The Irish tenants worked the land held by

The history of immigration to America by Irish citizens is well documented. However, to fully understand this great migration, historians and researchers point to the Irish potato blight and the social-political imbalance between the British landowner and the Irish tenant as factors contributing to the diaspora experienced by the Irish people (Anbinder 351). The search for survival in a foreign land is an integral chapter in the lives of those claiming Irish-American heritage. Faced with death by famine or immigration to an unknown land, many of the impoverished of the nineteenth century chose the latter (Brighton 132). Approximately two hundred thousand native Irish citizens came to America during the years known as the Great Famine. Anbinder suggested, “…conditions drove about two million Irishmen to flee the Emerald Isle in the famine years” (354).  The diaspora of the Irish actually did not begin with the fungus ridden potatoes that swiftly lead to the famine, disease, and death. Rather, the system established by the political elite in Britain created an economic imbalance which accounted for widespread poverty among native Irish farmers and agricultural workers (Hickman 11). British colonial rule (Kenny 138) of the time served to cement the subpar conditions experienced by the peasant farmer. The Irish tenants worked the land held by wealthy British landowners (Anbinder 351) and a tiny portion of that land would be rented to the landowner (Anbinder 360). On this land the farmer grew potatoes, a cheap and abundant source of nutrition (Anbinder 348) for the farmer and his family. Unfortunately, the potato blight decimated the primary sustenance upon which the Irish tenants lived. The bulk of the grains and other food products harvested from Ireland was exported to Britain to sustain their population while the Irish men, women and families died. For example, Anbinder wrote, “An Englishman who visited the town of Kenmore at this time wrote that the sounds of woe and wailing resounded in the streets at night. In the morning, nine corpses were found in the village streets” (351). In total, “between 1.1 million to 1.5 million Irish died of starvation and related diseases in the period 1846-1855” (Kenny 143). While there eventually was some effort by the British government to assist those affected populations, the efforts were too late and insufficient (Anbinder 361). The British established workhouses for those suddenly homeless due to eviction from their tenant farm houses (Anbinder 361).  The conditions in which their workers lived resulted in great embarrassment for the British landowners prompting some to secure passage for their workers on ships bound for America (Anbinder 352). Other workers sold what little they had to purchase passage to America to join family that had relocated there prior to the famine. The decision to relocate to America boiled down to choosing between starvation, disease, and death or the chance for a new beginning in a strange, new land.For those millions who chose relocation to America, the journey and the subsequent aftermath would not prove easy. The journey from Ireland to America was difficult. Passengers, already in a weakened state from starvation and related illness, boarded ships bound for America often with only the clothing on their backs. On the journey across the Atlantic, many immigrants were not equipped for the voyage as expressed by Anbinder, “The rags they wore provided woefully inadequate protection from the elements aboard a North Atlantic sailing ship in the dead of winter” (352). The ships were jammed with passengers and living conditions filthy (Anbinder 352). Those fortunate to survive the voyage, encountered additional hurdles upon arrival, including securing lodging, making a living to support their family, and assimilating in a new country. Many Irish immigrants struggled to find work as they were unskilled having previously worked as farmers. Male Irish immigrants competed for work and wages with other ethnic immigrants finding employment as laborers. Women found work in domestic service (Kenny 152). In regards to housing, the majority of Irish immigrants from the Famine years settled in the slums of New York City (Kenny 145) in living conditions that were cramped, poorly ventilated, and unclean (Brighton 132). In addition to financial and residential disparities, the Irish immigrant faced ethnic and religious discrimination. Famine-era Irish were largely Catholic. America, at the time of the Irish famine exodus, was primarily Protestant. “Most of the migrants before the 1830s were Protestants rather than Catholics, and Protestants accounted for sizable minorities of those who migrated to North America” (Kenny 136). This onslaught of Irish Catholics created conflict and prejudice toward the new immigrants making it more difficult to obtain employment and initially advance in society (Hickman 14; Brighton 133). Finding themselves, once again, somewhat separated from society, the famine-era immigrants drew strength from religion and sense of community (Brighton 147). Brighton suggested, “alienation is not necessarily negative. The Irish … established a distinct community and national identity through their common experience of dispersal to and marginalization in the U.S., Irish Catholic identity was forged out of common experience” (Brighton 147). While Catholicism was viewed as a threat to the native born Anglo-Americans, the Catholic religion of the famine-era immigrants was a source of strength and security. Sharing the religion of their beloved homeland strengthened the Irish immigrant community (Brighton). Practicing their shared faith and customs served to maintain the strong connection between the Irish immigrant and their homeland (McCaffrey 3). The strength of the Irish Catholic resolve was unmatched as they built their own churches, schools and hospitals. “By 1890 more than 154 hospitals were run by Catholic orders in the United States” (Brighton 146). They educated their young people and became increasingly more competitive economically and politically. “It is most likely that both the political clout and the social, cultural, and economic support of the Roman Catholic Church were the most influential factors in bringing about this shift in social position” (Brighton 145). The Great Famine resulting from the Irish potato blight and the social-political imbalance between the British landowner and the Irish tenant contributed to the diaspora experienced by the Irish people in the 1840s through the end of the century. Many Irish of the time were faced with the decision to leave their beloved homeland or perish from starvation and disease. For those choosing to leave Ireland, the voyage across the Atlantic and subsequent efforts to assimilate into an unknown land would be difficult. The famine-era immigrants were not well received. They faced economic inequality and religious discrimination in America.  The hurdles encountered included overcrowded, subpar housing, unequal wages and hostility towards Irish-Catholics. The sacrifices, challenges, and heartache only served to fuel the resolve and prove the resilience of the Irish immigrants of the 1840s through the end of the century.    Works Cited Anbinder, Tyler. “From Famine to Five Points: Lord Lansdowne’s Irish Tenants Encounter North   America’s Most Notorious Slum.” The American Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 2, 2002, pp. 351–387. www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/532290. Brighton, Stephen A. “Degrees of Alienation: The Material Evidence of the Irish and Irish American Experience, 1850-1910.” Historical Archaeology, vol. 42, no. 4, 2008, pp. 132–153. www.jstor.org/stable/25617533. Hickman, Mary J. “‘Locating’ the Irish Diaspora.” Irish Journal of Sociology, vol. 11, no. 2, June2002, pp. 8-26. Kenny, Kevin. “Diaspora and Comparison: The Global Irish as a Case Study.” Journal of American History, vol. 90, no. 1, June 2003, pp. 134-162. McCaffrey, Lawrence. “Ireland and Irish America: Connections and Disconnections.” U.S. Catholic Historian, vol. 22, no. 3, 2004, pp. 1–18. www.jstor.org/stable/25154917.