Excerpt from From Cavan to the Catskills, by Lenore Blake Stevenson, Gateway Press, Baltimore, 1989


Irish Culture

Gaelic culture seems to have survived the invasions of the Danes and Normans, but “the gradual extension of English power in Ireland put the native culture and the institutions which supported it under ever increasing pressure. The defeat at Kinsale in 1601 marked the collapse of Gaelic Ireland and the civilisation in which this culture flourished was doomed. The nobles and chiefs who supported the poets, musicians, artists and scribes were now almost gone or if they remained they were no longer wealthy enough to support schools and scholars. Then, too, the constant wars and confiscation of land during the whole 17th century deprived artists and literati alike of -the peace and settled life necessary for scholarship to flourish. Finally, after the Treaty of Limerick in 1691 all aspects of Irish culture had, as it were, to go underground; poets were regarded as dangerously potential rebels; there were no schools in which any aspect of Irish culture could be taught or studied and musicians were the only class to be tolerated. In addition to all this, of course, there was the undisguised contempt with which all things Irish were regarded by the ruling class to whom everything native was alien, inferior and fit only for poverty-stricken people. The way to achieve success, therefore, was to abandon all Irish ways and ape as far as possible one’s betters. From this time on dates the ‘stage Irishman’, that figure of fun and buffoonery who lost all dignity in trying to use a language he did not properly know and to acquire habits and customs totally alien to him. This over the years had an appalling effect on the Irish people and so early in the nineteenth century they began to throw aside even the yery shrine of their culture, the language, in a linguistic upheaval unparalleled in Europe and probably in the world.” ...


In the nineteenth century houses fell into four classes: A 4th class house was a one-roomed mud cabin; a 3rd class house was one in a better condition, mud-built and with 2-4 rooms; a 2nd class house was “a good farmhouse or townhouse in a small street with 5-9 rooms and windows; a 1st class house meant that the house was superior to all of these.”

From an article on housing conditions in the Cootehill area of Cavan as reported in the 1841 census: “This leaves us with a staggering 87.6% of the population living in 3rd or 4th class houses. The majority of these lived in 3rd class houses and this is probably slightly better than the national average as most accounts of the period state that by 1841 almost half of the population lived in one-roomed cabins. This high percentage was a relic of the more prosperous days of the linen industry, when the design of the houses being built took into account the fact that room would be needed for weaving. This usually resulted in an extra room being built so the houses were generally longer here than in many other parts of Ireland. This leaves us with 23 1/2% of the population who were living in single-roomed mud cabins. This figure includes the agricultural labourers and cotters and doubtless also included a number of the poorer farmers. These dwellings were really pitiful if indeed they could be called dwellings at all.”

The vast majority of the houses were mud-walled, although in areas where slate rock was common they might be built of stone and occasionally might even have glass windows, but since granite was more common than slate rock this type of house was comparatively rare. In many cases there were no windows at all and often places which had originally held a pane of glass were filled with straw or closed over completely with mud. Sometimes there were no doors, a piece of furze serving as a door, but when there was a door it was frequently made of wickerwork. The houses were almost all thatched. ... If the owner of the house were a farmer it would usually be thatched with straw but the agricultural labourers and cotters had to make do with rushes, potato stalks or lake-share reeds. The thatch generally covered a roof that was made up of sods resting on rafters which were propped up by anything that came to hand. Most of the houses had no real chimneys, a hole in the roof sufficing for many. Others did not even have this and the only means of escape for the smoke was often the open door. The floor of the house was simply the natural earth and was, of course, liable to become extremely damp.

The furniture was usually as primitive as the house itself. Very few families had proper beds. They usually consisted of ‘straw, loose or in ticken’ with ‘indifferent bed-clothes’. Many slept on the floor and children often slept on rushes. Lack of bedclothes usually meant that people slept with their clothes on. At least when there were two rooms the whole family did not have to sleep together. The rest of the furniture varied from house to house. The three legged stool was common, there were ‘a few pots and culinary articles’, occasionally a table and dresser but usually very little else.”

