When the potato crop completely failed in August 1847, the people of Ireland found famine staring them in the face. Those who could escape did so in hundreds on immigrant ships. Many never got off those ships alive.
For those who were left behind, the moment of parting was like a death in the family. Parents clung to their children whom they knew they would never see again and only the utmost force could tear them asunder.” (Dun Bleisce)
“Government response to the tragedy was abysmal; it was the age of laissez-faire, when no government intervention should threaten private enterprise or property. When the cost of other food threatened to rise too high, a quantity of Indian corn was imported from America to hold prices down. However, not only was it insufficient, but those few who received this ‘bounty’ neither liked it nor knew how to cook it and, furthermore, no practical means existed for its fair distribution. The failure was even greater in 1846, and in 1847 gales and snow added to the misery. Workhouses and hastily arranged fever hospitals were filled to overflowing. Aid from America and relief work by private agencies, particularly the Quakers, was meritorious but inadequate. The landlords were getting no rents from their starving tenants, so in turn could not pay the rates to support the Poor Law system which had been extended to Ireland in 1834. The workhouses set in motion a programme of forced emigration known as ‘shovelling out’. Workhouses and landlords alike found it cheaper to pay passages or even to charter ships than to continue supporting whole populations of destitute peasants. Even so a third of all landlords were ruined and forced to sell their estates. Many of the new owners were English and Scotch and, in order to consolidate their farms and improve their new estates, they cleared the land of smallholdings and cottages – and so the evictions continued. For the dispossessed, there were but two alternatives – to beg or to emigrate.” (Famine 150)
“Few would-be Irish emigrants of the famine era had ever left home before; they might well have never seen a town or the sea, let alone a ship. They had no sense of geography, and they could neither read nor write. As they started off walking to the coast, they were venturing into the unknown from which there would be no return. It must have been fearful; but greater fears were to come, and hardship as bad as that from which they were escaping. In the period before and early on during the great famine, emigration to America was totally disorganised and, with too many wanting to board too few ships, the overcrowding become intolerable. Emigrants sailed in whatever ships would take them for the little money they had; some were small merchant vessels suitable only for coastal trade, and passengers were at the mercy of the captains, most of whom regarded them more as cargo than as humans.
The staple rations were often little more than meal, biscuits and brackish water, and those who did not bring extra provisions of their own arrived in America emaciated and weak with hunger. In rough weather they were battened down in the darkness below decks, without ventilation, to lay two or three to a 16inch-wide bunk, vomiting over themselves and each other; with lack of food, unsanitary conditions and seasickness. Typhus and cholera were common and often fatal. The ships’ doctors often refused to descend into the fetid depths of the hold, or insisted on the sick coming on deck for treatment.
By the time of the potato famine, three-quarters of all Irish emigrants to America were travelling via Liverpool , the main British port for the transatlantic trade. The emigrants crossed from Irish ports to Liverpool by small packet boats, mainly used for carrying cattle to the mainland. They went as deck cargo, often several hundred jammed together in the open with no shelter, while the cattle, being more valuable, were housed in stalls under cover. English ships plying the Atlantic brought timber, flax, tobacco and grain from America ; but there was little trade the other way, and so it was very profitable to erect temporary bunks in the cargo holds and fill them with emigrants. A family, unless very large, would be allocated only one berth with perhaps two feet of head-room between bunks. After 1847 the emigrant trade out of Liverpool came to be dominated by the Americans who were building big packet boats specifically designed to carry large numbers in steerage. Conditions on board were marginally better than on the much smaller sailing ships; and with the coming of the steamship, crossing in steerage became more bearable because, although unpleasant, it lasted seven to ten days rather than four to seven weeks
Unlike the emigrants out of Ulster in the 18 th century, the four million emigrants to American in the 19 th century were largely destitute, in poor health, illiterate and unskilled. They left a rural society, but had no knowledge of farming; and for many there was no choice but to find low paid work in the cities, humping, heaving and digging for a living, while the womenfolk ended up as servants or as sweated labour in the mills. To compound their problems, poor pay condemned them to live in unhealthy crowded slums where they suffered the highest infant mortality in the country.
They survived because they were prolific breeders; but it was the second and third generations who were to reap the benefits of life in an increasingly industrial and affluent America . It was Irish muscle power that built the roads, railways, canals and expanding cities of America during the second half of the 19 th century. For a long time they were looked down on by the Protestant ‘Yankee’ establishment as ignoramuses, fit only for near-slave labour. This attitude provoked them into organising themselves in defence of their rights, often their lives; they became the pioneers of the labour unions, and before the end of the century more than half the presidents of the unions and the American Federation of Labour were first or second generation Irish-Americans.
The years immediately after the Civil War saw enormous economic growth in the newly united States, which in turn created an increasing demand for labour. This demand, combined with remittances home from immigrants who had begun to earn and save, fuelled a new emigrant movement out of Ireland . Meanwhile the Irish immigrants and their children were starting to climb the social ladder and to acquire professional and technical qualifications. Around the turn of the century a further two million Irish arrived in America, their transition eased by the steam ship, and their arrival welcomed by the numerous Irish associations and societies that had come into being. They no longer had to worry about being looked upon as second-class citizens – by their very numbers they were already a power in the land – and each year on 17th March they showed their pride in their homeland by the St. Patrick’s Day parade. In modern times it takes three hours for this parade to pass City Hall in New York . Nor were they now the lowest-paid menial workers. “ (The Irish Americans)