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Boston's journey through the historical by-ways of the "capital of Irish America"

Boston museum that offers a virtual recreation of the experience of the millions of immigrants who came to B-town



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Potatoes and Politics: the Irish Journey


America or bust!
Whether you consider the United States a melting pot of different races and ethnicities, or a mixed cultural salad, or even a country of distinct ideas poured together in a hearty bowl of shrimp gumbo, it is undeniably a nation built on the strength of its diverse immigrants. One of the first groups to immigrate en masse to our young country was the Irish. It is their tale that paved the way for millions of other people around the world to make their way to the United States.

Their story begins with a spud. The same common brown potato (known as a "prattie" in Ireland) that you might chop into french fries, mash with milk, or smother with sour cream and chives at the dinner table. Potatoes arrived in Ireland by the accident of a Spanish shipwreck in the 16th century. After figuring out how to cultivate them, potatoes became the main food source for the Irish people (much like Russians depend on wheat for their food base, Asians depend on rice, and several south American cultures depended on corn or maize). As long as the potato crop was healthy, it was the perfect food. Spuds are easy to plant and harvest and simple to prepare, so they were available to even the poorest peasant or farmer. They are nutritious, (filled with carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals) and actually produce more pounds of food per acre than any other crop. A single acre of potatoes could keep a family of 6 well fed for an entire year!

Despite all of its advantages, the potato had its problems as well, and this turned Ireland's simple agricultural tale into a terrible horror story. In 1845, in what seemed to be the blink of an eye, Ireland's main food source became utterly inedible. The potato crop had been attacked by an awful fungus, probably carried across the ocean on ships from North America. As the disease spread from root to root, a sickeningly sweet smell filled the Irish air. Potatoes across the country were literally rotting underground! While the fungus raced across the land, once healthy plants turned from green to black, causing Ireland's entire crop to fail for almost four years in a row. What followed was nothing short of a nightmare, as many people died by the roadsides, their mouths stained green with the grass they had eaten in a desperate attempt to survive. Their plight was described in "A Brief History of the Potato in Ireland:"

With no public education available, often kicked off their land for inability to pay rent, hanging on the edge of starvation, many of the Irish sank into apathy. Squatters built shacks alongside roads and grew potatoes on scraps of land. Many people were driven to commit small crimes so they would go to prison, where at least they would be fed. Alcoholism and drunkenness became a major problem.

Downtown Boston's Irish Famine Memorial remembers those who died in the Great Hunger
Ireland had been overcome by a famine, now known as "An Gorta Mor," or the Great Hunger. Although the terrible natural disaster was unavoidable at the time, the situation didn't have to play out quite as horribly as it did. At this time, the British government ruled Ireland, and most Irish farms were owned by British landlords who expected to be paid their rent whether there was a famine or not. So in one of the most outstanding injustices of history, tons of other healthy, edible grains (like oats and wheat) were sent away from Ireland to England to pay the wealthy, absentee landlords their rents while the Irish farmers and their families starved. Over one million Irish lives (one person out of every eight) were lost to starvation and disease during these awful years.

the Irish came to America with few possessions packed into their trunks
What could be done to end this suffering? People from the United States heard about the Irish plight, and sent shiploads of food, supplies and clothing across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland. Although helpful, this assistance was certainly not enough to end the famine, and the Irish looked for another way out of their tragedy. Sailing to the United States seemed to be the answer, and Boston, Massachusetts became the Irish port of choice. Irish patriot John Mitchell wrote that "many thousands of peasants who could still scrape up the means fled to the sea, as if pursued by wild beasts, and betook themselves to America." And although it seemed like life couldn't get any worse than in Ireland, the passage across the ocean was another horror the Irish had to endure. Traveling in dilapidated "coffin ships," so many sick and hungry Irish died on their disgusting crossing that the Atlantic came to be known to them as the "Bowl of Tears."

