Immigrants of the Famine 1845 – 1850 #11

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

In my 10th post I described Phytophthora infestans (the potato blight) and discussed the result of the inadequate response by the English that is today, described by some historians a holocaust.

New York Immigrants.

            Most famine immigrants disembarked in New York. The reason why 75 percent of the Irish settled in areas of New York is that most pre-famine Irish immigrants worked on the canal systems and railroads so the next group settled where the first group was already established.  More than 50,000 arrived in New York city in 1847.[i] Of the population of 424,000, about 12%, were the newly-arrived starving Irish.

Also, the frontier hadn’t opened up enough to accommodate large groups of impoverished and nutritionally challenged people. Irish immigrants didn’t have the resources to be real pioneers like those who had wagons to load and provisions to travel where none had gone before. Once those pre-1845 immigrants had acquired enough money to purchase land, they chose to live somewhere along the canals or railroad lines where they had labored for about seventy-five cents a day and where they could easily carry out commerce or trade products.

The first famine immigrants had laboring jobs that included cleaning stables, pushing carts (like Polly in Mary Quigley’s Da), carrying goods on the docks, and assisting in the trades (carpentry, mechanics, building and road construction, etc.) They provided service in restaurants, washing people’s clothing and most single young women became cooks, waitresses, worked in the garment industry, or became nannies or housemaids for the wealthy.[ii]

Like young Joseph Quigley, Irish famine boys became paper boys, chimney sweeps, or even worked for New York City gangsters as “gophers” (go-fors who sent messages, placed bets on dogs and horses, and ran numbers in gambling and other criminal schemes). Kids were often given buckets to go out and pick up clinkers (dropped pieces of coal) along the railroad tracks. They sold them or took them home for fuel. Young boys performed odd laboring jobs that required a small body and often entailed danger. They frequently worked in poor and dangerous conditions that existed with the railroad, coalmines, and various kinds of manufacturing—especially in textiles mills. Few went to school.

Other Immigrants.

Irish immigrants settled in droves in shipping and milling towns like Buffalo, in coalmine towns of Pennsylvania, in Chicago, Illinois; Indiana and Ohio. Even menial laboring jobs were opportunities unavailable to many in Ireland during the famine, though some, especially the small Protestant minority among them brought substantial skills to the U.S.  Among the skilled Irish workers could be found brickmakers and bricklayers, stone masons, clock and watchmakers, smiths of silver and gold, millers, office clerks, seamen, soldiers, coopers, doctors, planters, tailors, weavers, and attorneys (who, in Ireland, had to acquire a formal education through one of the five Inns of Court).[ii]

Catholics were several generations removed from the Penal Laws, but the effects of extreme impoverishment, religious persecution and legal deprivations over generations had not only lowered their literacy, but it had given them resilience and motivated—sometimes with extreme ambition. 

In Ireland, the wage for farm workers was eight pence a day, or about one-fifth of a farm laborer’s wage in America at the time.  Imagine your family income potentially going from $10,000 a year to $50,000 a year. We would leave home any way possible if it meant keeping our children alive. Like Michael and Joseph in Mary Quigley’s Da, it still took time for immigrants to collect resources adequate to travel to the open frontiers down the Mississippi.

In Buffalo, the families of the first immigrants (before 1845) had settled in for several generations.  They owned property and had created a power and wealth structure unlike other cities. Elsewhere, Irish had dispersed after completing their Indentured Servant contracts, or they had been gradually trickling into various communities across the states—especially into the frontier towns in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri or Kansas.

In Buffalo, the Irish took over the First Ward region.  In short time, the unions grew, and the Catholic Church provided social services, health care and good schools for their children.  One of my own distant cousins, Bishop James Quigley, a former Buffalo First Ward pastor, later led a strike for grain workers to restore wages that had been lost to them. [iii] Due to his intelligence, giant personality and toughness shown in Buffalo, he was sent to Chicago as Archbishop to build education. He was a model of what the church wanted from the clergy. They were expected to provide leadership in ways that would be considered beyond spiritual guidance, counsel or providing the sacraments.

Side Note: James Quigley was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada where his family had immigrated from Tipperary. The family moved to Lima, N.Y. where he attended school. Quigley graduated from St. Joseph’s College in Buffalo but decided to enter the Seminary of Our Lady of the Angels at Suspension Bridge. His intelligence and achievements motivated the Bishop to send him to the University of Innspruch, Austria, as it was believed a New York education was inadequate; they would have nothing to offer him. From Innspruch he was sent to Rome to receive a degree of Doctor of Theology. James was ordained by a Cardinal in Rome in 1879. He was later appointed Archbishop of Chicago. There, he built a seminary and private school in Chicago and worked on union concerns. His sister started the Gray Nuns.

