Tuesday, May 17, 2011
In the 1800s all of Ireland was part of Great Britain. English barons owned the land and allowed Irish tenant farmers to live in small huts on their land and grow food, most of which they gave back to the landlord for rent. When the landlords decided they could make more money raising cattle and sheep, they evicted the tenants, tore down the huts, and sent the excess food to Europe for a good profit. Starving children watched ships leaving the ports loaded with food, while they were eating grass to survive.
Highways filled with farmers and their families, wandering aimlessly about begging for food just to keep alive. They lived almost exclusively on potatoes. In 1845 a fungus known as blight caused the potato plants to rot in the ground, giving off an appalling stench—the whole countryside smelled foul. By early autumn famine was imminent, not because there was no food—there was plenty of wheat, meat, and cheese—but because the peasants had no money, and no way to earn it. To add to the misery, that winter was the harshest in living memory.
One and a half million people died of starvation and disease in The Great Famine, and waves of immigrants fled Ireland. Never before had the world witnessed such an exodus; a million people sailed across the Atlantic in leaky, overcrowded ships to Canada and the United States.
We could visualize the experience of James and his family by reading letters and journals written by others at the same time, in similar circumstances. Twenty-year-old Hugh Quinn was about the same age when he left Portaferry within a few months of James. This is from a letter he wrote:
Tuesday, September 9, 1847
Dearest Honored Mother,
The wind so long looked for is at hand, and I’m ready to leave Portaferry. I dread as death the moment of my separation from you.
He wrote this in his diary that same day:
I found myself surrounded by my mother and sisters, having my coat buttoned, unbuttoned and buttoned again by each of them. The walking stick fell from my trembling hand and was handed to me by little Alice. I could not move from the spot nor could I get out a word. I turned hastily from my mother to hide my swelling tears. ‘It will be forever,’ I said. ‘It is still not yet too late,’ she said. ‘Stay at home.’ I looked back through my tears to see my little brother crying on the dock, and I stepped onto the boat.