I wish I could write that their troubles ended when they reached our shores, but unfortunately, the hardships continued. The welcome was not a warm one for the Irish who arrived by the thousands to crowd into Boston's waterfront. Although Bostonians had been eager to send food across the seas to help out the Irish in Ireland, housing them in Boston was something entirely different, and quite unacceptable. Boston had been around for 200 years by this point, and was very set in its originally British, Anglo-Saxon ways. It was a "city that rejected the Irish from the very start," whose citizens felt that the Irish were "lesser breeds" who could never "be fully assimilated into the prevailing American culture." The Irish arrived sick, exhausted, near death. They had no education and no jobs to look forward to. Many of them had no friends or family to take them in. In 1850, Boston's mayor complained that the Irish lived in "filth and wretchedness," and other native Bostonians complained that these unfortunate immigrants were turning all of Massachusetts into a "moral cesspool". The citizens of Boston worried for their own jobs with the influx of a people so desperate for work they would accept long hours and low wages. A now-notorious newspaper want ad of the time summed up the Boston attitude when it clearly stated, "positively no Irish need apply" for a housekeeping job in a Boston neighborhood.

Boston's gold-domed statehouse
With the negative experience that the Irish ran into in Boston, it is no wonder that they took whatever jobs were available to them, at whatever salary an employer was willing to pay. When the "mill girls" of New England went on strike at Lowell's cotton mills, refusing to work extra hours for less pay, the Irish came in to take those unwanted jobs (see Kevin's dispatch on Lowell Mills for more info). Irish immigrants to America realized that they would have to work extremely hard, long hours, at low paying jobs in order to survive in America.

Irish immigrants overcame famine to reach good fortune in Boston
Boston today is known as the "Dublin of America," for the number of Irish living there, and the impact they've had on Boston's workforce, politics and culture. How did a city that was once so against them, come to celebrate its Irish history?

Well, things began to improve for the Irish as they gained greater acceptance in America after the Civil War. They fought passionately and with pride for their new country, and won the respect of those who they served with and for in the military. Also, as the Irish became more comfortable in their new home and began to earn money, they realized that the conditions they were working under were unfair. The division between the wealthy and the workingmen was getting larger and larger, so that it was difficult for workers to earn a living wage. Irish miners, shoemakers, textile workers and others started to organize labor unions to gain and protect workers rights. These labor unions opened the door for the Irish to enter Boston politics, where there was strength in numbers at the ballot box for the large Irish population. Irishmen like John O'Reilly became activists for Civil Rights, and provided strong leadership for the Irish community. When our nation elected John F. Kennedy (a descendant of famine immigrants) the first Irish Catholic president, it was clear that most Americans had overcome their prejudices against our first minority group.

Becky visits the John O'Reilly sculpture on the Irish Heritage Trail in Boston
Today we can look at Irish-American history as a success story. From the depths of a disastrous famine, the Irish used hard work and education to pull themselves to prosperity in cities like Boston across America. Their talent and leadership in organizing working men and women helped protect the common American laborer from unfair wages and ridiculous working hours, while their political influence created a whole new era of "minority" power in local governments. The Irish immigrants are an important part of the wonderful, magical mix of heritages, cultures, colors and traditions that exist in the melting pot-mixed salad-shrimp gumbo bowl we call the United States of America.


History is happening all around us, all the time!

The Irish certainly have not forgotten the horrors of their past, and Boston's Irish community remains active in the fight against hunger in countries where famines still exist today. Boston's Irish Famine Memorial urges people to never forget the conditions that caused the Great Hunger, so that this tragic history may "finally cease... to repeat itself" around the world. Please check out the Irish Famine Institute website to learn where other famines have hit, and what you can do to help.

*Uncited quotes from: Thomas O'Connor: The Boston Irish and the Irish Famine Memorial


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - Know-Nothings without a clue
Kevin - Rock the vote by discovering Dorr!
Irene - Mormonism: Shedding light on a little known religion
Teddy - A 19th century Robin Hood saves the day
Kevin - Heck no! We won't go for a 16 hour work day!
Kevin - To Sarah With Love
MAD - Give nasty, old poverty a kick in the shin!