Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Irish Emigration Driven by Famine

The first wave of Irish immigrants to the New England colonies were Ulster-area Presbyterians fleeing religious discrimination during 1715 to 1750, many of them Scottish-Irish who had previously relocated from Scotland to Northern Ireland for the same reason. Modest emigration was also sparked by the Irish Famine of 1740-41, which, combining severe cold and drought, killed an estimated 13-20 percent of the population. It was referred to as “Bliain an Air,” meaning the Year of Slaughter. During this era and until around 1790, strict Anti-Catholic Laws actually prevented the immigration of Catholics to America. A later famine, 1816, “The Year Without a Summer” (consequence of a super-volcano eruption in the Pacific), again spiked emigration from Ireland, this time both Protestant and Catholic.

Throughout the first half of the 1800s, the population of Ireland was increasing rapidly, from an estimated five million in 1800 to over eight million by 1845. This, despite a constant emigration to England and North America. The latter was more to Canada than the U.S., initially as seasonal labor for the cod fishing industry, but as time went on, permanent.  Even today, Newfoundland is oft-described as “the most Irish place outside of Ireland.”   

And then, the Potato Famine of 1845-1849. Over decades, good land in Ireland had become dedicated to raising cattle for shipment to beef-eating England. Tenant farmers ended up on small acreage, poor-soil farms on which the only crop that could have yields large enough to support families was potatoes. When the fungal blight hit, Ireland starved. A million people, died from starvation and diseases such as cholera, dysentery, scurvy and typhus, even though throughout the interval, beef, ham, mutton, butter and other foodstuffs continued to be shipped to England. In fact, some of the corn and wheat shipped to Ireland was being fed to livestock rather than the relief of human starvation. Earlier famines had been alleviated by banning the export of any foodstuffs, but not this time. Bitterness among the Irish, toward the English, lasted for generations.

One million Catholic Irish left for the United States and Canada. Many died in transit. Sailing ships departing Ireland were overcrowded, food was in short supply, and many of those boarding ship were already weak from starvation and ill from disease. These sail-powered crossings took 40-80 days. The term “coffin ships” became a common pejorative, as an estimated 30 percent died on board – bodies tossed overboard – or died soon after making shore. This was a higher percentage than were dying on slave-carrying ships traveling from Africa to the Americas (slaves had sale value, Irish, none).

For those who survived the crossing, much of the migration was of young women heading toward jobs in factories or as house servants, and of young men heading toward factories or construction jobs, the latter primarily building canals and railroads. One account estimated that between 1820 and 1860 the Irish accounted for one-third of all immigrants to the United States. Once situated, these women and men sent money home to bring over relatives, ensuring a flow of immigration well past the end of the century. Roughly one in five people living in Massachusetts claims Irish ancestry. Worldwide, the Irish Diaspora means that more than ten times as many people claim Irish ancestry as the five million who live in Ireland today.

Locally, with the creation of the woolen mill operation in 1846 by Willian Knight and Amory Maynard, there were new jobs for English, Scottish and Irish immigrants. By 1850, the population of Irish Catholics had surpassed 50; a priest travelled from Saxonville (Framingham) or Marlborough twice a year to conduct Mass. By 1857 the Irish Catholic population was large enough that it was necessary to rent a hall for monthly-held Mass. In 1865, St. Bridget’s Church was built at the site now occupied by Maynard’s police station. The Assabet Manufacturing Company (the woolen mill) donated the land and $500 toward construction. The cemetery was dedicated in 1869. Rev. M. O’Reilly became the first resident pastor in 1871. The cornerstone was laid for a new, larger church on Sudbury street in 1881, construction completed and the present-day St. Bridget’s Church dedicated in 1884 by Archbishop Williams.

Maynard's Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians
In some places – apparently not so much Maynard – the Irish faced prejudice because of their Catholic faith. The political American Party, members called “Know-Nothings,” stood by a slogan “Americans must rule America!” Their belief that the United States was a Protestant country under threat by the influx of a Roman Catholic population loyal to the Pope and incompatible with American values, has echoes in today’s anti-Muslim prejudice. Newspaper advertisements read “Help wanted – No Irish Need Apply.” The American Party dominated Massachusetts politics throughout the 1850s. Naturalized citizens were barred from voting unless they had spent 21 years in the United States, and the King James Bible was mandatory daily reading in public schools.

Prejudice faded slowly. Not until John Kennedy’ election in 1960 did a Catholic become President, and even he, in a pre-election speech, felt obligated to say “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” 

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