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Eng 101 Documentary essay

Irish Immigration to America after the Potato Famine

According to the Irish-American novelist Father Andrew Greeley, "Immigration

is a traumatic experience, even under the best circumstances. One leaves behind familiar

sights, beloved places, and intimate friends. If one is an immigrant to a strange land, with

only the vaguest notion of what one's life will be like, with intense dread of the loneliness

and isolation that is going to be one's fate, immigration is even more painful"(71).

The Irish had to leave Ireland and everything they knew in the mid-1800s because

of the Great Famine. They immigrated to America and started a new life, but had to face

some major challenges. The major cause for emigration in Ireland was the Potato Famine,

or the Great Famine. The potato blight, a plant disease caused deterioration of the potato

crop, which left many acres of farmland in Ireland covered with black rot (Griffin 7).

The Famine lasted from about 1845 to 1850, causing a decrease in population of about 3

million people (Collins 77) and destroying one-third of the potato crop (Collins 68). One

specific cause of the Famine can not be determined; there are many different theories.

Beliefs fostered by the Catholic Church were that the Famine was an act of God, a

punishment for their sins. Others Catholics blamed the "…heartless tyranny of the

British government and on the cruel greed of its Protestant landlords."(Miller and Wagner

32) Other, more practical causes were believed to be the want for capital, poverty of the

land, and the general ignorance of the people. One cause, which can be proven, is the

lack of education of the farmers. The land was badly drained and cultivated, since the
farmers had no knowledge of the new farming methods developed, such as crop rotation,

or the use of fertilizer.

The reason this famine caused such a disaster was because in Ireland, the people

basically survived on potatoes and this was almost their only source of food. About three

million people of the eight million people of Ireland were directly dependent on the

potato (Collins 67). "It has been calculated that the average man ate nine pounds of

potatoes each day" (Collins 68). Christmas and Easter were special occasions that bread,

meat, and tea were reserved for (Collins 9). In nineteenth century Ireland, farming was

the most important industry. Farmers paid their workers by giving them a section of land

where they could grow potatoes, for food for him and his family. Just one acre of land

could grow enough potatoes to feed a family of five for almost a year (Collins 67). Most

of the men and women had to leave the country in order to avoid a repeat of this type of

disaster. The poor families were left with no choice; they would starve if they didn't

leave the country (Miller and Wagner 28). About one million people died from

starvation or disease caused by the famine and another one million people left Ireland

(Collins 77). Between the years of 1849 and 1855, an average of 200,000 people left

Ireland each year. The Irish mainly immigrated to the United States and Britain, but

there were some Irish communities in Canada and Australia. Even when the terrible

conditions of the famine did get better, people were still emigrating, but now to look for

employment or even to escape boredom (Collins 78). Britain tried to provide some relief

for the Irish, but was criticized by many for their delayed response to the famine. This

criticism further blamed the British's political oppression for causes of the famine. In
order to emigrate, tenants were forced to give up their land. About 50,000 people

received money from their landlords to make the passage to America. Others had to look

to the parents or children, brothers or sisters, or other relatives who immigrated to

America prior to the Famine (Miller and Wagner 28). Even if they were lucky enough to

emigrate, the Irish had to face the horrors of the Atlantic crossing. They crossed the

Atlantic in overcrowded, unregulated ships (Collins 75). Traveling to America by ship

brought difficulty and danger. The voyage to America could last up to three months

(Collins 75). Some of the ships that made the passage didn't even make it to America.

Some immigrants were aboard "coffin ships", which lost about one-third of their

passengers to disease, hunger, and other causes before the passage was complete (Collins

75). After coming to America, the Irish faced many problems, one of which was

employment. Although most of the emigrants came from rural Ireland, few tried farming

in America. Since the Irish had no other skills, they were forced to work difficult, dirty,

and low-paying jobs. The immigrants were poor and unskilled; they had to start life in

America at the "bottom of the socioeconomic ladder" (Miller and Wagner 13). Though

America had very little respect for the Irish immigrants, they needed them for labor. The

Irish men mainly had jobs that required manual labor and jobs in the transportation and

industrial economies. These jobs included unskilled factory workers, miners,

lumbermen, dockhands, construction workers, ditch diggers, and builders of new roads,

streets, canals, and railroads. The women had jobs as millworkers, domestic servants,

and cooks (Miller and Wagner 39). The Irish had to live in vermin-infested tenements,

on streets, and in slovenly neighborhoods. After the Irish gained economic and social

status, they searched for better housing. While in America, the Irish contributed to
American life and history. Another contribution was from John Holland, another Irish

immigrant. Holland created fenian ram, or what is now called the submarine, in 1881.

The United States navy purchased later models of Holland's invention (Griffin 108).

Other inventors included William Kelly, who developed the basic process in steel making

and Humphrey O'Sullivan, who invented rubber heels and other new shoe manufacturing

ideas (Griffin 107). Between 1861 and 1865, more than 150,000 Irish immigrants fought

in the American Civil War. These men fought bravely and died for a cause and a country

that was unfamiliar to them. Irish Americans worked to form an effective labor

movement (Griffin 82). The Irish were also involved in the building of the Erie Canal

and the Transcontinental Railroad (Griffin 87).

The Irish were uprooted from their own country, not by choice but because they

needed to escape poverty, starvation, unemployment and British rule. Most of these Irish

came to America.
Works Cited
Collins, M E. Ireland, 1800-1970. London: Longman Group Limited, 1976.

Greeley, Andrew M. The Irish Americans: The Rise to Money and Power. New York:
Harper and Row, 1981.

Griffin, William D. A Portrait of the Irish in America. New York: Charles Scribner's,

McCaffrey, Lawrence J. Textures of Irish America. New York: Syracuse U.P., 1992.

Miller, Kerby and Paul Wagner. Out of Ireland: The Story of Irish Emigration to
America. Washington D.C.: Elliott and Clark Publishing, 1994.