Transportation and Communication

Cavan town and Belturbet had a regular postal service to Dublin and London from about 1659. “... this honour was due to the fact that Whitehall was worried about the rebellious nature of the O’Reillys. Early postal services were established by the crown in localities considered sensitive’.”

Most of the mail, in those early years, was carried by foot, or “on horseback by the post-boy, a picturesque figure with his bag and horn. It is of interest that even at the present day in rural Ireland the postman is commonly referred to as the ‘post-boy’.” There were, of course, stagecoaches, which occasionally carried letters and parcels, but usually just passengers. In 1788 there was the “Cavan Coach” which left Dublin from No. 105 King Street on Tuesday, and from John Ball’s in Cavan on Thursday. In 1790 the first mail coach in Ireland started,from Dublin and in another decade or so the Royal Mail was carried on the new Dublin-Cavan-Eniskellen road. “The last stopping-place in Cavan of the Royal Mail was the Globe Hotel, Main Street. ... The last proprieter of the Globe Hotel was Mr. Daniel O’Reilly, who was a Town Commissioner for a time. A shop was opened on the premises by his successor, Mr. Bernard Brady, who became a Town Commissioner in 1888.”

Although there was this good mail coach service, foot posts were used in Cavan as late as the 1840’s. Either way, anyone in Jefferson, New York, wanting to contact a Conaty, Finigan or Smith, could be assured of safe, if slow, delivery of their mail.


Ireland, long known as “The Land of Saints and Scholars”, was for several centuries a land thirsting for knowledge. The Penal Laws, which forbade the native Irish to “found or endow a school, college or university” were strictly enforced, and the only education available was conducted clandestinely. “From the passage of the Penal Laws in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, although there were no schools, itinerant schoolmasters conducted classes for Catholics. Under threat of exile or death, the schoolmasters continued to teach, sometimes in ditches or hedgerows, usually in the open air. They were paid a meager salary by the childrens’ parents, who also usually kept the schoolmaster hidden from authorities. As enforcement of the Penal Laws diminished, the ‘hedge schools’ were moved indoors, usually to a small sod hut.”

An article in the Anglo-Celt (5-26-1928) entitled “The Hedge Schools of Breffney”, stated that “Tradition describes a hedge-school as ‘a dry spot at the back of a safe ditch’ where the children sat on the green sod, while the teacher traced ‘with clay and wattle’ the letters of the alphabet. Sometimes, when safe to do so, the ‘advanced class’ was taken to the nearest burial ground to learn ‘printed words’ from epitaphed gravestones. Geography was expounded on the ground, where the hedge-school master sketched a map of the world, with a talent perhaps more brilliant that some present-day university professors.

“Hedge-schools for adults were conducted by classical teachers, mostly selected from ‘poor scholars’. ... Poor scholars were youths of scholarly minds, who travelled disguised and on foot, from one county to another to attend the best classical schools. ... To a great extent we owe the preservation of our ancient literature and Celtic learning to the illegal hedge-schools of byegone days. The strange thing is, that during this same period of discontent and oppression our forefathers kept up an extensive study of religion, history, mathematics, languages (chiefly Gaelic, Greek and Latin), and law.”

The 1830’s and 40’s saw the emergence of a national school system ... but the “travelling teacher” continued on into this century, bringing with him the Gaelic culture and language so close to extinction. “Many of those who came as shy, smiling boys into the classes of the travelling teachers and discovered Ireland there in the midst of Irish speech, and Irish prayers, and Irish songs and Irish dances, and laughter, and serious work, and merriment, grew up with an old thought renewed in their minds, and an old love reawakened in their hearts.”

The bicycle made the travelling teacher’s job a little easier, and he was a welcome sight to the villagers who eagerly awaited him. Alice Milligan’s poem, “The Man on the Wheel” provides a vivid picture.

