An Gorta Mór (“The Great Hunger”) #10

Irish Immigrant Ancestors: Who, What, When, Where and Why?

In my last post I discussed Irish immigrants who arrived after the War of 1812, and the situation of the poor Irish was reviewed. I also shared newspaper articles that revealed the bias against Irish immigrants.

The Potato Famine

An Gorta Mór set in on the Irish with the potato crop of 1845. The Great Hunger was an infestation by an organism (Phytophthora infestans)[i] in Ireland’s main food crop, the potato variety called the lumper. Though Ireland had excellent grain crops, most of Ireland’s grain was exported to England, so the Irish were left with the lumper.  The land parcels for their sustenance were very small, usually less than five acres,[ii] so there was limited room to grow enough food to survive.  The potato provided just enough basic nutrition in the 1700’s that the small parcels could keep a family unit alive.

The water mold organism we call “blight” starts as a blackish infection on the bottom of the leaf and ends with a punky, shrunken skin and rotten insides of the tuber. The spores can travel from patch to patch on the wind to contaminate the soil. The small size of property and proximity of plots caused Ireland’s entire crop to collapse very quickly – especially in Ireland’s humid air.

The approach of the destruction was described by the Irish as a putrid smell that blew in on the wind.  Usually, infected plants or tubers were left in the ground because of organic farming practices in which organic matter was turned over and returned to the soil.  When a farmer died the land was left unattended and the infection spread. Therefore, contamination continued for about seven years, from 1845 to 1852, the worst year being 1847.

The disease originated in Mexico, then spread to the European Continent. Ireland’s blight probably came from France or Belgium, and those places suffered as well.  However, people did not starve in great numbers on the continent because their other food crops were not being sent out of their countries and the potato wasn’t all they had to eat, as was generally the case with the Irish.  Also, the English were complacent, possibly even happy to see the “thinning” of the overpopulated Catholics. The English often blamed the consequences of their policies in Ireland, on the Irish themselves, seeing them as less than human. They often referred to the Irish as “brutes”.

Where Potato Famine Immigrants Settled.

            The first of the Irish Potato Famine Immigrants landed and settled in Boston, New York and Nova Scotia (Canada).  Three million Irish depended on the potato for every meal. Two of the three million emigrants came to America.  They stayed in the cities or industrial and constructions sites hoping to find immediate labor.  Two of the three million emigrants came to America. Those who had places they could go, were often preyed upon by the unscrupulous. Some good Samaritans of the State of New York were protective of the immigrants.  Buffalo was very Irish and Irish-friendly.

Burdens they experienced.

From The Buffalo Commercial, January 1848: “We thought that the last Legislature might have had time to procure the completion of a bill to prevent the nefarious and cowardly frauds of the utterly unprincipled scoundrels who prey upon and enrich themselves by robbing honest, unsuspecting and ignorant immigrants, who seek a home in this country, and scarcely one of whom passes Westward without contributing, by the results of his labor, to the prosperity of this city and State.  But there was so much else to be attended to, …… Those upon whom the frauds are practiced, being strangers among us, are little noticed, and have no means of making their grievances known, except through the friendly efforts of the Press, which throughout the State, has been strenuously exerted; and no public paper has dared even to apologize for, or palliate, these iniquities. ……The immigrant is robbed in almost all imaginable ways.  It appears that, first, on his arrival, he is decoyed into boarding houses where he is charged double and triple the fair and ordinary rates.  These houses are usually kept by foreigners, mostly Irish and German, who easily gain the confidence of their customers, and often succeed in stripping them of their all. Next are the ‘runners’ who sell fraudulent tickets at enormous prices, which prove utterly worthless beyond Albany.  Thousands of immigrants during the past summer paid the regular rate of steamboat and railroad fare from New York to Buffalo to these bogus agents, and received, therefore, their ‘tickets!’” [iii]

In June, 1847, only six months earlier, the New York Daily Herald reported that the English House of Lords discussed, with no positive outcome, what to do about the starving and unemployed people of Ireland, a people one Lord described in the following manner: “…the Irish are fond of show,–are poor, and can neither dispense with the pride and pomp of office, such as it is, nor with the outlay in hard cash that accompanies its administration.”[iv]  The Lords were unwilling to provide relief, but it was still concluded that the nobleman (English) in charge had firm character, high intellect, and “commendable industry” while facing a … “history of poor bleeding Ireland’s misfortunes.”

In June, 1847, only six months earlier, the New York Daily Herald reported that the English House of Lords discussed, with no positive outcome, what to do about the starving and unemployed people of Ireland, a people one Lord described in the following manner: “…the Irish are fond of show,–are poor, and can neither dispense with the pride and pomp of office, such as it is, nor with the outlay in hard cash that accompanies its administration.”[iv]  The Lords were unwilling to provide relief, but it was still concluded that the nobleman (English) in charge had firm character, high intellect, and “commendable industry” while facing a … “history of poor bleeding Ireland’s misfortunes.”

