"From Shamrocks to Serapes"
(Kelly Tobin O'Donnell - Masters Thesis USD 1995)
Traveling has always been a part of the Irish spirit. Irish history and folklore contain many accounts of early Irish voyages to the New World. In the Middle Ages, one such story that captured the attention of Europeans related the tale of Brendan the Navigator who sailed with his fellow monks to Tir na nOg, or the Land of the Young, in the sixth century.
Although the ancient folk tales lack much in the way of evidence, contemporary stories of journeys beyond the Emerald Isle are repeated by more than one author. One legend cited by several authors claims an Irishman traveled on one of Christopher Columbus’ ships. In 1492, a native of County Galway, Ireland, sailed with Columbus to the New World. William Eris (Ayers) did not quite make it as far as his fellow countrymen some 400 years later, however. He and 39 other crew members, volunteered to remain on the island of Hispaniola, where they perished at the hands of the natives .
Influence of the Irish immigrants in the United States began earlier than most people realize. In 1791, almost one hundred years before the Irish became involved with American politics, the influence of one Irishman was felt in the young nation’s new capital.
James Hoban, a native of Kilkenny, moved to Charleston after the Revolutionary War. He subsequently produced a design for the “President’s Palace,” modeled after Leinster House in Dublin, to be located in Federal City, now Washington D.C. Hoban’s Palace subsequently became known as the White House .
The Irish did not begin arriving in large numbers, however, until the mid-1800s. They arrived in such large numbers that by 1850, the Irish constituted 40% of the foreign-born population in the United States . The desire to escape became the main reason which led to the massive migrations from Ireland in the mid to late 1800s. Faced with steady population increase, reduced wages, unemployment and devastating famines, many Irish believed that the country held no future for them or their families.
In the first half of the 1800s, a newborn in Ireland could only be expected to live, on average, to the age of 19, and less than one-fifth of the population lived past 40. In America, the life-expectancy at birth was 40. After the first ten years of life, it increased to 58, an age reached by less than 5% of those in Ireland. Even the disease, hunger and squalor of the ships which sailed to American and Canadian ports could not deter the would-be immigrants, for they at least represented an escape from the terrible conditions in the ports from which the ships departed .
The worst potato failure and most extensive of all famines in Ireland occurred from 1845 to 1849. Therefore, the greatest number of emigrations also occurred during those years. Mass starvation, disease, despair and death characterized the “great hunger” years. Census information shows that between 1845 and 1855, the country’s population decreased from 8.5 million to approximately 6 million. Famine-related starvation, disease and emigration, both forced and voluntary, resulted in this loss of more than two million inhabitants. Between 1856 and 1921, some 4.1 to 4.5 million inhabitants emigrated from Ireland, 3.5 million of which ended up in North America .
During the “great hunger” years, most of the immigrants who embarked for the New World hailed from the rural Ireland. Although unaccustomed to ocean voyages, the peasants did not emigrate in ignorance of the conditions they would face on the crossing, but in spite of them. The misery that drove the people from their homeland far outweighed the hardships and unsanitary conditions endured on the long, treacherous ocean voyage to the New World, Most of the rural immigrants had never before stepped aboard a ship, let alone lived for months in a squalid, airless hold, yet the hardships of the journey were a small price to pay to escape the horrors of famine and oppression at home.
The ships which brought the poor, rural Irish out of Ireland were overcrowded, antique in condition, and not provided with the legal quotas of food and water. A typical example of these “coffin ships,” the barque Elizabeth and Sarah, sailed from the small harbor of Killala, County Mayo, Ireland, in July, 1846, and arrived at Quebec in September:
"She had been built in 1762 and was of 330 tons burthen. Her list of passengers, as certified by the officer at Killala, showed 212 names, whereas in fact she carried 276 persons. She should have carried 12,532 gallons of water, but had only 8700 gallons in leaky casks. The Passenger Act of 1842 required 7 lbs. of provisions to be given out weekly to each passenger, but no distribution was ever made in the Elizabeth and Sarah. Berths numbered only 36, of which 4 were taken by the crew: the remaining 32 were shared between 276 passengers, who otherwise slept on the floor. No sanitary convenience of any kind was provided, and the state of the vessel was ‘horrible and disgusting beyond the power of language to describe".
