There are many Irish immigrants in my family history, but only one set of great-great grandparents were refugees from the Great Hunger: Patrick Barrett and Mary Gardiner Barrett. They arrived, separately, in 1848.
We have a few facts about Pat and Mary, but I'm trying to educate myself about their times and what it must have really been like. Here are a few things I've picked up and how they might apply to Pat and Mary.
... Immigrants who came from Ireland between 1845 and 1855 were distinctly different from those arriving before or after.
... Traditionally the Irish fell into the following classes: strong farmers, middling farmers, smallholders (very tiny subsistence farms), cottiers (farm laborers given a cottage to live in), and laborers. It was the bottom rungs of this ladder that got hit hardest by the famine. It is likely that the Barretts and Gardiners made their living from farming, but they were probably not more than smallholders.
When the famine struck, there were several circles of misery.
... When the famine struck, there were several circles of misery. The bottom circle simply died of starvation. The next circle were people who managed to pile onto cattle boats and made it as far as England. The third group could afford only the cheapest passage to Canada on boats known as "coffin ships" for the number of already starving people who died on board. The fourth group were those who could scrape up the £2 - £5 required for passage to America.
... The smallholders, cottiers, or laborers who managed a passage to America either had something to sell (like a cow) or already had a relative in the States who sent them money. If a family could only afford one passage, they picked the most able-bodied - the one most likely to earn enough in America to either send for the rest of the family or send money to support them. One source says Pat Barrett came with his parents. Maybe that means they were totally evicted from the land they were living on. I wonder how they got the money to set sail for America.
... Unlike immigrants from other times, the famine refugees left Ireland in a state of total panic. No big plans, no smart ambitions. They were less educated and less well prepared than immigrants from other eras.
... Immigrants from Mayo - very isolated, very poor - spoke Irish as their first language. It's likely that Pat and Mary barely spoke English when they landed.
... It is also likely that they didn't go to church and still believed in fairies. In western Ireland there weren't enough priests to establish a strong institutional Church, so people were "Catholic" but they still lived according to the ancient folk beliefs. The Catholic Church didn't really seize Irish lives till the latter half of the century.
They didn't go to church and still believed in fairies
... Most of the Irish immigrants from this era stayed huddled in East Coast tenements - an extremely frightened and traumatized group of people. The grim reality was that the mortality rate was higher among urban immigrants than among people who stayed in Ireland. (Mary's brother died of yellow fever in New Orleans, where they originally landed, leaving Mary alone at the age of 18 or so.) Somewhere, from someone, Pat and Mary got the good advice to go west. Fortunately, they also had the good sense and strength to follow this advice.
... Of course, Pat and Mary had their share of tough urban life, living close the the riverfront in St. Louis till 1859. They were lucky and smart enough to link up with the Irish community in Catawissa, Missouri, originally known as "Armagh," which was established by the Irish prior to the famine exodus.
I guess it was in Catawissa where Pat and Mary became the classic Irish-American settlers - English-speaking, Catholic churchgoers, and owners of their own dear farm, living in their own little log cabin.
Family lore has it that Mary Barrett was a tough gal - doting on her sons and demanding of her daughters-in-law. When you think about her life in context of the panicked flight from hunger and the long road to Catawissa, you can begin to understand her survivor's psychology.