Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Great Famine, Irish Diaspora, and the Ripper Connection

by Ginger Myrick

As I am addressing this post to an audience of fellow Anglophiles, I am working under the assumption that the majority have seen the movies starring Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I. Who among us can forget Clive Owen as the dashing and somewhat insolent Sir Walter Raleigh nonchalantly interrupting Elizabeth’s court to present her with gifts from the New World?

“What have you brought me?” she demands sternly.

“Patata, Majesty. You eat it. Very nourishing,” he answers with a devilish gleam in his eyes and a cheeky grin playing about his lips.

And thus, the potato came to Britain. Well … maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that, but it is generally agreed that the potato was introduced to Jolly Old England sometime in the latter part of the 16th century, and quickly became a hearty supplemental food source. Bangers and mash, bubble and squeak, shepherd’s pie, fish ‘n’ chips—where would British cuisine be without it? And not only has the spud had a large impact upon the diet, it has also exerted a widespread influence on the people and culture themselves.

Although Sir Walter Raleigh cannot claim full responsibility for importing this versatile tuber to Great Britain, he is credited with bringing potatoes to Ireland and planting the first of them in the garden at his estate near Cork. Eventually they made their way to the table, and by the early part of the 18th century, the majority of the population in Ireland had become dependent upon a single variety both as a food source and fodder for livestock.

The Irish Lumper is a hardy strain of potato that is known to adapt and thrive in any type of soil. Making this a primary crop may sound like a fantastic idea, but lack of genetic diversity in a plant species can lead to vulnerability to disease and subsequent exhaustion. During the first half of the 19th century that is exactly what happened.

In the two centuries or so leading up to the Great Famine, the potato crop in Ireland experienced several failures. Official records count a total of 24 going back to 1728. They were accepted as a matter of course, and none of them impacted the Emerald Isle with the degree of devastation that resulted in the years between 1845-1852. The increasing dependency upon the food crop, the frequency with which it failed, and the introduction of a seemingly unstoppable disease, all combined to create a disaster of epic proportions.

Although there were many social issues that paved the way for the Great Famine, the obvious cause was the blight, which attacked the crop with voracity and obliterated the food source of an entire nation. Regardless of the complex arguments over contributing factors and the assignation of blame, the grim consequence was the same. By 1848 the Irish people began to die of starvation. It is estimated that at least one million deaths resulted. This was the immediate outcome, but the effects would be felt for decades to come.

It is reported that another million Irish emigrated to Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and the U.S. The majority of people affected by the famine were poor and could hardly choose a luxurious mode of transport. They were desperate and forced to accept whatever means available of escaping the horrors of their homeland.

They piled into boats bound for more promising lands, most often with substandard to illegally dismal accommodations. With little or no access to food and water, and crowded to capacity, these ships became hotbeds for disease and most of them arrived at their destinations with only a small percentage of their cargo. Due to their high mortality rates, these vessels became known as “coffin ships”.

Of those who made the trip safely and arrived intact in America, many of them found refuge in the port cities of New England. At one time, as many as 300 Irish nationals per day disembarked in New York, seeking a better life in the New World. By 1855 a quarter of the population in Manhattan was of Irish descent, that ratio growing to over half by the turn of the century. They formed their own communities, Five Points and Hell’s Kitchen among them, two of the most notorious for gang warfare.

Also of note is the large number of Irish who participated in the U.S. Civil War. The Union Army recorded slightly less than 150,000 native Irishmen among their forces. The Confederate Army employed a lesser amount but still enough to warrant the formation of their own units. These divisions bore symbolic Irish banners and names, and upheld traditional practices such as attending mass before heading into battle.

In the early 1800s, there was already an abundance of Irish manpower on the market in the U.S. It was welcome in the face of the booming industrial period, advancing technological developments, and westward expansion. The labor was utilized in lumbering, the steel industry, and construction in the big cities building canals, roads, and railways. The large numbers of humanity affected by the famine and the mass exodus from their homeland caused another substantial surge in the workforce.

Approaching the midpoint of the century, jobs became scarce, and many advertisements for employment began to specify “No Irish.” But because of their willingness to work cheaply, often at a fraction of the cost of other laborers, wages were driven so low that eventually it became an unwise business decision not to hire them. Fortunately, the industrial revolution experienced a second wave and the economical workforce was put to good use.

Over half of the population that made its way from Ireland to America was female. Aside from the large numbers who sought jobs in factories and mills, many found positions of domestic service in hotels or private households. Although the conditions and wages were better than those offered by factory work, their employers’ attitudes toward them were often disdainful, treating them little better than the slaves they had been hired to replace.

As with many women in similarly dire situations, a large percentage who could not find a respectable way to earn a living turned to plying a more practical trade. They became prostitutes, easy prey for those with sinister intent. In such a dangerous profession, it was not uncommon for them to be assaulted, beaten, or even murdered.

At the same time their fellow countrymen were making their way to America, many dispossessed Irish looked for refuge closer to home. They found their way to the overcrowded and poverty-stricken streets of “Dickensian” London, where they suffered like prejudice and were obligated to take comparably low positions of employment. Girls placed in equally precarious situations sought similar solutions, subjecting themselves to the same perils as their counterparts in the U.S. This happened in the areas of the East End, in particular a certain district called Whitechapel, where a fellow named Jack earned a ghoulish and fitting sobriquet for himself in the months between 1888 and 1891.


As is often the case with natural disasters, the Great Famine showed no discrimination, and the people of Ireland were affected without regard to social standing. Supremely talented people and those who would have otherwise been considered genteel were forced into positions of servitude to eke out a living in their newly adopted American homes.

Along with other aforementioned premises, this is a possibility of which I take full advantage to create a chilling and compelling tale of romance and macabre in my latest release, Work of Art. It is the story of Del Ryan, an intelligent and talented Irish clairvoyant, who finds love and murder in 19th century New York. To learn more about this and two more historical novels, El Rey and The Welsh Healer, please visit GingerMyrick.com.


  1. My paternal ancestors were part of that diaspora to Australia, to Melbourne. Linen weavers and bookbinders, they eventually settled in Tasmania and the rest is history!

  2. What a rich history you have, Prue! With such inspiration, it's no wonder you write.

  3. My husband's great great grandmother Rebecca Dunlap left before the blight, in 1810, as a young child. Other than a bit of clothing, the only thing she brought to the US from Dublin was a salt shaker. Raw potatoes were the only items of food provided on the crossing. I have the salt shaker. She married a man from Yorkshire named William Weaver and had ten children, most of whom lived near Erie, PA. The owners of the Erie area furniture stores,Seifert's, are descendants.

  4. A thoroughly absorbing post Ginger! Starvation is an appalling way to die! These people must have suffered terribly.

  5. Thanks, ladies. Linda, that is quite a story, and it must be very moving to have a physical reminder of such a journey. How priceless! And Paula, even the people who made the trip intact may not have survived unscathed. I read where sharks could be seen following ships, because so many dead had been thrown overboard. The conditions must have been horrendous and undoubtedly left people traumatized for life.


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