Irish Famine refugee's story of arrival in America


Walden author Henry David Thoreau, in his journals, also writes of recent Irish immigrants picking through the rubble of what was once the ship St. John. It had left Galway but sailed into a storm and broke apart a mile from Boston Harbor.

“All their plans and hopes burst like a bubble,” the horrified author writes. “Infants by the score dashed on the rocks by the enraged Atlantic Ocean. No! No!”

Thoreau’s tone changes later. He sneers at “ill-dressed, ill mannered boys – of Irish extraction…a sad sight to behold,” ominously adding: “The opening of this valve for the safety of the city.” 

But Thoreau also details the lives of hard-working Irish laborers, farmers and a “washwoman,” eventually declaring: “The simple honesty of the Irish pleases me.” (It must be added that Thoreau says this after chatting with a drunken immigrant potato-digger.)  

What We Do Know

The observations of these famous writers are interesting. Still, we are without an Irish equivalent to Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Diary of Anne Frank, an account that vividly outlines the common experiences of Famine immigrants during their arrival and traumatic first days in a strange new land.

So, what do we know about the first experiences of the Irish once they’d arrived in America?

Irish writer John McElgun explored this in his best-selling 19th-century novel Annie Reilly: Or the Fortunes of an Irish Girl in New York. The book was recently excerpted in the invaluable new collection Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (edited by Ilan Stavan, with a foreword by Pete Hamill).

McElgun writes about his title character’s immigrant companion James O’Rourke, who had a “comparatively safe and speedy passage,” and who later thinks: “How beautiful New York Harbor looked!” Since it is “early day, the passengers were not delayed at Castle Garden overnight,” and in a matter of a few paragraphs James (who left Ireland a few years after the Famine) is gleefully walking the streets of Manhattan in search of employment.

This is certainly a more benign take than usual on an Irish immigrant’s arrival. In recent years, historical novelists, painters and filmmakers have explored its more difficult aspects. In Kevin Baker’s epic 2002 novel Paradise Alley, the characters Ruth and John disembark not in bustling Manhattan but on a desolate Staten Island beach, “covered with every manner of debris, natural and man-made.” Ruth passes out and wakes up in a hospital with a raging case of “ship’s fever,” but is abruptly booted out because “there’s two more ships already lined up in the Narrows.”

Such quarantine hospitals were common, from Staten Island to Partridge Island, near New Brunswick, Canada. This, in fact, is the subject of a vivid historical painting by Ray Butler, which depicts the shore filled with ailing Irish immigrants being tended to by Dr. George Harding, who is said to have cared for over 2,500 immigrants in a single day.

Meanwhile, though it is set in the years after the Famine, Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York depicts immigrants disembarking while nativists pelt them with rocks. This would ring true to immigrants who arrived in 1840s Philadelphia or Boston, hotbeds of nativism where new arrivals would have heard about riots or arson initiated by members of the fledgling, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party.

Despite such hostile greetings, many Famine immigrants, such as those to Cleveland or New Orleans, did not venture far from the sea that bore them to America. A shanty village known as Irishtown Bend formed along the banks of the Cuyahoga River, while in the riverfront town of Lafayette, near New Orleans, parishioners of St. Alphonsus faced an outbreak of yellow fever, which killed an estimated 20 percent of the area’s Irish immigrants.

Outbreaks of cholera, yellow fever and malaria were also common in New York City. This was partly due to the trash that piled up in the streets. Close to 200,000 horses used for transportation contributed to the mess. Sewers weren’t created until the 1850s.

Absence of Authorities

The horrors of Lafayette and the more benign Manhattan of McElgun’s Annie Reilly have one thing in common: the generally low presence of bureaucratic authorities regulating Irish immigration. 

Annie Moore may be fixed in the American consciousness as the quintessential Irish immigrant, the first lassie to land at Ellis Island. But that was 60 years after the Famine. Even the famous Castle Garden mentioned by McElgun did not become a processing station until 1855, a decade after the famine began. Local police, medical authorities or (often ruthless) representatives from the shipping company might have been on hand as the Irish disembarked, maintaining order or pointing the way to quarantine hospitals.  But generally speaking, the Famine immigrant experience is unique in that the Irish – for better or worse – were entering a nation with only a patchwork system for processing newcomers.