Irish Emigration to America

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


EIGHTEEN hundred and forty-nine found Ireland in a plight as wretched as had been hers for centuries. A year before, intoxicated with hope, delirious with enthusiasm, now she endured the sickening miseries of a fearful reaction. She had vowed daring deeds—deeds beyond her strength—and now, sick at heart, she looked like one who wished for death's relief from a lot of misery and despair. Political action was utterly given up. No political organization of any kind survived Mr. Birch and Lord Clarendon. There was not even a whisper to disturb the repose of the "Jailer-General:"

"Even he, the tyrant Arab, slept;
Calm while a nation round him wept."[1]

The parliament, for the benefit of the English people, had recently abolished the duty on imported foreign corn. Previously Ireland had grown corn extensively for the English market; but now, obliged to compete with corn-growing countries where the land was not weighted with such oppressive rents as had been laid on and exacted in Ireland under the old system, the Irish farmer found himself ruined by "tillage" or grain-raising. Coincidently came an increased demand for cattle to supply the English meat market. Corn might be safely and cheaply brought to England from even the most distant climes, but cattle could not. Ireland was close at hand, destined by nature, said one British statesman, to grow meat for "our great hives of human industry;" "clearly intended by Providence," said another, "to be the fruitful mother of flocks and herds." That is to say, if high rents cannot be paid in Ireland by growing corn, in consequence of "free trade," they can by raising cattle.

But turning a country from grain-raising to cattle-raising meant the annihilation of the agricultural population. For bullock ranges and sheep runs needed the consolidation of farms and the sweeping away of the human occupants. Two or three herdsmen or shepherds would alone be required throughout miles of such "ranges" and runs," where, under the tillage system, thousands of peasant families found employment and lived in peaceful contentment.

Thus, cleared farms came to be desirable with the landlords. For, as a consequence of "free trade," either the old rents must be abandoned, or the agricultural population be swept away en masse.

Then was witnessed a monstrous proceeding. In 1846 and 1847—the famine years—while the people lay perishing, the land lay wasted. Wherever seed was put in the ground, the hunger-maddened victims rooted it out and ate it raw. No crops were raised, and, of course, no rents were paid. In any other land on earth the first duty of the State would be to remit, or compound with the landowners for any claims advanced for the rents of those famine years. But, alas! in cruelties of oppression endured, Ireland is like no other country in the world. With the permission, concurrence, and sustainment, of the government, the landlords now commenced to demand what they called the arrears of rent for the past three years! And then—the object for which this monstrous demand was made—failing payment, "notices to quit" by the thousand carried the sentence of expulsion through the homesteads of the doomed people! The ring of the crowbar, the crash of the falling rooftree, the shriek of the evicted, flung on the roadside to die, resounded all over the island. Thousands of families, panic-stricken, did not wait for receipt of the dread mandate at their own door. With breaking hearts they quenched the hearth, and bade eternal farewell to the scenes of home, flying in crowds to the Land of Liberty in the West. The streams of fugitives swelled to dimensions that startled Christendom; but the English press burst into a paean of joy and triumph: for now at last the Irish question would be settled. Now at last England would be at ease. Now at last this turbulent, disaffected, untamable race would be cleared out. "In a short time," said the Times, "a Catholic Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan."

Their own countrymen who remained—their kindred—their own flesh and blood—their pastors and prelates—could not witness unmoved this spectacle, unexampled in history, the flight en masse of a population from their own beautiful land, not as adventurous emigrants, but as heart-crushed victims of expulsion. Some voices, accordingly, were raised to deplore this calamity—to appeal to England, to warn her that evil would come of it in the future. But as England did not see this—did not see it then—she turned heartlessly from the appeal, and laughed scornfully at the warning. There were philosopher-statesmen ready at hand to argue that the flying thousands were "surplus population." This was the cold-blooded official way of expressing it. The English press, however, went more directly to the mark. They called the sorrowing cavalcade wending their way to the emigrant ship, a race of assassins, creatures of superstition, lazy, ignorant, and brutified. Far in the progress of this exodus—even long after some of its baleful effects began to be felt—the London Saturday Review answered in the following language to a very natural expression of sympathy and grief wrung form an Irish prelate witnessing the destruction of his people:

"The Lion of St. Jarlath's surveys with an envious eye the Irish exodus, and sighs over the departing demons of assassination and murder. So complete is the rush of departing marauders, whose lives were profitably occupied in shooting Protestants from behind a hedge, that silence reigns over the vast solitude of Ireland."[2]

Pages might be filled with extracts of a like nature from the press of England; many still more coarse and brutal. There may, probably, be some Englishmen who now wish such language had not been used; that such blistering libels had not been rained on a departing people, to nourish in their hearts the terrible vow of vengeance with which they landed on American shores. But then—in that hour, when it seemed safe to be brutal and merciless—the grief-stricken, thrust-out people—

"Found not a generous friend, a pitying foe."

And so they went into banishment in thousands and tens of thousands, with hands uplifted to the just God who saw all this; and they cried aloud, "Quousque Domine? Quousque?"

An effort was made in Ireland to invoke legislative remedy for the state of things which was thus depopulating the country. A parliamentary party was formed to obtain some measure of protection for the agricultural population. For even where no arrears—for "famine years," or any other years—-were due, even where the rent was paid to the day, the landlords stepped in, according to law, swept off the tenant, and confiscated his property. To terminate this shocking system, to secure from such robbery the property of the tenant, while strictly protecting that of the landlord, it was resolved to press for an act of parliament.

At vast sacrifices the suffering people, braving the anger of their landlords, returned to the legislature a number of representatives pledged to their cause. But the English minister, as if bent on teaching Irishmen to despair of redress by constitutional agencies, resisted those most just and equitable demands, and deliberately set himself to corrupt and break up that party. To humiliate and exasperate the people more and more, to mock them and insult them, the faithless men who had betrayed them were set over them as judges and rulers. And when, by means as nefarious as those that had carried the union, this last attempt of the Irish people to devote themselves to peaceful and constitutional action was baffled, defeated, trampled down, when the "Tenant League" had been broken up, and its leaders scattered—when Gavan Duffy had been driven into despairing exile, when Lucas had been sent broken-hearted into the grave, and Moore, the intrepid leader, the unequaled orator, had been relegated to private life, a shout of victory again went up from the press of England, as if a Trafalgar had been won.


[1] Irish Political Associations.

[2] Saturday Review, November 28, 1863.