A man goes by on a wheel with the rain on his face,
Against the way of the wind, and he not caring;
Goes on through the winter night towards a lonesome, distant place
For his heart is hot with the glow of the ancient hero-daring.

He slows on the slant of the hill and must walk the higher road,
For he knows of an eager crowd that waits in a lighted hall;
The blast is sharp from the north, on the mountain breast it has snowed,
And they murmur now of him ‘He will hardly come at all.

We will while away the time with fiddle and dance and song;
The way they say is rough and the school too far to reach;
But wait! a stir at the door, and in through the jostling throng
Comes the man skin-drenched from his wheel, who had said he would come to teach!

Perhaps some of our family were reached by these teachers, but, in the years just before the Famine, times were so hard that children’s labor was badly needed and their education sacrificed. ...

The Famine

We come now to the most painful period of Ireland’s pain-filled history. For a complete account there are several excellent books, notably The Great Hunger, by Woodham-Smith and Paddy’s Lament by Thomas Gallagher. This was the situation in Cavan in the years just preceding the famine:

“The vast majority of the farmers held their lands on lease from a landlord or were ‘tenants at will’. This last phrase explains itself. A person holding land in this way held it at the whim of the landlord; he could be evicted at any time and for any reason; he had absolutely no security and his rent could be raised at any time and by whatever amount his landlord wished. He had no incentive to improve himself or his holding as any sign of prosperity would generally mean an increase in rent. His only chance was to lead a quiet, inconspicuous life and to avoid running foul of the landlord or the landlord’s agent. ... The tenant who held his land on lease was slightly better off. At least, until his lease expired he could not be evicted if he paid his rent, and his rent could not be raised. Of course the ordinary farmer had a very short lease, or a very uncertain one.”

Earlier in the century farmers had been able to supplement their earnings by growing flax, which the family would spin and weave themselves, often hiring a cotter to help. (A cotter. had no land of his own but lived in a house provided by the farmer, along with a little bit of land for potatoes) The cotter made his living by working for pay and during the early decades of the nineteenth century he was, in the Cavan area, usually a weaver. The men did the weaving, and the women the spinning. (In researching the 1821 census I found almost all the Smiths, Conertys and Finigans to be farmers, but their wives and daughters were listed as “flax spinners”.)

The first power loom was invented in 1784, and by the 1820’s the weaving of linen as a home industry began to wane. Cavan’s whole economy was changed. With farm prices falling and rents increasing the farmers had only their small farms to depend on. (Hardest hit were the cotters who now became agricultural laborers looking for work that was rarely available.)

The size of the farms was an important factor. In earlier years a farm could support a whole family. As Brian O’Mordha says, “When a farmer’s son reached a marriageable age – say twenty – he could be given a few acres of the parental farm; in a little more than a day a meitheal of neighbors would build a one or two-roomed mud cabin, and having brought a young bride of eighteen or nineteen home to this little ‘palace’ he would proceed to rear a large family. His parcel of land grew potatoes for himself and his family; he also grew oats which were sold; the money got from this, together with what he got for his pig and his butter paid the rent, and what more could anybody want in 1840! It was a pleasant enough existence until something went wrong.”

Two things went wrong. As more and more land became more and more subdivided among sons, and sometimes daughters, or sublet to other tenants, individual farms were hardly able to support a family. The Parochial Surveys (Ordnance Survey) remarked on “the deplorable system of agriculture and the minute subdivision of farms which so unhappily prevails.” In talking about the parish of Kildrumsheridan the Surveys state: “... the subletting and subdivision of the soil into small holdings is equally operative in all its ruinous consequences on the prosperity of the parish of Kill.” Brian O’Mordha says, “Each generation got progressively poorer until finally the people were reduced to absolute poverty and were, one might say, made ready for the dreadful holocaust of 1845-6-7.”

