounts of money, farmers often donated crops they had grown themselves to sustain their loved ones. They furrowed the ground, laid the seed, nurtured the plants, and harvested the crops -- beans, corn, barley, wheat, and much more. Then those who chose to help the people of Ireland took a portion of those goods, packaged them in burlap sacks or wooden kegs, and delivered them by horse-drawn wagon to river ports, where rafts and small boats carried them to larger ships that navigated broader rivers and the Erie Canal. From there, the food made its way to major Atlantic ports like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, where dockworkers loaded it upon ocean-sailing vessels bound for England and Ireland.

USS Jamestown

"Farmers and planters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia, western New York, and western Massachusetts, in the mid-Atlantic states, across the South, and along the Mississippi -- all of them literally took food out of the mouths of their own family mem­bers, or food they would normally sell at market to buy goods for their cabins and farms, and shipped it to strangers thousands of miles away.

"It was as though Americans looked at their own children and felt the pain of Irish parents who were watching their youngsters starve. Or perhaps Americans appreciated the poetic, if mournful, symmetry of sharing the abundant bounty produced by their fertile fields with peo­ple whose land was blackened by blight and whose major crop rotted with disease.

"Whatever the exact reason, such sacrifice and generosity were breathtaking to me, and I've thought about this often, especially when I walk into a supermarket and, almost without giving it a second thought, reach for virtually any food item I choose to buy. How much food would we give to strangers today if our survival, our families' survival, depended on planting, growing, cultivating, and harvesting everything we needed?

"And maybe because Americans knew they were part of something much larger than themselves in 1847, the widespread desire to provide relief to Ireland also unified the United States -- for a short time at least -- in a way it hadn't been since the adoption of the Constitution sixty years earlier, and probably not again until the attack on Pearl Har­bor nearly a century later drew the United States into World War II.

"Charitable contributions of any kind at any time are worthy and no­ble; the American humanitarian mission to Ireland during the 1847 potato famine, while inexplicable in many ways, was something special altogether."



Stephen Puleo


Voyage of Mercy


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2020 by Stephen Puleo


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