Irish Struggles: The Great Hunger

Series historical adviser, Daniel Czitrom, offers a closer look at the Irish potato famine that brought ‘Copper’ characters Maguire and O’Brien to Five Points.

Detective O'Brien visits Maguire.

Detective O’Brien pays Maguire a visit in the Tombs.

In the second season premiere of Copper, Detective Andrew Maguire pays a visit to his old friend ex-Detective Francis Maguire, now held on murder charges in the city prison known as “the Tombs.” There they talk about the struggles of their Irish childhood, and how Maguire’s family barely managed to escape “the Great Hunger” on a “famine ship.” Their lives, like hundreds of thousands of others, were forever re-made by the stark reality of the Irish potato famine.

In 1845 a mysterious blight began spreading through the potato fields of Ireland, causing widespread failure of the most important staple crop in the Irish diet. Widespread starvation and malnutrition related diseases followed in the blight’s wake. Over the next ten years as many as 2 million Irish, out of a total population of 8 million, died from “the Great Hunger.” Desperate for relief, some 1.8 million Irish emigrants left their homeland, with a large fraction of these landing in the United States and Canada. Those who managed to emigrate often received a shove from their landlords who found it cheaper to pay the ship passage for their tenants than to support work houses and poor relief at home.

Woman, on shore of Ireland, holding up a sign for help to American ships; her foot rests on rock inscribed "we are starving". Family huddled behind her. (via http://1.usa.gov/12l6pTL)

Woman, on shore of Ireland, holding up a sign for help to American ships; her foot rests on rock inscribed “we are starving.”
‘The Herald of relief from America,’ Thomas Nast

New York had long been a magnet for European immigrants, but the unprecedented poverty and wretchedness of these newcomers drew widespread comment. Describing a group whose way had been paid by Lord Landsdowne , County Kerry, in March 1851, the NY Herald editorialized: “It is really lamentable to see the vast number of unfortunate creatures that are almost daily cast on our shores, penniless and without physical energy to earn a day’s living. Yesterday groups of these hapless creatures were to be seen congregated about the City Hall Park and in Broadway, looking the very picture of despair, misery, disease, and want.” New York City became home for hundreds of thousands of these immigrants, and by 1860 the city’s 800,000 people included over 200,000 born in Ireland. The vast majority were Roman Catholic, poor, and perhaps a third spoke Gaelic but no English.

The Irish made the Five Points neighborhood their hub, transforming the Sixth Ward; by 1860  the Irish constituted about two thirds of the Sixth Ward. The Points had a reputation as a center for crime, prostitution, drinking, and vice of all sorts. But most Irish immigrants were industrious. They toiled mostly as menial laborers: ditch diggers, porters, cart drivers, washerwomen, seamstresses, and peddlers. Recent historical research reveals that a surprising number of theme were able to start accounts at the Emigrant Savings Bank, accumulating nest eggs for their families,  and sending money to loved ones in Ireland.

  • Shawl Lobree

    Thank you Daniel for this excellent post. I have read a lot about New York from 1815 to 1865 and the Irish Famine … your article turned over a few quotes and pieces of info I did not know. Copper is great and am really enjoying the drama and the history! Much appreciated!