During heavy Irish immigration, the Catholic Church sent their brilliant clergy where the Irish needed them.  They didn’t restrict their leadership to purely religious matters but applied their talents to the development and benefit of the whole community.

Another important priest who contributed to immigrants’ success was Father Bernard Donnelly. Born of illiterate parents in Ireland, he became a brilliant engineer who worked on the construction of the docks of Liverpool. He came to America in the 1830’s and taught engineering in Philadelphia. After his ordination in St. Louis, he was assigned to Kansas Town (now Kansas City) where he became a businessman, builder and shepherd to an entire village of workers he gathered from Ireland. They tore down the steep Missouri River cliffs and Fr. Donnelly constructed a quarry and brick factory on Catholic Church property. Many Irish masons had been recruited. Under his engineering, they first replaced the original log church and later built the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Both my Uncle Mike Quigley and his brother, Joseph, from my historical novel, Mary Quigley’s Da, were married by Father Donnelly, who became a legend in many families, mine included. As a stone mason trained in Ireland, Michael worked on both St. Mary’s Church and the Immaculate Conception Cathedral.

Though there were thousands of Irish Catholics in Buffalo, none that I have seen had their counties of origin recorded in the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Federal Census records. However, Kevin Gorman says in his blog that most of the famine Irish in Buffalo’s Ward One were from Kerry, Clare and Cork—highly impoverished counties.  Though those areas were, indeed, very poor, Cork was the port from which many people left. Most walked from other Munster or even Connaught counties.

Immigrants sent to America by landlords.

            Though I have no idea where the people of Roscommon went (other than Canada) in the following sad tale, most would have been happy to go anywhere else than where they were. It was the counties of Roscommon, Clare, Cork, Galway, Mayo, and Sligo that were the most dependent on the subsistence farming that provided only the potato. In County Roscommon (home of the Famine Museum referred to in my last post), landlord Major Denis Mahon inherited the Strokestown estate. In the Famine Report of 30 June 1846, it was realized that the estate was in debt £30,000 and the estate had 11,500 people crammed on to 11,000 acres of land. At the same time, the price of grain had shrunk so that the debt was growing.  In 1847, Major Mahon paid £4,000 for the emigration of 1,432 of his Strokestown tenants to Canada.  In route twenty-five percent of them died, so those left behind in Ireland would no longer go at Mahon’s invitation.  (Perhaps he didn’t send enough/any food with them.) His solution to thinning down his remaining population was to evict 600 families at the end of the 1848 summer’s harvest.  That amounted to ~3,000 starving people being thrown into the countryside. As a result, the parish priest declared him “worse than Cromwell.” 

By November, the Strokestown tenants killed their landlord, Denis Mahon. After the murder, Queen Victoria declared in her diary, that the Irish “really…are a terrible people,” and those evicted from their homes received no relief for the onset of their 1848 winter.[iv]  

Numbers, locations and occupations of settlers.

            In 1846, 92,484 Irish immigrated to the United States. 196,224 people –twice as many immigrants from all nations—arrived in 1847. In successive years: 173,744 in 1848, 204,771, in 1849, and 206,041 in 1850. By the end of 1854 2 million—about a quarter of the entire population of Ireland had emigrated. During that time, America’s immigrants mostly came from Ireland, Germany, England and Scotland. Illinois had 87,000 Irish by 1860.[v]

It is interesting to note that in July of 1847, 2,020,712 Irish citizens, or about forty percent of the population were dependent on charity for their nutrition. 250,000 were in poor houses and 45,000 in jail.[vi] Ireland is about the size of Indiana, about half the size of Washington State.

Importance of occupation in genealogy.

I have found recent records frustrating, as important details are not as easy to glean. With the coming of costly subscriptions, better security, and protection of our personal information, etc. getting enough information to pour through is a challenge. At the same time, we are all being recorded and tracked at a feverish pace, so we are no longer sitting in cold museum basements, steaming Midwest attics, or at brain-busting-eye-scorching microfiche machines for hours. Still, knowing the occupation (often in conjunction with a township or other place name) of your ancestor is sometimes critical in determining which is your ancestor.  If your ancestor was named John O’Neill and you know he worked in a roundhouse in Chicago, your chances of identifying him are many times greater than if you were searching from among the other twenty-five other men in the town named John O’Neill. Without the occupational designation, at least, of mechanic or something related to the railroad you could find yourself at a loss. Just a surname and date can be a real challenge—even with a location.

