These examples represent only a small portion of the assistance that was given to Ireland during the years of the Great Hunger. Perhaps the contributions most worth mentioning are those which came from people who were themselves poor, politically marginalized, and had nothing to gain through their interventions.
Throughout 1847, subscriptions to Ireland came from some of the poorest and most invisible groups in society. This included former slaves in the Caribbean, who had only achieved full freedom in 1838, when slavery was finally ended in the British Empire (Daniel O’Connell played a role in that). The British government had given the slave-owners £22 million pounds compensation for ending slavery; the slaves received nothing. Donations to Ireland came from Jamaica, Barbados, St. Kitts, and other small islands.
Donations were also sent from slave churches in some of the southern states of America. Children in a pauper orphanage in New York raised $2 for the Irish poor. Inmates in Sing Sing Prison, also in New York, sent money, as did convicts on board a prison ship at Woolwich in London. The latter lived in brutal and inhuman conditions, and all of them were dead only twelve months later from ship fever.
A number of Native Americans, including Choctaw Indians, also sent money to the Irish poor. The Choctaws themselves had suffered great tragedy, having been displaced from their homelands and forced to move to Oklahoma in the 1830s – the infamous Trail of Tears. They sent $174 to Ireland. The involvement of the Choctaw people did not go unnoticed. A newspaper in Oklahoma averred, “What an agreeable reflection it must give to the Christian and the philanthropist to witness this evidence of civilization and Christian spirit existing among our red neighbors. They are repaying the Christian world a consideration for bringing them out from benighted ignorance and heathen barbarism. Not only by contributing a few dollars, but by affording evidence that the labors of the Christian missionary have not been in vain.”
Although the amounts that these poor and dispossessed people sent to Ireland were relatively small, in real terms they represented an enormous sacrifice on behalf of the donors.
Towards the end of 1847, the British government announced that the Famine was over. It wasn’t. In 1848, over one million people were still dependent on relief for survival. Moreover, evictions, emigration and deaths were still rising, with proportionately more people dying in 1849 than in Black ’47. Unfortunately though, most of the private fund-raising efforts had come to an end by 1848 and the Irish poor were again dependent on Irish landlords and the British government for relief.
To conclude, although the involvement of private charity was short-lived, it was vital to the survival of many. It proved to be particularly crucial as government relief was inadequate, provided with parsimony and reluctance, and constrained by views of the Irish poor as undeserving of assistance. In contrast, most private charity honored the dignity of the recipient. Moreover, without these generous contributions, many, many more Irish people would have died during that tragic period.
On May 17 we honored the memory of the victims of Ireland’s Great Hunger, but perhaps, briefly, we can also honor the memory of those people – many of whom are also nameless – who gave money generously to people whom they had never met, but whose tragic circumstances had touched their hearts.
Christine Kinealy is a professor of Irish History at Drew University. She is author of a number of books on the Great Hunger, including “This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-1852;” “A New History of Ireland;” “The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology and Rebellion;” and “The Hidden Famine: Hunger, Poverty and Sectarianism in Belfast 1840-50.” Her latest publication, “Repeal and Revolution: 1848 in Ireland,” is being published by Manchester University Press in July 2009. This article is a condensed version of a lecture that she gave in New York as part of the Famine Commemoration in May, 2009.