The second thing that went wrong, of course, was the potato. Whether it was called a blight, or disease, or potato cholera, it changed the face of a nation, and affected in turn the nations to whom the sufferers fled. The following are random quotes from an excellent piece in Breifne (Vol. II, No. 8) by the Cavan historian, Terence P. Cunningham, entitled “The Great Famine in County Cavan”:

“In 1845 the county had a population in the region of 250,000, the majority of whom depended for their food on the potato. The blight struck partially in 1845, devastatingly in 1846 and again in 1848.

“The potato failure in the county in 1845 was only partial; this meant however that certainly by the late spring, the food of the majority of the people would be gone. Food would have to be supplied to the destitute and employment for the labourer so that he might buy food. As early as February 1846, public meetings were held at Bailieboro and Ballyjamesduff and a month later relief committees began to function in each of these areas. ... An initial difficulty was the irregular character of these committees: the rule was that the Lord Lieutenant or vice Lord Lieutenant of the county should appoint them, but the Marquis of Headford was in Italy and Col. Saunderson was also on the continent and it was not until mid-April that Lord Farnham was duly deputised for the job.

“I select some reports from various areas in April and May: a family without food or means shut themselves up for two days to conceal this state (Ballyjamesduff); farmers who were comfortable in other times are now without a meal (Crossdoney); ... in one of the outlets of the town 157 families comprising 332 individuals depend for subsistence on a precarious day’s work, not one of them presently employed (Cavan).

“To give employment, Extraordinary Presentment Sessions were held in April at Virginia, Bailieboro, Cootehill, Belturbet, Cavan, Ballinagh, and in Tullyhaw and Tullyhunco. ... Besides road works a move was made to start drainage works and railway construction. Drainage projects succeeded. ... By government order the relief committees ceased operation on 15 August and on the same date the public works were to cease. The reason here was to release labourers for the harvest and that the new potato crop would supply food.

“With the almost total destruction of the potato crop of 1846, the period of real famine began early in the following winter; public works were begun again, soup kitchens were established. ... Even at the height of the harvest season in September, crowds of destitute laborers gathered in towns and at landlord houses demanding work and food, but all these meetings were peacable. The prospect cast a gloom even over the high society dinner in Virginia on the occasion of the regatta on 9 September. The Marquis of Headford said he could think of nothing but the starving laborers. Col. Saunderson too during one of his short visits home from the continent, in an open letter ta the county on 8 September, was aware that ‘an awful calamity seemed to hang over the people’. ... Fr. Matthew McQuaid, P.P. of Kill, in a letter of 23 September, reported the same state of alarm: the laboring class was entirely destitute and on the eve of starvation; the small farmer could carry on only far a month or two, but employment, preferably productive, must soon be found.

“The public works of the winter of 1646/7 had great shortcomings. Besides being slow in beginning, the numbers employed (about 10% of the population) were never adequate for the emergency: there were complaints that in places small farmers, no matter how destitute, were excluded. . that wages were not paid regularly ... that the road works were useless and demoralizing (this generally from the landlords). Then on 20 March 1847 an order from the Board of Works dismissed 20% of those employed on Public Works. ... The selection of the 20% was difficult: at Kilnaleck on one particular work lots had to be drawn to decide the least destitute and the report added that ‘the wretched creatures on whom the lots fell raised a cry that still rings in my ears, it was like a sentence of death on them’; at Ballinagh 406 women were dismissed (women and boys were employed on the public works chiefly breaking stones).

“In March 1847 the Government Soup-kitchen Act (dr Temporary Relief Act) came into force, and on 22 March, the relief committees of the county were again reorganized on the Poor Law basis ... depots or soup-kitchens were set up throughout the county at the end of April. . . public or cheap bakeries were established in Bailieboro and Cavan. The Soup-kitchen Act was to cease on 15 August ... but the Temporary Relief Act did immense good, literally saving thousands of lives.