In the U.S. Federal Census before 1940, men were listed “head of household” and their wives were “wife.”  Men’s occupations were always noted.  Women were occupied as “housewife” or “home keeper”.  However, young girls working as maids were identified as “servant” or “maid.” Before 1920, I believe that most of the maids lived with their employers. Women’s occupations often were not listed when they lived with parents. Most places, women who taught school could not be married, but their occupation warranted mention whether they lived with their parents or were boarders.  Other than teacher or servant, however, a daughter might inherit a blank space in the block asking for occupation, though we know that they were not sitting idly at home.

Teaching. In looking through census records in the 1850’s -60’s, I found children, nurses and teachers’ names in orphanages, convents, hospitals, and boarding schools. Teachers also lived in teacherages, approved boarding houses or with Protestant clergy (if they were not Catholic). Catholics had a difficult time getting teaching jobs if they lived in certain communities—into the 1940’s.

Side Note: My parents started teaching during the depression, but the requirement to remain single was still common. They secretly married but lived apart their first year so they could continue to teach. My mother lived with her mother, and my father lived in a “school board approved” home for a year until they found a two-room schoolhouse where the town decided to hire their first married couple. My mother taught grades K-6 and my father taught grades 7-12 and was the principal.  Women could not cut their hair and neither men nor women could go into a bar or tavern without losing their jobs. My parents did not drink so that part was easy.

Even though my parents were admired and respected by most parents and loved by their students, they were considered too “dangerous” as Irish Catholics in a small town and were let go in 1941. Eventually, in 2011 at the age of 80, the man whose parents started the campaign against my parents revealed the truth and apologized to me before he died. Not coincidentally, my parents were the first persons he and two other boys visited when they came home from WWII. They camped in our yard and spent a couple of days before they went home. They wanted to surprise my parents with the knowledge that they had survived!  

Women’s occupations that grew at the turn of the century: laundress, boarding housekeeper, dressmaker, saleswoman, telephone operator, clerk, and typist. Most clerking jobs were held by men until ~1900. There were some women who were listed bookkeepers—also ~1900. Typists would also be in that category.  It wasn’t until the keyboard was made more difficult to use that women were regularly hired to type. Men were promoted to manage them. Men were librarians, college presidents and professors until ~1910. They remained presidents of women’s universities until well into the twentieth century.[vii]

Coalmining. A significant number of Irish in the 1845-1849 immigration settled in the coalmining regions of Pennsylvania: Carbon, Columbia, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Northumberland, and Schuylkill counties. Most of them were from Counties Donegal, Galway and Mayo. Tipperary and Roscommon were the predominant coal mining counties in Ireland, so other mining newcomers had been almost exclusively farmers without any mining experience before arriving.

The Molly McGuires. Protestant Irish from Kilkenny and Laois had come before the famine Catholic Irish and were settled among other groups—especially Welsh and English Protestants. The two Irish groups clashed.  By the 1860’s the Catholic coal miners had formed a group called the “Molly McGuires” because the Irish Protestants were the managers and treated the Catholics poorly. Catholics received lower wages and worked under the more dangerous conditions. Eventually the two groups ironed out “equality” agreements.[viii]

Side Note: It is my belief that Charley Quigley, whom all the family from Mary Quigley’s Da loved, was killed at the age of twenty-five in a Pennsylvania coal mine when a car of coal rolled down a mine track and over him. He had worked in the mines since his childhood. My grandmother had not met him, but her Da spoke of his brother Charley affectionately and claimed he was the family’s favorite, so she named my father after him. My father was his mother’s favorite, according to his sisters.

Railroads. In Iowa, the biggest group of immigrants were Germans.  However, Irish were a close second in the towns along the Mississippi. The Catholic Church recruited German and Irish Catholics to the towns of Dubuque and Davenport where there were churches and schools. They encouraged the Irish to laying rails and to learning mechanical and other skills in roundhouses, where engines were driven onto a track that could turn on a turntable and head a train back in the right direction or onto a different track. 

