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1840s: Two Million Irish Asylum Seekers hoped for a safe refuge in America.

Irish flee to America to escape The Great Hunger
Irish flee to America to escape The Great Hunger

One million Irish died from starvation and related diseases - two million Irish escaped Ireland to seek asylum in America.

A classic tale of systematic dehumanisation and criminalisation that empowered the strong to treat the weak abominally. In Ireland this happened over centuries. has a telling article on their website entitled,

"When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century’s Refugee Crisis."

'Forced from their homes,' it says, 'because of famine and political upheaval,' the Irish endured vehement discrimination before making their way into the American mainstream.

The Potato Famine that devastated Ireland in the 19th century is also called 'The Great Hunger' or even or Gorta Mór in Irish Gaelic.

The Irish lost over five million people through the years of famine and starvation and millions more Irish asylum seekers fled, mainly to America and Britain in hope of mercy and refuge.

Ireland was a British colony for a thousand years before 1922 when they fought for and won independence.

The English dominated Ireland as oppressors of the people and their culture. Irish culture was systematically repressed for centuries and neglect of the people suited plans to keep them compliant.

Many believe it was Sir Walter Raleigh, the English explorer, who first introduced potatoes to Ireland and the rest of the British Isles because they did not originate there. Prior to the potato's introduction people relied mainly upon fish, livestock and wildlife for food.

Potatoes became a popular, even a staple part of the Irish diet for generations. They required less land to flourish than animals had in previous times and were also nutritious. Surprisingly they thrived in the cold, damp Irish climate.

English landlords began to confiscate or devise bogus claims for Irish land and the Irish working class were forced to evacuate and accept smaller and smaller living and working spaces. Families were forced to manage on small rented plots. By stripping the people of their land and making land ownership impossible, foreign landlords increased their rental income and their grip on the land.

Incredible pressure was placed upon Irish Roman Catholics in a bid to force them to convert to Protestantism. Harsh penalties were placed on the Irish population for years with the goal of crushing their spirits and subduing them.

They lived under a long list of repressive rules but in brief, the Irish people were not allowed to:

  • educate their children

  • speak Gaelic

  • travel overseas

  • own a horse worth over 5 pounds

  • profit through the export trade

  • own weapons

  • practice cultural traditions,

  • join the military

  • elect government

Centuries of policies that crushed the life out of the Irish people and their culture left scars that lasted long after The Great Hunger. There was very little opportunity for people to learn skills that would advance their lives and most were forced into survival mode. They tended tiny crops in the hope they would provide enough food for a family and some extra to sell.

The Potato Famine highlighted the dangers of relying, almost solely, on one form of food or product. When the blight hit populations were devastated far and wide but especially in Ireland.

The Irish suffered seven years of famine.

Mothers were unable to feed their children and wandered the countryside begging for food. Forced to wear rags, walk barefoot and to try and fill their stomachs with grass to stay full, few survived and many died on the side of roads.

Absentee English landlords managed to avert their eyes from the desperation whilst organising armed food convoys that took Irish food to Irish docks where it was exported to England. exposes the atrocious attitudes of the powerful ... those that had the ability to offer solutions to desperation and despair:

British lawmakers were such adherents to laissez-faire capitalism that they were reluctant to provide government aid, lest it interfere with the natural course of free markets to solve the humanitarian crisis. “Great Britain cannot continue to throw her hard-won millions into the bottomless pit of Celtic pauperism,” sneered the Illustrated London News in March 1849. Charles E. Trevelyan, the British civil servant in charge of the apathetic relief efforts, even viewed the famine as a divine solution to Hibernian overpopulation as he declared, The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated.

When the Irish escaped they formed the largest-single population movement of the 19th century. also tells us,

A flotilla of 5,000 boats transported the pitiable castaways from the wasteland.

They set out as asylum seekers hoping to find mercy and a safe place of refuge.

They boarded old slave and cargo ships and,with barely any funds for transport, were housed in the same dark and fetid quarters that the enslaved, indentured or otherwise, were given. Food was scarce and clean water rarer. Their new mission was to survive this last desperate bid for freedom and a new life despite the in spite of the sick and sorry states they were already in.

The ships were famously named coffin ships and the thousands that had died before reaching their destination were deftly wrapped and weighted before being sent overboard to Davy Jone's Locker.

They arrived in a starved and destitute state. Some had scraped enough to pay for the fare, others were shipped off by their Landlords as the fare was a cheaper way of dealing with the desperation than fixing it.

Their poverty, lack of skills, lack of money, bad health and religious persuasion, made them unwanted by new American settlers.

America was already experiencing hostilities between religious groups:

Anti-Catholic, anti-Irish mobs in Philadelphia destroyed houses and torched churches in the deadly Bible Riots of 1844. New York Archbishop John Hughes responded by building a wall of his own around Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to protect it from the native-born population, and he stationed musket-wielding members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians to guard the city’s churches.

The Irish were outrageously vilified. Protestants that had migrated to find asylum from Papism (Roman Catholicism) were not happy to see ship loads of Papists arriving. They feared a conspiracy. Of course there were Protestants that responded to their plight with charity.

A Foreign Disaster Relief fund was set up to send food and supplies to Ireland on a government war ship.

There was not an established system of integrating newcombers. New Irish communities were large and it was difficult to help the numbers arriving to become parat of communities.

To begin with the Irish took on the menial jobs and most dangerous. Pay was often low.

They would do anything - digging trenches, cleaning, worked in stables or as blacksmiths. Of course this caused concern among American workers as they saw the Irish coming in and working in their jobs for less pay.

The propaganda spread hate and discrimination across America. Posters and newspaper adverts boldly voiced racist slurs and propaganda. "No Irish Need Apply" was featured on posters, newspaper job adverts alongside other defamatory and derogatory images that dehumanised the Irish. The Irish were regularly featured in cartoons with flagons of alcohol and worse, they were depicted as actual apes bearing alcohol or with ape-like features.

Prejudice was malicious, often violent and unapologetically so.

Anti-Catholicism was rife and Protestantism was sacred. tells us

In 1849, a clandestine fraternal society of native-born Protestant men called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner formed in New York. Bound by sacred oaths and secret passwords, its members wanted a return to the America they once knew, a land of “Temperance, Liberty and Protestantism.” Similar secret societies with menacing names like the Black Snakes and Rough and Readies sprouted across the country.

Within a few years, these societies coalesced around the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant American Party, whose members were called the “Know-Nothings” because they claimed to “know nothing” when questioned about their politics.

Americans must rule America became a warcry - a tragic stance for a migrant nation that had recently dispossessed its own First Nation people. Scapegoating and blaming inevitably followed - using the weak as a distraction from truth.

In declaring their right to dehumanise and criminalise another weakened group of people they diminished their own humanity and integrity as a nation.


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