Short History of Ireland in the 19th Century

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During the early years of the 1800's, Irish landlords enjoyed prosperous times because prices for agricultural products were high, due to the Napoleonic wars. After the defeat of the French at Waterloo however, prices fell dramatically. The landlords quickly found that it was more profitable to turn their acreage of small farming plots into grazing lands. This posed a small problem...what to do with the hundreds of tenant farmers living on their estates? But this was only a small problem with a simple solution. They evicted the families (even if their rent was fully paid up) and tore down their huts so they could not return. There were numerous accounts of highways filled with these wretched people wandering aimlessly about, begging for food just to keep alive.

The Irish response to this latest outrage was the formation of even more secret societies to carry out midnight raids. Some of the names included Rightboys, Thrashers, Ribbonmen, and Whitefoots. The English response was swift. They instituted a program of transporting offenders to Australian prisons. Petty crimes that today would only get a warning from a judge resulted in severe sentences--for example, one Martin Kinsella from Wexford was caught stealing glue. For this he was sentenced to Australia for seven years. Any crime that was the least bit serious drew a life sentence.

One might conclude that through all the centuries of oppression, nothing worse could happen to the Irish, then came The Great Famine. As the nineteenth century progressed, the Irish became more and more dependent on the potato for food. In fact, the majority of rural people lived on it exclusively (the potato being one of the few foods that has all the essential vitamins necessary to sustain human life). Several English commissions that studied the economic situation in Ireland warned that if there were ever a severe failure of the potato crop, widespread starvation would result. All such warnings went unheeded.

In 1845 it happened. A blight struck the potato crop and half the crop was destroyed. People husbanded what few potatoes they had and prayed that the next years crop would be a bountiful one. The crop of 1846 suffered even more than the previous year. To add to the misery, that winter was the "severest in living memory." When the 1847 crop failed also, the Irish population of the whole nation was faced with starvation. This is when the first wave of immigrants fled their homeland. The majority of this first group went to Canada because fares were very low--ships bringing lumber to England were glad to receive paying passengers instead of returning to Canada empty. Unfortunately, many of these people carried typhoid and many other diseases with them.

Ironically, during these years it was only the potato crop that failed in Ireland. Wheat, oats, beef, mutton, pork, and poultry were all in excellent supply but the Irish-English landlords shipped these to the European continent to ease the starving there and receive a good profit in return. When people today wonder about the enmity between the Irish and the English, they don't recognize the fact that Irish folk memory is long and that stories are still being told about those ships leaving Irish ports loaded with food at the same time that their ancestors were eating grass to survive.

Throughout the famine years, which continued beyond 1847, the English bureaucracy was reluctant to appropriate any money to Ireland to help with the famine because, as they said, "the Irish will use it only to buy guns to revolt again." They were also reluctant to provide material aid such as soup kitchens because, "they will get used to handouts and never be self-sufficient."

As an indication of how bad things were, when Americans (primarily Quakers) offered to send food to Ireland, England insisted the food be first landed in England and then transferred to English ships--to assure that English shipping interests were fully employed. The American press so ridiculed this law, asking how greedy could England be at a time when hundreds of thousands of their subjects were starving, that they finally backed down and let the American ships sail directly to Ireland.

Author C.W.Smith, an Englishwoman herself, was baffled by the way her countrymen behaved during the famine years. As she says, "It is not characteristic of the English to behave as they behaved in Ireland. As a nation, the English have proved themselves of generosity, tolerance, and magnanimity, but not when Ireland is concerned. The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence, and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots."

In 1849, Queen Victoria decided to pay a visit to Ireland. Press accounts reported the pomp and circumstance accompanying her arrival in Cork harbor. They described the great collection of troops and bands as she disembarked from the ship and it was this day that William Kinsella became a local hero. A huge Union Jack was fluttering over the dock directly above the spot where the Royal parade was to pass. Somehow, William was able to get near the flagpole and cut the ropes so the flag dropped on the heads of the lead marching band (he promptly emigrated to America).

During the Queen's visit no expense was spared to make the tour a success. At one banquet, $5000 was spent on food and wine alone. The Duke of Leinster, one of the better Irish-English landowners and landlord over the area where many of the Kinsellas lived, was disgusted with the extravagance. He wondered how in this land where hundreds of thousands were starving, where a family of six could be kept alive for a week for less than $1, the Queen's government could justify spending thousands of dollars to entertain a privileged few for one night! For anyone wishing to learn about this catastrophe in Irish History, I suggest they read "The Great Hunger" by Cecil Woodham Smith.

It is estimated one and a half million died of starvation and disease in The Great Famine. Another million people emigrated--people that had bitter feelings about the land they loved. Some cut off all ties with the motherland and never looked back. The majority however, never lost their love for the land they left. They continued to follow happenings in Ireland and talk and sing about it as they gathered together at social events. It was said of this immigrant generation that few found success and prosperity in America...this had to wait for their children's and grandchildren's generations.

        For the great Gaels of Ireland
        Are the Men that God made mad.
        For all their wars are merry
        For all their songs are sad.


Irish Immigrants in America during the 19th Century



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