Railroad companies sent Irish in working “gangs” to the southern regions to work—often with freed slaves who were regularly employed to build the lines.  They blasted through mountains and bridged swamps from West Virginia to the gulf.  Once the lines opened up, the African Americans stuck with the jobs of maintaining the tracks, filling the coal cars and stoking the furnaces of the steam engines, loading freight, tending track switches, and as engine shop workers. After the Civil War, they worked with the Pullman Sleeping Car Company as porters, carrying people’s luggage. Their pay was terrible, but there was an improvement when they observed the trend of the Irish and formed the first all-black union called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The Irish did not have most of those jobs.  

Side Note: My children’s great grandfather was and African American who laid rail from Missouri, through the mountain states and into a small coal-mining town in Washington.  The miners had been Italian immigrants. When they went on strike, the coal company hired Chinese. When the strike was over, a researcher at my university discovered that the Chinese strike-breakers were loaded into a box car and dumped into Puget Sound from a dock in the port city of Tacoma, WA. America’s “open-arms” policy certainly didn’t apply to everyone. It was another “little secret” (like Tulsa, OK) that missed the history books. Immigrants and slaves have always had to work for people who didn’t love them but use them. The owners usually declared themselves Christians. I’m just sayin’.

I tell these bits of history because people have been abused, ignored and forgotten. I believe that we should learn from knowing uncomfortable truths. We cannot continue to do wrongs then hide them. All civilized societies wish to have developed morality and live by rules that serve us all equally – the Greater Good and Golden Rule philosophies. It really is the point of a democracy. Without these shared/practiced beliefs, we do not have a democracy.

Farming. Finding Irish ancestors in farming communities can be easy and difficult. First, the majority poor were farmers in Ireland, so it was the most natural transition. Also, the subsistence farmers who were renters were the most likely to emigrate due to starvation. It is difficult, on the other hand, because when they arrived, there were well-established farms from the Canadian border and Great Lakes region, along the canals and rivers into the south – an agrarian country. Therefore, farmers went anywhere and everywhere they could. However, many of them milked cows or mucked out barns. Irish were also keen and knowledgeable about horses. There were Irish grooms on racetracks. If your ancestors were farmers or farm laborers, there is no single geographical place to look. And, of course, by the end of the Civil War, many Irish immigrants had a little money, so they traveled to many farming states to purchase land—like much of my Irish family.

Irish women became milkmaids on dairies, but they were called laborers, or they walked back home twice a day after milking and their census occupation of record continued to be housewife or home keeper.

General Labor on the New Basin Canal, New Orleans. In the south, before the arrival of famine immigrants, the Irish were less valuable than slaves. If they were used, it was in jobs with high risk, because their bodies did not carry property value. Therefore, it was decided to use the Irish in the building of the New Basin Canal in New Orleans, where there was constant malaria and there were regular outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever. They dug in a swamp, carrying mud on planks up the banks while being bitten by mosquitos.

It was the New Orleans Canal and Banking Company that used a steady supply of motivated Irishmen who died by the thousands until the canal construction ended in 1838.  About 8,000 Irish laborers had died by then.[ix] I did the math to get a perspective on how many that is. If you walked the 6.07 miles of the canal in a straight line on one side, you would encounter a dead body about every four feet. The canal was 32,050 feet, but the bodies laid head-to-toe would reach 44,000 feet if each Irishman was only five feet, six inches tall. The line of dead men would be two miles longer than the canal itself! It was no wonder Irish fathers did not want their sons to grow up to be ditch diggers!

Unfortunately, as was the case generally with the Irish: they were often buried near where they dropped and became “at one” with levees and road fill in their unmarked graves.  This is the case with the New Orleans Canal. Therefore, if your famine ancestor worked on the canal you might find no record. His records ended where he dropped. I tried to find a list of these workers and could not.

I also tried to find lists of Irish stone masons I had heard were available but could not.

Picture of the New Orleans, New Basin Canal. Dug by Irish laborers, 1838. From the New Orleans Public Library collection, used with permission. 


Textile workers, lawyers and reporters. Despite the “No Irish Need Apply” signs we all hear about after the 1845-1850 spurts of Irish immigration, there were always places where male and female laborers were needed.