“While hunger was being kept at bay to some extent by the operation of the Soup-kitchen Act, a new terror afflicted the people ... fever. Never entirely absent from the county in previous years, in the winter of ’46/’47 with the overcrowding of the workhouses, fever broke out again. ... Three types of fever afflicted the county: typhus, relapsing fever and dysentery. Dysentery did most damage in the spring of ’47 because of the poor diet and was particularly fatal in children and old people. ... Temporary fever hospitals (i.e. houses accommodated as hospitals) were set up in most towns and supported by the rates. Most of these temporary hospitals closed in the summer of 1848 when the new fever wing was added to the workhouse.

“The potato crop of 1847 was not affected by the blight to any great extent but the amount of potatoes planted was small – about one-tenth of former years. The famine therefore continued. The public works had been stopped; the soup-kitchens abolished. In their places the government passed the Poor Law Extension Act whereby the relief of distress was made the sole responsibility of the Poor Law Unions and the Workhouses. In theory the hungry and destitute were to be accommodated and fed in the workhouses; if these were full, outdoor relief could be given to the aged and infirm, to widows with children, but not to the able-bodied unless the Poor Law Commissioners on request of the Board of Guardians ordered it; the outdoor relief was to be administered by a full-time salaried local Relieving Officer at fixed depots; the whole costs were to come from the poor rates.

“By November 1848 the total accommodation for paupers in Cavan Union was over 3,000: 1,300 in the original workhouse, 120 in the new fever wing and 1,620 in the auxiliaries ... six months later, in mid-June 1849, the highest number of paupers in Cavan workhouse and its auxiliaries is recorded – 3734 – although there was accommodation for only 3106. ...

“The greatest objection to the Poor Law Extension Act however was the high rates it involved ... one important result of the pressure of the rates was that some of the landlords, obliged to pay the rates of any tenant valued less than 4 pounds, were prompted to clear out these tenants; this combined with inability of tenants to pay rents during the famine, and the enforcement of the clause in the Poor Law Extension Act prohibiting relief to anyone with a rood of land, led to very many clearances on landlords’ estates in 1848.

“There are reports of evictions all through 1848 and 1849 in the county. ... Letters from three areas paint the general picture. The first was written by Fr Tom Brady, C.C. Drung, on 1 March 1848:

‘In this parish at present there are 50 farms vacant, 200 human beings sent adrift in an inclement season to beg or die; many of them have since died. As I meet them on the highways, livid corpses raised from the grave, I can give but a faint idea of their wretched appearance ... wishing for the happy release of death. No people would tamely submit but my unfortunate countrymen. The landlords exterminate right and left ... I fearlessly accuse some Irish landlords in this parish of wanting in common humanity; they deprive the tenant of his crop, prevent him from getting outdoor relief until he has the certificate of the bailiff that he had previously tumbled his wretched cabin. ... Some landlords in this parish applied the screw so tight that they have at present the November rents in their pockets. The government is cognisant of all this; Dublin Castle is teeming with memorials to this effect, but where is the redress?’

“Another letter is from Fr Philip Foy, C.C. Shercock dated 29 December 1847:

‘It is hard to teach patience to a man who sees his father and mother or wife and children driven from the houses of their ancestors to the bogs and ditches to starvation and death.’

“The final letter is from Fr Matthew McQuaid, P.P., Kill, written from Laurel Lodge on 19 January 1849:

‘There never was perhaps a more terrible persecution carried on against the poor than at the present moment. There seems to be a hellish rivalry among some agents as to who will banish the most. It is heart-rending to see some families remarkable for every virtue, emaciated and ragged after the last three years of unprecedented famine and misery, during which they contrived by denying themselves and their poor children the very necessities of life to pay the landlord two years’ rack-rent, now unmercifully turned out because forsooth they cannot pay a third year’s. ...’

“What became of the families thus set adrift in the county? Emigration? It is doubtful if many of them would have had the means. The Workhouse: Many of them must have ended there. Begging: It would appear that many took to this means of existence.