 So much for the English noblemen stopping the human hemorrhage that was Ireland and, of course,  not the responsibility of the men of firm character, high intellect, who put forth great effort.

Side Note: This reminds me of an elder Republican congressman early in the COVID outbreak, implying that the older population should be willing to open up our community, get back to commerce, step out into COVID and suffer the consequences! He suggested that we older people would probably be “happy” to die so businesses could reopen their doors.  I find the thought repugnant that a person responsible for being the voice of all his constituents would find it acceptable to condemn his most reliable voters to death. What a fool! Could he not have spent time and intellect to solve the problem? This, to me, is similar to English thought that the Irish “poor” were dragging down Ireland, rather than the rulers of Ireland letting down the poor.

“Real Potato Blight” – Displayed in the Famine Museum in Stokestown, Roscommon. I took this public domain image that had appeared in a London Newspaper. It was published as Catholics were perishing from starvation. The general opinion was that blight was caused by the Irish themselves. It is rare in researching this famine to find English politicians who acknowledged or recognized the food supply issues that the Irish had already been experiencing before the blight.  The blight had a disastrous effect experienced nowhere else.


In the very next article of the Buffalo paper, the English Lords of Parliament exude great joy over the greatness of their upcoming harvest: “May, which came in cheerless and bleak, has been putting on her sweet and sylvan beauty with gay good humor, to the delight of the farmer, the happiness of the merchant, and the satisfaction of everybody.”  Even though Irish had begun starving, the English harvest in England and Ireland was abundant and the Lord continued: “It is needless to enlarge upon the very great advantage of a good harvest this year to the whole of our population.  A continuance of such weather as the present will ensure us good crops of barley and oats for this country; and …”[v] On and on the article goes about bounty, but it doesn’t mention that much of that bountiful harvest was being provided by Irish people who were starving. Bounty was for everyone else but the Irish. The lords’ predictions came true: the English and the rest of Europe thrived during An Gorta Mór.

Nova Scotia, Canada

            On May 17 of 1847, 430 Irish immigrants who were cholera victims arrived in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence on a boat named the Syria. By May 29, thirty-six ships had arrived and 10,000 were soon awaiting processing. By May 31, 1847 there was a two-mile line of vessels down the St. Lawrence River, each person aboard afflicted with fever and dysentery. This came about and was brought into Canada by two years of starvation in Ireland that went unaddressed.

The sick were left in the boats, laid out on the floors of churches, or crowded into tents. [vi]

Side Note: In Mary Quigley’s Da, I struggled to find my family among passengers. I did find them on a ship manifest, but most of the family disappeared from any records. Of the family of ten, only  characters Michael and Joseph were next recorded in the U.S. Census of 1852 in Missouri. Their port was listed as New York, but they were on Staten Island—in the midst of a crisis like that described by Dr. Douglas, above, who was on Grosse Isle.

Obviously, from the above account and a great book I read that was a “diary” of an Irish doctor who valiantly stayed on Grosse Isle through his wife’s illness and after she had died, it is easy to see how records for famine victims are difficult to find.  The doctor was trying to keep people alive in terrible circumstances not record for the Canadian government.[vii] 

Between 1847 and 1848, 20,000 people died of cholera somewhere along the Canadian port.[viii]

There was limited control over record-keeping. Quarantine locations were overwhelmed. After searching the few records of Staten Island, a discussion with a Quigley descendent. Now deceased, he (Mr. Jackson) believed that he was the grandson of Margaret Quigley who cared for my ancestors. He knew the history of occupants in the apartment where the family resided on Mott Street in New York City. I also had a long talk with a genealogist and historian in New York and concluded, as advised, that those I was unable to find had likely perished and were in a common burial site on Staten Island with thousands of others, many buried under a golf course and some part of a landfill.

With the COVID pandemic, we have seen a few parallels in the challenges of handling the dead.  I also see parallels in the political handling of victims. The English benefitted from dumping the Irish poor onto America.  With our “open door” policy, it was easy, but it has been proven over and over that it is usually to our great benefit that refugees come here, though they surely would prefer to stay home.

If nothing is done about the suffering of people for a long enough time, the problem may temporarily pass for the persons at the top, but the consequences live on in the victims.  It seems that the rich and the powerful are the least likely to advocate for those at the bottom. In the COVID pandemic, there was a very noticeable disparity in number of deaths between the wealthy and the poor, and blacks and whites, as reflected in the data. The English Poor Houses and poor nutrition resulting from their English gruel brought no relief for the victims. The English didn’t care enough to invest in a real solution as they saw death as the “solution” to the overpopulation of Catholics in Ireland. There was little incentive to help.

It’s exactly the kind of policy the English used against their “colony” of India. The English allowed a famine there as well.[ix] It was apparently designed to “thin out” the population.

