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... funds designated for helping the Irish did anything but that: they were used for futile attempts of reviving the potato crop and employing Irish farmers to do frivolous, useless work. To make matters worse, Parliament put into effect harsh laws upon the poor in Ireland. These laws include the Vagrancy Act, which stated that if one was found idly wandering with no means of support, he was imprisoned. Also, the British foreclosed many houses with no justification, which caused many people to be sent to jail in lieu of the Vagrancy Act. Realizing that staying in Ireland was, in effect, digging their own graves, droves of Irish fled the country, looking for a better place (MacManus 606).
There was a strong British influence in the migration of the Irish. In December of 1846, British Prime Minister Lord John Russell, evaluated that "...nothing can effectually and immediately save the country without an extensive emigration." (Percival 119). Emigration to Britain became overwhelmed and began to send the Irish back. This was devastating to the poorest of the migrants because it was extremely cheap to travel to Great Britain. While Britain was sending boats full of Irish back home, America continued to accept them (125). This is why so many migrated directly to the United States; they knew that they would be accepted without question. Two contributing factors caused the Irish-Americans to be the slowest in making the transition between laborer and non-laborer in the U.S.
Firstly, because they arrived with little or no means of living and support, due to the ravishing famine (O Grada, Black '47 109). Secondly, most of the skilled workers were the first to migrate, and were accepted by Great Britain. The Potato Famine greatly altered the patterns in which the Irish migrated. Between 1821 and 1851, 42% of all U.S. immigrants were Irish (Akenson 36). The number of immigrants prior to the famine was small. 700,000 arrived in the U.S. between 1820 and 1840, which averages about 35,000 every year (Bence-Jones 105).
The famine caused these statistics to greatly increase: 1,700,000 immigrated in the next 20 years (Bence-Jones 105). By 1850, 26% of New York's population was Irish. In 1851, four years after the height of the famine, immigration had reached a peak of 216,000 people in one year (105). By 1855, Irish-Americans made up one-fifth of Boston's population (105). Long-term effects can be seen by the fact that by 1860, 5% of the American population had Irish ancestry (Akenson 35). The Great Famine also had an effect on the demography of migration. In 1846, 6.1% of all Irish immigrants were farmers. From 1846 to 1851, 11.2% were farmers (O Grada Black '47 110). The famine also altered family migration.
50.8% of those reaching New York in 1846 traveled with at least one other person having the same last name, compared to the 57.9% who reached New York between 1847 and 1851 (108). Another unique aspect of the famine-inspired immigration is the ratio of male/female immigrants. There were equal numbers of Irish men and Irish women who migrated to the U.S. between 1846 and 1851 (Akenson 35). This is because the only escape for women was emigration: this was their only means of getting a job or getting married. Both of these occurrences would ensure the woman's financial stability.Despite these astounding numbers, not all migrants were fortunate enough to experience life in the new world. 6,100 people died on the voyage across the ocean.
4,100 people died on their arrival to the world of promise and prosperity. 5,200 people would die after being admitted to a U.S. hospital. And 1,900 people would die in the city or town in which they planned on building their new life (MacManus 610). Not all immigrants arrived in America by direct passage. There were many backdoor entrances to the U.S. made by Irish. Canada was controlled by Britain at the time, and was more that happy to allow Irish to travel downriver from Canada for free.
The British went so far as to offer free passage across the ocean to Canada in order to not only rid Canada of Irish, but also the motherland itself (Akenson 37). Despite the fact that millions of people migrated from Ireland because they thought of it as a solution to the famine, it actually was not. Emigration was not an effective form of disaster relief because it did not target those who were at greatest risk of dying (111). This is because those were at the greatest risk of dying were usually the poorest of the peasants. By the time they realized they had to leave Ireland, it was already too late for them. They were without land, without money, without food, and without energy. Statistics show that for emigration to have been a truly effective remedy during the famine, the out migration from the poorer counties would gave to have been much higher (O Grada, The Great Irish Famine 121). The famine triggered off a population decline that lasted in Ireland as a whole until the 1900s and in many rural areas until current times.
This is often seen as the famine's most important legacy. The famine certainly provided the spur, but the persistence of population decline is perhaps better explained as the consequence of how low living standards were in Ireland prior to 1845. The post-1845 exodus was due to the pull of outside forces in the sense that it persisted despite rising living standards at home (130). The famine meant that emigration peaked earlier in Ireland than in other countries participating in the great trans-Atlantic voyage. The Irish outflow was so great-removing one third to one half of each rising generation-that it provoked repeated warnings of depopulation (134). The Irish emigration rate declined more or less steadily in the post-famine century, and the proportion of those born in Ireland living abroad had peaked by the turn of the century (Perceval 138). In the end, however, the Potato Famine's effect on Irish migration had positive long-term results (Solnit 31). Although the great majority of the famine immigrants remained poor, later generations were better equipped and found that previous generations had paved a more receptive environment for them (MacIntyre, 112).
In American cities they could attend flourishing Catholic churches with large Irish congregations; they could read Irish newspapers and seek work with city councils dominated by Irish politicians. Some new arrivals went into business and prospered. Many men joined the city service departments, the police, the fire service, while many women became teachers (MacManus 44). Irish people gradually became accepted as respectable American citizens. The prejudice diminished, and then slowly disappeared. Ironically enough, the United States was the cause of the Potato Famine, yet it was also a solution. What if that fate-altering American ship never traveled to Ireland, thus not introducing the fungus to the Irish potato crop? Irish-Americans would not be the same, and would have little power in today's world. Not only was the famine immigration important to Irish contemporaries because it was their only chance of survival, but it was also important for Irish contemporaries of present because the original Irish-Americans suffered in order to make their descendents' lives better today.WORKS CITEDAkenson, Donald Harman.
The United States and Ireland, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.Bence-Jones, Mark. The Remarkable Irish, New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1966.Kinealy, Christine. The Great Calamity: The Irish Famine, Boulder: Roberts Rhinehart Publishers, 1995.MacIntyre, Angus. The Liberator: Daniel O'Conell and the Irish Party, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1965.MacManus, Seumas. The Story for the Irish Race, Old Greenwich: The Devin-Adair Company, 1979.O'Cathaoir, Brendan. Famine Diary, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999.O Grada, Cormac. Black '47 and Beyond, Princeton University Press, 1999.---.
The Great Irish Famine. Cambridge University Press, 1999.Percival, John. The Great Famine: Ireland's Potato Famine, New York: Viewer Books, 1995.Solnit, Rebecca. A Book of Migrations. New York: Verso, 1997.Somerville, Alexander. Letters from Ireland During the Famine of 1847, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1994..
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