“It is impossible now to find out the number of people who died through starvation or fever during the famine years; it is likewise impossible to find out the numbers who emigrated, as statistics of emigration were not begun until May 1851. But there is one yardstick that can be used to measure the effects of the famine; it is the census of 1851. I have put the population of the county in 1845 at approximately 250,000. ... In 1851 this figure had dropped to 174,000.”


They are going, going, going,
And we cannot bid them stay;
For their fields are now the stranger’s
Where the stranger’s cattle stray.
But no foreign skies hold beauty,
Like the rainy skies they knew;
Nor any night wind cool the brow
As did the foggy dew.

Those fortunate enough to have survived both the famine and the fever, faced a bleak present and even bleaker future. With the potato blight over, many no longer had land on which to plant a new crop. Although evictions in Cavan do not seem to have been carried on with the vengeance seen in other coupties, many were left without homes or a way to make a living.

Through the years, those who had left Ireland had written letters back home, telLing of opportunities in their new land. “Such letters had always, even in good times, induced some Irishmen to emigrate. ... Now, with the worst famine in recorded history far outstripping Britain’s lame efforts to mitigate its effects, thousands saw emigration as the only remedy. ... It was time, it was long past time, to get out of Ireland. But the British Empire had its fingers everywhere – in every continent and on most of the stepping-stone islands in between. But there was one exception, one enormous exception: the United States of America.”

Of course tens of thousands were too poor to pay for passage or too weak from starvation to reach the ports. Rarely could a whole family afford passage. “If a family could raise only enough money for one passage, the ticket would be bought in the name of the eldest son or daughter. When that son or daughter arrived in America and got a job, money would be sent back to Ireland to help the family pay the rent and eventually to buy another passage for a younger brother or sister. ... Because of the peculiar strength of Irish family relationships, one newspaper used Goldsmith’s Traveller, who ‘drags at each remove a lengthening chain’ as a symbol of the Irish emigrant. ‘But the emigrant’s chain does not draw him back’ the paper went on, ‘but pulls forward those he has left behind’.”

As hard as it was an the young man or woman leaving home, it was perhaps harder on those left behind. Just before their departure, their families held what was known as an “American wake”. It was a wake in every sense of the word, because they were paying their last respects to one they would. never see again. If they could afford it, or could barrow the money, the family would provide food, drink and tobacco for all the neighbors. In any case, the night would be spent in giving the young person advice, and letters to be delivered personally in New York or Boston, and telling stories.

“These stories would gradually lead to the main topic of conversation: the United States and that country’s inexhaustible wealth. A man would say that he had heard of a river so full of fish in upstate New York that ‘if you were to boil the water you’d take out of it, you’d be getting the taste of salmon in your tea’. ... From letters they would read comments like ‘No female that can handle a needle need be idle’. ‘Every man is his own landlord in this country – Jack is as good as his Master’.”

When the dawn came, the wake would be over, and the son or daughter, accompanied by brothers and sisters and friends, (this was referred to as a “convoy” and would go part of the way with the emigrant, sometimes several town lengths away) started on their journey to the port, but not before an emotional leave-taking of their parents. “The father, too, his pent-up sorrow killing him, tried’ to shorten the ordeal, but the mother, with her instinct for the truth of the situation, would have no part of it. She knew that she would never see, be with, talk or listen to her son again, that once she released him from her grasp, he would be as good as dead as far as the rest of her life was concerned. All the untouched time between her and her son, all of it still to be lived, would now and forever be lived in separation.”

And far away, o’er the ocean wild,
In an Irish home, by an open door,
A mother prays for her absent child,
And waits – for one who will come no more.


The Voyage

Before the emigrants could even board the ships which would take them to America, they first had to get to Liverpool, where most of the America-bound ships were berthed. About 20 vessels sailed every day from Ireland with the same general cargo – the country’s prime produce and, on the same vessel, the unwanted produce, those “surplus” human beings.