Kilkenny Workhouse where the starving Irish were put to work on random, useless laboring jobs to “earn” their food. The jobs were created so that they did nothing to compete with “legitimate” laborers. It was a punitive action. The English believed that the Irish would grow lazy if they were fed without hard labor. The fact that they night die was not the overriding concern, and nothing was done to invest in the people for future benefit for all.

Queen’s University, Belfast, a 2006 archaeological study of mass graves at County Kilkenny Union Workhouse show that among the 970 individuals found in the mass burials, 499 show patterns of long-term deficient nutrition before arriving at the workhouse.  Their skeletons show damage to the skull bones caused by scurvy. People would have had hemorrhaging of the gums, but usually died of rampant typhus or another common condition like dysentery, cholera, or tuberculosis.

Finding ancestors’ ships.

For the Irish-interested home genealogist, there are new or improved resources popping up daily for finding your people. One older and useful online source with which I am familiar is They Came on Ships: A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestors’s Arrival Record, by John P. Colletta, Ph. D. It’s most useful for those whose ancestors came after 1850 and up to the time of Ellis Island, 1892. The day the Ellis Island website popped up, I found my husband’s parents’ records of their emigrations from Moldova (via Romania) and Lithuania. Until Ellis Island, there was no single “port of clearance,” so the tips from Colletta’s book might be helpful.

Side Note: Finding Slave ancestors – If your ancestors were African slaves, Colletta’s book admonishes the researcher that, unfortunately, there will be no ship manifest. Only in rare instances is a name attached to a slave, and that is when the ship moved from one domestic port to another, not directly from Africa.  The vital piece of information, also difficult to obtain, is to know the name of the ancestor’s “purchaser” (master) and where the person was taken. Though, if you know the name of the master you can possibly find where he/she was taken.  Among my children’s ancestors, masters’ siblings or their father (or a widow) in a family had slaves in the same area. Therefore, if you do not find a male or female of the right age on the tax list, check out the master’s siblings or other family members in the same township, county or state. You might have to develop a family tree for the master, but if they owned slaves there was a list—of course, with no identifiers other than gender and approximate age.

Side Note: (Back to the Irish.) I strongly recommend the classic: The Big Wind by Beatrice Coogan. For a truly great historical novel about an Irish catastrophe that led up to the famine, read her window to history. It reveals the social-political landscape, describes the falling aristocracy, and the battle between the starving workers and their landlords. Every Irish descendant should know about the calamitous windstorm that devastated Ireland in 1839. When I traveled there in 2010, I saw geological evidence still visible today. It blew stone towers off cathedrals and stripped fields of their soil. Ms. Coogan was a journalist who took fifteen years to write The Big Wind at an advanced age—a great inspiration to me, though she was younger than I when she started. Her son is Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan.

The “Big Wind” in 1839, blew over 200 mph in Ireland.  Here at the Rock of Cashel, it blew off a chunk of stone from the castle.  That eye-shaped opening is where boiling oil could be thrown out onto attackers.

Preview of my next post: The next post is chock-full of information useful to genealogists in finding the 1845-1850 immigrants. I will delve into specifics about occupations the Irish immigrants acquired  and where the settled in greater numbers.  I will also share information on how the Catholic Church was instrumental in providing work, food, transportation and how that grew strength for the economies and institutions in the communities where they settled.

[i] Hernandez, J.F. Nopsa in Encyclopedia of Agriculture and Food Systems,” 2014. Phytophthora infestans: “Climate Change and Plant Disease.”  Accessed 30 May 2022 10:30 a.m.

[ii] Text from a display at the Famine Museum, County Roscommon, Ireland, September 2010.

[iii] The Buffalo Commercial, “Fraud Upon Immigrants.” Buffalo, New York, 17 January 1848, Monday, p. 2.  Accessed 24 September, 2020 4:33 p.m.

[iv] The New York Daily Herald (New York, New York), “Two Weeks Review of Affairs in Europe” from the European Times, 19 May 1847, p. 1. Accessed 24, September, 2020 4:42 p.m.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Wikipedia, “The North American Typhus Epidemic.”  Last edited 11 May 2020. Accessed Fri 25 September 2020 1:52 p.m.

[vii] Mangan, James J. Gerard Keegan’s Famine Diary: Journey to a New World. Dublin, Ireland: Wolfhound Press, 1991.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Patel, Dinyar, Historian. “Viewpoint: How British let one million Indians die in famine. June 2016.  Accessed 24 September, 2020 1:30 p.m.

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Mary Jaffe (neé Scott)

Mary Jaffe

Mary Jaffe (neé Scott) dreamed of becoming a National Geographic journalist, but it was a dream unrealized--even though she spent her entire eighth grade summer sleeping outdoors along a river, in the woods with the bears, in a barn, in lightening storms, etc. to determine if she was made of the right stuff. Now, at age seventy-seven--after thirty-five years of teaching elementary, adolescent and adult incarcerated students; raising her family as a single mother; singing professional opera; and caring for her beloved terminally ill husband for more than a decade--she has turned to writing historical fiction.