In most cases, the four to ten week journey across the Atlantic in ships such as described proved horrible beyond words. In the Minutes of Evidence before the Select Committee (Lords) on Colonization from Ireland, Testimony of Robert Smith, Smith documents the unimaginable traveling conditions with a first-hand account:
"The fearful state of disease and debility in which the Irish emigrants have reached Canada must undoubtedly be attributed in a great degree to the destitution and consequent sickness prevailing in Ireland, but has been much aggravated by the neglect of cleanliness, ventilation and a generally good state of social economy during the passage. Hundreds of poor people, men women and children of all ages.. .huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart, the fever patients lying between the sound.. . living without food or medicine, except as administered by the hand of casual charity, dying without the voice of spiritual consolation.. The food is generally ill-selected and seldom sufficiently cooked.
The meat was of the worst quality. The supply of water shipped on board was abundant, but the quantity served out to the passengers was so scanty that they were frequently obliged to throw overboard their salt provisions and rice because they had not enough water both for the necessary cooking and the satisfying of their raging thirst afterwards.
No cleanliness was enforced, and the beds were never aired. The master during the whole voyage never entered the steerage, and would listen to no complaints; the dietary contracted for was, with some exceptions, nominally supplied, though at irregular periods.
Disease and death among the emigrants.. .are not the worst consequences of this atrocious system.. .A result far worse is to be found in the utter demoralization of the passengers by the filth and debasement and disease of two or three months so passed. The emigrant has lost his self-respect, his elasticity of spirit; he no longer stands erect; he throws himself listlessly upon the daily dole of Government, and in order to earn it carelessly lies for weeks on the contaminated straw of a fever lazaretto."
The end of the journey did not mean an end to suffering, however. As the headlong exodus from Smith submitted himself to almost two months of steerage passage on an emigrant ship in order to determine for himself the state of the emigrant during the voyage.
Ireland reached its height in 1847, regulations in Quebec dictated that all ships with passengers coming up the St. Lawrence River should stop at the quarantine station on Grosse Isle, 30 miles down the river, for medical inspection.
The emigrant vessel arrived with “ghastly, yellow looking specters, unshaven and hollow cheeked. The feeble, cadaverous immigrants arrived so emaciated and prostrate that many had to go at once to hospital for treatment. For many, the hospital at Grosse Isle meant a slow, agonizing death, as evidenced by the monument erected there in memorial of the immigrants. Their legacy is recorded by an inscription on one side of the monument: “In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of 5294 persons who, flying from Pestilence and Famine in Ireland in the year 1847, found in America but a Grave.”
Those who survived the journey and the immigrant stations in Canada and the United States, congregated in the port cities where they disembarked. Although their experiences in Ireland made them well-suited for farming, most of the Irish immigrants could not bear the solitude and loneliness represented by the frontier, and the big cities provided endless entertainment and fascination.
According to the Boston Transcript, groups of poor wretches were to be seen in every part of the city, resting their weary and emaciated limbs at the corners of the streets and in the doorways of both private and public houses.” In 1853, the New York Daily Times described the newest members of the New York community as "... human freight of half-sad, half-hopeful beings... about to launch themselves into a new sphere.. "
To a society already leery of immigrants from poor countries, the Irish most certainly did not make a favorable first impression on the citizens. The poverty-stricken Irish brought nothing to the New World. The standards in which they lived were considered unfit by most for human habitation. Surrounded by dismal living conditions, the poor immigrants huddled together in overcrowded working class slums in the large eastern ports such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
In the predominantly Irish Fifth Ward of Providence, Rhode Island, for example, an average of nine persons lived in one or two-room dwellings. In New York City, almost 30,000 people, mostly Irish, lived below ground in cellars which often flooded with rainwater and raw sewage. They packed into tenements which lacked light, heat, ventilation and water taps. In many cases, up to a hundred inhabitants could be found in a three to six story house.
These poor Irish also formed a mass of under-paid, unskilled laborers, ready to be exploited. They took whatever available jobs for which they were suited. The majority worked as laborers in factories, construction camps, mills or on the docks. Although the average daily wage in the winter was $.50 and $.75 in the summer, the Irish competed for these jobs with other immigrants and poor Americans.
Only about two out of every 100 Irish immigrants went into shop keeping and rose to a position of prominence in their communities. The majority took jobs as semi- and unskilled laborers and remained at the bottom of American society through the first and sometimes second generations.