Because the Irish were desperate to work and would take “dirt” wages, the large grain and textile mills in the northeastern industrial areas hired women. They were segregated from other workers at first, but eventually, due to numbers, ethnic or gender segregation was no longer feasible. The women also began to organize for better working conditions, something that benefitted everyone.  Taking their clues from the “Molly McGuires,” the Irish Catholic women began to demand improvements. It was Irish women who were the first women to lead a strike in a textile mill.  The Catholic priests, especially the well-educated Jesuits and Dominicans had law degrees and were happy to take manufacturers to task for their treatment of the Irish—male, female or child.  Courts were afraid of what might happen if they lost! Also, the Catholics, known for their proclivity toward litigation, writing and talking, had their own press and many Irish were writers, reporters or editors, who “spread the news”.

Side Note: The Druids, B.C. were lawyers and judges who enforced Brehon law. It carried itself into the A.D. Irish Kings and Chieftains who had lawyers, recorders, and bards on their “staff”–  very long-lived cultural traditions. Irish carried it into America in the 1800’s. Some things in cultures die hard. Maybe it never dies. My niece is a lawyer who won a “Give ‘em Hell” Molly Ivens award due to her writing in a class action case. Look Molly up or watch the documentary of her life. Molly didn’t mince words or hide the facts or her opinions. I idolized her! My father’s Catholic law education and strong union bias lives on in people with a tenacity and independent spirit like Molly’s. I believe Joe Biden is of the same Irish ilk. I believe he’s not as docile as he appears.

In the Connecticut River Valley, many Irish settled in Hadley Falls, MA.  They built a dam and a number of canals that provided water for paper and textile mills. They also settled where the Irish had previously been experiencing prejudice.  They simply moved into the valley and soon outnumbered people, pushing their adversaries out.

Gold rush. The Gold Rush of 1848-1855 at Sutter’s mill in Coloma, CA attracted many Irish. Most went down the Ohio and the Mississippi, up the Missouri then into California by trail, but fewer returned than left. About twenty percent of all gold miners died within a year of their arrival. They were victims of unhealthy living conditions (disease), violence, accidents, and hunger.  However, most of the population of San Francisco was Irish by 1852.  (The gold rush in the Klondike took place in summer of 1896.)

FYI: Counties of Ireland

Northern Ireland

Ulster (Northern Ireland):

Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, Monaghan and Tyrone

The Republic of Ireland

Connaught (Western central coast of Ireland):

Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo

 Munster (Southern and west coast of Ireland):

  Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford

Leinster (Central to southeastern coast of Ireland):

Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois (Queens), Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly (Kings), Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow

In my concluding post, I will discuss social issues that grew from the Potato Famine immigration. This includes the “curse” of Irish drinking. I will explain forces that dispersed immigrants. In conclusion, I provide a list of large, medium and small American cities and towns that contain substantial communities of Irish – from the highest of 58.33% in Holly Bluff, Mississippi to the lowest of 6.4% in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  

[i] The History Place, “Irish Potato Famine: Gone to America.” 2000,not%20the%20only%20big%20group%20of%20immigrants%20arriving.  Accessed 05 August 2020.

[ii] Somma, Melissa and Ralph. Macaulay Honors College at City University of New York. The Peopling of New York City: Irish Communities, “History and Demographics of the Irish Coming to America.”           

Accessed 05 August 2020.

[iii] Gorman, Kevin P. The Wild Geese: Exploring the heritage of the Irish worldwide. “Against the Grain: How the Irish Made History in ‘The Ward’.”   Blog posted June 12, 2013 at 9:00 p.m.

Accessed 06 August 2019.

[iv] Ireland Reaching Out.  Merciless Landlords and Ladies, “The Murder of Major Dennis Mahon 1847.”  Saturday, 03 October, 2020   Accessed Saturday, 03 October 2020.

[v] Simkin, John. Spartacus Educational, “Irish Immigration.” Posted September 1997, updated January 2020.   Accessed Monday, 15 June 2020.

[vi] State Historical Society of Iowa, “Curious Facts, May 9, 1851.” Des Moines, IA.  Accessed Saturday, 03 October 2020.

[vii] Atkins, Sharon S. The Social Historian, “Women’s Occupations in the Early Twentieth Century.” (Based on 1900 and 1910 U.S. Federal Census) Submitted 2016. Accessed 05 August 2020.

[viii] Jordan, Mark D. Ezine Articles, “Pennsylvania Irish – Coal Region History.” Submitted 10 April 2008.—Coal-Region-History&id=1103027  Accessed October 22, 2018.

[ix] Wikipedia. “New Basin Canal.”  Page last edited 25 July 2019.,1831%20with%20capital%20of%204%20million%20US%20dollars. Accessed Sunday, 4 October 2020.

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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.