Irish American Heritage Month – St. Patty’s Day and the Irish Famine

Irish American Heritage Month —
St. Patty’s Day and the Irish Famine

By Libby McCroskey, CTAS

We wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, we drink green beer, we eat corned beef and cabbage — and colcannon potatoes if we’re lucky enough to know someone who makes them.  But why do we celebrate the patron saint of Ireland?  The Irish immigrants brought us the March 17 celebration of all things Irish.  But why did they come here in the first place?  There was a potato famine in Ireland and people were starving, so they came here for a better life. That’s about all I learned in school.

Of course, there’s more to the story.  According to my research, the famine began in 1845 and the crops didn’t fully recover until 1852.  The potato crops were infected by a plant pathogen that caused the potatoes to rot.  During that time, it is believed that as many as one million Irish men, women, and children died from starvation and diseases caused by malnutrition, and another one million or more fled their homeland to escape the poverty and starvation.

Sad, but unavoidable. Or was it?

I’m no historian, but it’s amazing what you can learn online if you Google “Irish potato famine” or “Irish immigration to America.”  Beginning in 1801, Ireland was governed as a colony of Great Britain.  The Irish who practiced Catholicism (which was most of the Irish people) were prohibited by laws, known as the Penal Laws, from owning or leasing land, voting or holding elected office.  The Penal Laws were repealed in 1829, but at the time of the famine, English or Anglo-Irish families still owned most of the land and most Irish Catholics remained poor tenant farmers.

In one article, there was this: “In most of Ireland, housing conditions were terrible. A census report in 1841 found that nearly half the families in rural areas lived in windowless mud cabins, most with no furniture other than a stool. Pigs slept with their owners and heaps of manure lay by the doors.” (The Potato Famine and Irish Immigration to America, Constitutional Rights Foundation, Winter 2010, Vol. 26, No. 2).

The famine was caused by a potato blight, and the potato was the staple food of the Irish peasants. The crop failure affected only the potato. No other crops were involved. As the peasants starved, their landlords continued to export millions of pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, butter and poultry.  Throughout the famine there was an abundance of food being produced in Ireland, but that food was sold in other markets.  Some research suggests that exports of livestock and butter actually increased during the famine.

There are many lessons to be learned in the hows and whys of the famine, far too many to examine in this article.  This year, in addition to wearing the green, I hope to honor the Irish by learning more about this part of history.  What led to their starvation and uprooted more than one million of them, sending them across vast oceans fighting for survival on “coffin ships”?  What was that journey like?  How were they received when they finally reached our shores?  And how have they contributed to our society since they arrived?

When John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected in 1960, he became the first Irish Catholic president of the United States.  He was the great-grandson of a famine immigrant.  Barack Obama’s great-great-great-grandfather, Fulmuth Kearney, was also a famine immigrant. And there’s so much more to learn.

 Sources and additional reading: