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Post-Famine Emigrants

The other day I wrote about the peculiar characteristics of the Irish who fled their country during the Great Hunger.

The famine didn't last forever, of course, and yet the Irish continued to swarm onto ships for America. My great-grandparents were among them: Ellen Gibbons arrived in 1871; Moses Flanagan, in 1882; Maggie Keville, in 1884. Their families had obviously survived the terrible hardship, so why did these young people still choose to leave?

A few factors:

... The Irish were traditionally very communal and if they owned any land, they always divided it up among all their kids. The English thought this was ridiculous and, in fact, the plots of land got tinier and tinier so that the whole farming system was a mess. English influence convinced Irish farmers than only one child should inherit the land. And if farms were going to be efficient at all, little plots of land had to be merged.

The Catholics and the English drove all the fun out of Ireland

.... Farms were switching from crops to grazing. More land and less labor was needed.

... As a result, there were a lot of "disinherited" children. What were they going to do? Any urban industry in Ireland had been wiped out. The only job left was farm laborer -- a massive reduction of status. Fuggedaboudit... what farm girl in her right mind would marry a common laborer? And the disinherited daughters no longer had any dowry to attract a decent husband.

... Meanwhile, family and friends who'd already gone to America were writing back saying how great it was and what fabulous opportunities awaited them.

... The shipping lines got into the act too. We've all heard about how horrible "steerage" was. But as the century wore on, the ships started competing with each other for passengers and the accommodations rapidly improved.

... It became common for philanthropists and the government to pay for "paupers" to go to America. They wanted to help alleviate poverty and clear the land.

... Parents actually wound up pushing their kids to go because they needed their disinherited children to send money back home. You'd think the banished children wouldn't be happy about supporting their relatives who wound up the the family farm. But the case was presented to them in a fatalistic way: don't blame us - it's the bloody Englishmen got us screwed up.

... And to tell the truth, Ireland just wasn't as much fun as it used to be. Ambitious Irish felt they needed to act more like the English and have tea parties. Between the creeping Anglicization and the growing dominance of the Catholic Church, the Irish traditions of wild festivities and joyous premarital sex were now frowned upon. The magic was being driven away and yet somehow everyone was still poor and far from "modern."

Not only was all the money and opportunity in America now, but all the fun too.


6.9.05 (revised 12.13.05)