Irish Immigrants During the Great Hunger

In 1845, the Irish Potato Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, struck Ireland. Over the next few years, the famine would kill a devastating amount of nearly 1 million people, which does not include the less fortunate passengers that passed away on their journey to a new life overseas (Mokyr). My family is just one example of how the Great Hunger affected millions of lives.

My great-great-great grandfather, James Patrick Henry, was born in Cork, Ireland in 1805. Along with his father, and his grandfather, he was born into the farming industry (Missouri Death Certificates). Little did he know that years later he would experience the worst famine of the 19th century. When James was around 40 years old, a bacteria began spreading in farmers potato crops, destroying the leaves and roots of the potato plant, making them inedible. This disease was also known as blight. As a staple in the Irish diet, potatoes were consumed on a daily basis all across Ireland. Many people were dependent on potatoes to help feed their families. However, when the famine struck, many families, especially the lower class, were left to starve. Landlords soon ran out of money as a result of the lack of payments from the poor, leaving them no choice but to evict farmers and laborers (Mokyr).

Not only was there an economic depression and starvation, there were diseases and infections spreading among the people of Ireland. According to Laurence Geary, “Epidemic Diseases of the Great Famine,” Irish faced typhus fever, smallpox, lice infestations, and dysentery.

Whether my great-great-great grandfather left his homeland because his crops continued to fail, or because of starvation and disease, he left Ireland with his wife, Mary Smith, to make a new life for themselves in America (New York Passengers Lists). On April 3rd, 1855, they boarded the William Tapscott in Liverpool, England and arrived in New York on May 8th, 1855 (Swiggum). Some immigrants were less fortunate than my ancestors and passed away on their ship due to illness, starvation, etc. On many immigrant ships, some passengers got typhus fever, also known as “ship’s fever” (Geary). Symptoms of this infection include headache, nausea, joint and muscle pain, rashes, etc. Fifty to seventy percent of people who were infected by ships fever died. According to “The Ships List”, there were two deaths on the William Tapscott in 1855.

Before the famine, Ireland had a population of approximately 8.6 million people (Geary). However after the famine, Ireland’s population decreased immensely. Between 1845 and 1855, more than 1.5 million men, women, and children left Ireland desperate to find refuge in America. The majority of the ones who made it to America settled in New York City, Boston, and Chicago (Mokyr). According to the 1870 United States Federal Census, my great-great-great grandparents had their first son, John Henry, in New York a few years after traveling to America (1870 US Federal Census). Sometime over the next two years, my ancestors made their way to Silex, Missouri (1870 US Federal Census).

My ancestor’s story gives me a better understanding of their lives and the hardships that they encountered during that time period. Because the Irish were a majority of the immigrants that came to the U.S., Irish culture can still be found all around America to this day. Irish immigration over the last hundred years has contributed greatly to the cultural melting pot that America has today.