“It must be remembered that there was still enough wheat, oats, barley, butter, eggs, beef, pork and lamb in Ireland, even in the famine year of 1847, to feed for a year four times as many people as were leaving the country. But all this produce was still being sent to Liverpool on the very same ships that carried the emigrants. ... Like some species of animal whose value was far below that of cattle, pigs, and sheep, the Irish were being ferried over standing room only, on the upper deck, where they were subjected to dreadful exposure during the thirty to thirty-six hour crossing to Liverpool. ... No attempt was made to limit the number of those boarding or to increase the number of lifeboats, though there were enough to carry no more than three of every hundred passengers jammed on the upper deck. Nor did this persuade the British steamship companies to lower the fare; they still demanded ten shillings for the ferry crossing to Liverpool.”

Having made it safely, albeit wretchedly, to Liverpool, the emigrants did not immediately board their ships for America. For most there was a wait of weeks – weeks in which their little bit of money was exhausted in paying exhorbitant rates at substandard rooming houses. Many never left Liverpool, being forced to take jobs to feed their families. There is a large Irish population in Liverpool to this day. Those who did leave faced a fate almost worse than death – the long, torturous journey to their new home.

“The emigrants had left their homes and villages for the last time; now, for the first time, they were boarding an ocean-going ship taking them forever from the only land they knew to a land they could only try to imagine. In many ways the boarding itself was more disturbing than the leaving; the imminence of departure was suddenly as shocking as the ship was strange; the beautiful green rug of Ireland was being pulled from under them.”

Of course, some had tried to prepare the emigrants for what lay ahead. In Wiley and Putnam’s The Emigrant’s True Guide to the United States they say, “The emigrant should consider that no important benefits can be had without toil, trouble and trial. If he would find a better home beyond the sea, be must encounter the difficulties of the passage, and the pangs of regret at turning his steps away from the places be has so long known.”

So much has been written about the conditions of the British vessels aptly named “coffin ships”, and the descriptions of life aboard them that I will refrain from going into the gruesome details. Charles Dickens wrote of the immigrants “If any class deserves to be protected and assisted by the government, it is that class who are banished from their native land in search of the bare means of subsistence ... The law is bound, at least on the English side ... to put an end to that system by which a firm of traders in emigrants purchase of the owners the whole ’tween decks of a ship, and send on board as many wretched people they can get, without the smallest reference to the convenience of the steerage ... or anything but their own immediate profit.”

Even The London Times which had for years been noted for its anti-Irish editorials, admitted that “the worst horrors of that slave trade which it is the boast or ambition of this empire to suppress, at any cost, have been reenacted in the flight of British subjects from their native shores. ... The Blackhole of Calcutta was a mercy compared to the holds of these vessels.”

Many, of course, did not make it. “Many Irish emigrants embarked already undernourished and illprepared with a stock of food for the voyage. When, in addition, on many ships captains did not go beyond the legal minimum issue of a daily food ration of the pound of biscuit, oatmeal or Indian cornmeal, often damaged, passengers had little resistance when typhus broke out, as it did on most Irish emigrant ships in 1847. In that year there was a fearful mortality rate of 1 in 7 of Irish emigrants.”

There are several memorials to these famine emigrant victims in Canada. At Victoria Bridge, Montreal, on the site of the old emigrant fever sheds there is a stone bearing the inscription, “To preserve from desecration the remains of 6,000 emigrants who died of ship fever A.D. 1847-48.”

On Grosse Island there is a 140-foot granite Celtic cross with the inscription, “Sacred to the memory of thousands of Irish immigrants, who, to preserve the faith, suffered hunger and exile in 1847-48, and stricken with fever ended here their sorrowful pilgrimage.”

“In the principal cemetery at Grosse Island there is a monument erected by Dr. G.W. Douglas, the devoted medical superintendent at Quebec, commemorating, on the south face, four doctors who died there in 1847. The inscription on the west face reads:

“In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of 5,424 persons who flying from Pestilence and Famine in Ireland in the year 1847 found in America but a Grave.” ...

