I gave a speech in Drogheda, Ireland, yesterday on the impact of the famine in America. I was one of several speakers, including Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who is speaking today on the occasion of the national commemoration of the greatest European catastrophe of the 19th Century.
Here is an excerpt of some of my remarks:
“Missing Friends was the series every week in John Boyle O’Reilly’s Boston Pilot newspaper which allowed Famine era immigrants to America to seek out families and freidns who had gone before them.
It was the Facebook of its time. Famine emigrants rarely wanted to discuss the horrific nature of the voyage or the awful conditions they had to endure.
On Missing Friends, however, we hear their voices resonate.
It is not surprising they never wanted to talk about it and who could blame them they were ripped from their families, catapulted across the bitter bowl of tears arrived penniless, many speaking no English.
Here are some of their voices from the past.
“Of JOHN QUILMAN, late of the parish of Inch, co’y Tipperary, who sailed from Waterford with his family last April. His daughter, Mary Harrington, wishes him to know that her husband, James Harrington, died on their passage to this country; also her two children since. She is now in Troy and wishes to know where her father is. Any information respecting him will be thankfully received by Mary Harrington, care of S. Duffy, or Mrs. Daly, Fifth street, Troy, N. Y.
27 November 1847
Of ANTHONY and PATRICK WATERS, natives of co. Mayo. They are informed that their sister, Mary, who was married to Patrick Boyle, is anxious to hear from them. Her husband died on the passage. Should this meet their eye they will write to her immediately, care of the editor of the Pilot,Boston, Ms.
4 December 1847
Of BERNARD MURPHY, who emigrated from Co. Armagh, parish of Grangemore, townland of Aughmagorgan, in April last, with his father and 2 sisters. He was parted from his father at Quarantine Island, below Montreal. It is supposed he went to Kingston. Any information respecting him will be thankfully received by his father who is now living in Dover. If by letter, address Patrick Grimes, Dover, N. H., or John Doran, No. 6 Canal street, Boston, Ms.
11 December 1847
Of CATHERINE GILLEN, who landed in Boston last spring, with her father and family. She was sick and went to hospital and has not been heard from since. Any one knowing anything of her would confer a favor on her father, Hugh Gillen, by writing a letter to him in care of John Devlin, Pawtucket, R.I.
18 December 1847
Of BRIDGET CARROLL, a native of Killacooly, parish of Drumcliff, co. Sligo, who was taken into Grosse Isle hospital, below Quebec, in June last, and has not been heard from since. Any information respecting her will be thankfully received by her brother, Patrick Carroll, care of Mr. Samuel Downer, Second street, South Boston, Ms.
1 January 1848
Of PETER and ELLEN CARR, natives of county Down, parish of Gervathey, who left home in April and landed in St. John, 4th July. They came in the ship Ambassadress. Ellen had the fever and was taken to Patridge Island, and Peter remained with her. Any information of them will be thankfully received by their brother, JohnCarr, Lawrence City, Ms.
Of DENNIS MCCARTHY, late of Killmichael, co’y Cork, who sailed from Liverpool on the 1st of last May, and left his wife, Ellen Ahearn, in Quarantine near Quebec, in June. She is now in Troy, N. Y., and wishes to know his whereabouts. Any information respecting him will be thankfully received by addressing a line to Ellen McCarthy, care of Stephen Duffy, Troy, N. Y.
'Son missing' John Fallon ‘had light hair, blue eyes; was about four feet, four inches in height; wore a blue spencer, a new scoop shovel cap, a fancy pants and had a freckled face.'
The voices of these emigrants resonate still.
As we can see many of the emigrants themselves were in despair, their dreams of a new life shattered by the reality of what awaited them. Only the Blacks in chains fare worse than the Irish.
As one famine emigrant put it plainly 'We thought we could not be worse off than we were; but now to our sorrow we know the difference. At home we had the chance of a doctors care and the certainty of the spiritual administration of a priest. Should death overtake us there we would be buried beside our beloved dead, in consecrated Irish ground, with the prayers and last blessing of our church. Here we have nothing.'
In April, 1847, Stephen E. De Vere, a compassionate landlord, travelled as an emigrant to Canada in a converted lumber and cargo boat. His description of conditions is appalling.
'Before the emigrant has been a week at sea he is an altered man. How could it be otherwise? Hundreds of poor people men, women, and children of all ages from the drivelling idiot of ninety to the babe just born, huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart, the fever patients lying between the sound, in sleeping places so narrow as almost to deny them the power of indulging, by a change of position, the natural restlessness of the disease. The food supply was of the poorest quality. Drinking water was mixed with vinegar to kill the stench.'
Yet they changed America, among the famine emigrants Patrick Kennedy, great grandfather of an American presdient, later Micheal Regan ditto, and indeed, Fulmouth Kearney ... William Ford, 1846 father of Henry Ford, the man who changed America, to name but a few.
In the American Civil War, 250,000 fought for the Union. They helped create the American political system, built the Catholic Church, changed the face of Ireland and America. Their legacy is with us all today.
The poet Evan Boland said it best:
“Like oil lamps, we put them out the back —
of our houses, of our minds. We had lights
better than, newer than and then
a time came, this time and now
we need them. Their dread, makeshift example:
they would have thrived on our necessities.
What they survived we could not even live.
By their lights now it is time to
imagine how they stood there, what they stood with,
that their possessions may become our power:
Cardboard. Iron. Their hardships parceled in them.
Patience. Fortitude. Long-suffering
in the bruise-colored dusk of the New World.
And all the old songs. And nothing to lose.”