Potato Famine roots

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As St. Patrick’s Day approaches we’re reminded that at least 33 million Americans of Irish descent live in the United States. 


The great influx of Irish immigration to America began in the mid-19th century when Ireland was struck by the Great Potato Famine. Grown in small areas, potatoes produced a large enough crop to feed a family of tenant farmers. But in 1845 a blight struck half the potato crop that the Irish relied on for food. By 1847 the entire potato crop failed. In part this was the result of planting the same crop in the same boggy ground year after year, encouraging disease. At least one million Irish died of starvation or of diseases which struck their weakened bodies. 


Contrary to what people think they know of the famine, it wasn’t found in every Irish county. Nor were all the English landlords evil. The English government was not very effective in this crisis, believing in the laissez faire (let it develop on its own) philosophy. English citizens raised funds to help and Queen Victoria donated the equivalent of $61,000 from her own money to the cause. Many English landlords purchased alternate food for their tenants and offered free medical care. Others evicted their tenants, burning their houses, which forced the evicted onto the roads. This led to more suffering and whole villages died. 


In England charity fatigue set in as the blight continued year after year. Soup kitchens were set up in some areas and many Irish made their way to Dublin, converting to Protestantism and seeking food from the Church of England. One and a half million Irish fled to America, hoping for a chance that their family might survive. 


To learn about your Irish roots you need to know the county in Ireland they came from, such as Cork or Mayo, and the village or parish. The national archives are found in Dublin. Numerous Irish immigration and passenger ship records can be found on sites such as GenealogyBank.com and Ancestry.com. Try for a free trial membership if you want to go through their records. Google “Irish Famine” for more websites than you can read in a day. And, it’s always best to assemble as much information as you can here before trying to research in Ireland.


Also, be aware that some of your Irish kin may have died on the way. Some landlords solved the expense of caring for their tenants by purchasing cheap passages aboard ships headed for America. They loaded the ill and abandoned them, without food or medicine, for a two-weeks-plus voyage. These so-called “coffin” ships provided no care or food, and the Irish died in the hundreds and were buried at sea. 


So, this St. Paddy’s Day, enjoy the corned beef and the green beer and offer a salute to all Irish-Americans and the suffering their ancestors endured as they headed west to escape the famine, seeking a better life on our shores.


Nancy Battick is a Dover-Foxcroft native who has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UMaine and lives in Dover-Foxcroft with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. You can contact Nancy at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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