The Arrival

Our ancestors having arrived, safely and healthily, whether at an unknown Canadian port, the New Orleans that greeted John Conerty, Jr., or, for most of them in all likelihood, New York City, they found themselves catapulted into the same kind of bustle and confusion that had greeted them in Liverpool. In New York, especially, there was a new hazard:

“No sooner had a ship appeared in New York harbor than it was boarded by a despicable class of people who seized the opportunity of relieving the ‘stranger of his money and valuables. These were the so-called ‘runners’, agents of individuals and companies in the business of forwarding immigrants to other parts of the country, or agents of boardinghouses near the waterfront, whose principal income was extorted from newly landed foreigners. Besetting the immigrant on board the ship or as soon as he set foot on shore, the runners competed to win his confidence and whisk him to a forwarding or transportation office.

“Many of the lower-class boarding houses sent their own runners to the docks to drum up trade. Assuring the gullible that their services were free of charge, they carted the immigrants’ luggage to the boarding houses for ‘safekeeping’. There is an account of a young Irish lad who landed in 1848 with a box of tools, a bundle of clothes, and a few pounds in gold. The moment he landed, his luggage was pounced upon by two runners, one seizing the box of tools, the other confiscating the clothes. ... Not being able to oblige both gentlemen, he could oblige only one; and as the tools were more valuable than the clothes, he followed in the path of the gentleman who had secured that portion of the ‘plunder’.

“Irish runners preyed on the Irish, German upon the Germans, English upon the English, and Americans upon them all. The bewildered newcomer, for example, was shown a neatly printed ticket which he was informed would take him to a given place beyond Albany in a specified manner and at an agreed price. He was then furnished with a steamboat ticket to Albany, where· he was to present his passage ticket at the company upon which it was drawn. When the hapless traveler reached Albany, his ticket was protested, or the type of conveyance was changed, contrary to the ‘agreement’. A frequent pretext for not honoring a ticket was that the freight charge on baggage was not paid or that payment was not enough. When the immigrant offered to make good the deficiency, false scales were sometimes used to extort exorbitant freight payments.” ...


In 1820, the Irish in Albany were “a small community, perhaps, but a well-established one. The pre-famine Irish were for the most part hospitably received. The reason for this was Albany’s long tradition of ‘tolerant pluralism’ dating back to 1643 when the first Protestant pastor the Dutch Domine Megapolensis, had given sanctuary to Jesuit Isaac Jogues in his exodus from the Mohawk Indians. Even ecumenically the Irish immigrants fraternized well with the Protestants. Evidence of this can be found in the report that part of the funds used to build the first St. Mary’s Church in 1798 came from Albany Protestants.”

These “old Irish” in Albany were partially responsible for the successful assimilation of the new wave of immigrants who came in answer to advertisements like the following:

“Industrious mechanics, and all men of enterprise and character, cannot fail to prosper in Albany, as the means of living are cheap, and the market extensive – communicating with almost every section of the country, in the readiest manner. all will here find an almost certain reward for their exertions; almost every branch of mechanical labor is or may be carried on at this city to very great advantage, and no doubt with great success. Good waterpower exists in this vicinity for mills and manufactories, and a ready market can easily be found for all products of labor and skill. With the strong conviction that the interest of those who may come to take up their residence in our city will be promoted, as well as the prosperity of the city thereby increased.”

As early as 1818, there were 3,000 Irish laborers working on the Erie Canal. By 1840, the State of New York had thirteen canals, either completed or in progress, and on each one of the the Irish were the professional canal builders. Thomas D’Arcy McGee said that Ireland supplied “the hands which led Lake Erie downwards to the sea, and wedded the strong Chesapeake to the gentle Delaware, and carried the roads of the East out to the farthest outposts of the West.”