A time when the Irish were not welcome

Between the years 1845 and 1855 more than 2.1 million people emigrated from Ireland. They streamed into Liverpool, Manchester, Boston and New York. Many were diseased, hungry, dirty, broken spirited, with barely any personal belongings. Some embarked actually naked.

Long before 1845 Irish men, women and children had emigrated to Britain or elsewhere in search of a better life. However, as the Great Famine took its dreadful hold, the exodus became a flood, reaching a peak of 250,000 in 1851 alone.

Not only were people fleeing a terrible famine but were humiliated by the contempt they had been shown at home. The English government, who believed that the Irish poor had brought the catastrophe upon themselves, prompted it to contribute a derisory £7 million for famine relief.

It allowed landlords and local authorities to deal with the problem as best they could. Some landlords provided subsistence; while others used the government disinterest, and barely concealed racist attitudes, to rid their lands of unproductive tenants. Again some landlords portrayed an altruistic attitude, and provided funds to pay for a passage to America. Others just ruthlessly cleared their lands of tenants, smashed furniture, and tore the roofs from their homes. In the words of the Irish nationalist and political exile John Mitchel, ‘The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.’ 

The mainly Irish speaking emigrants were deeply resented in Britain, for exactly the same reasons you hear expressed today. Emigrants will jump the queue for housing (though at the time there was little or no public housing ), and will work for low pay, thus distorting the money market, and keeping wages low.* 

L Perry Curtis, in a new series of books on the Irish famine** writes that London’s new comic weekly, Punch, portrayed Paddy with facial features akin to the chimpanzee. In 1862 Punch published a satirical piece entitled ‘The Missing Link’ that conjured up a tribe of ‘savages’ otherwise known as ‘The Irish Yahoo,’ who filled the evolutionary gap between the gorilla and the African native. The article warned that ‘when, and if provoked, this hominid was fond of attacking civilised human beings.’

Curtis suggests that whether the article was deadly serious, or simply satirical, the appearance of Irish apemen in comic weeklies from London to New York and on to San Francisco during, and long after the Great Famine, reflected a powerful undercurrent of Hibernophobia that was bound to harden the attitudes of Englishmen and Americans towards the stereotypical Irishman.

‘Undeserving Paddy’

One of Punch’s most gifted artists, John Leech (whose father was an Irish emigrant ), portrayed Paddy as a half-simian peasant with sloping forehead, snub nose, and a projecting lower jaw akin to the facial features of an ape. Leech places his character riding exultingly on the back of a sagging English worker in ‘The English labourer’s Burden; Or The Irish Old man of the Mountain’ (Punch February 17 1849 ). No doubt this juxtaposition of an honest (and long suffering ) Anglo-Saxon worker, and an undeserving Paddy must have pleased members of the English public who resented spending state money on famine relief.

The onrush of Syrian refugees heading for northern Europe today are mainly Moslem and this worries some Christian Europeans. This fear of being swamped, or that lifestyles would be threatened by another religion also found expression in the mid 19th century England. Curtis points out that most Protestants at the time regarded Roman Catholicism as an idolatrous, if not a heathen religion, rooted in superstition and corruption. ‘This anti Catholic bias had a long and virulent history in England and Scotland where bloodletting tales of Catholics massacreing Protestants and monks and priests engaging in carnal acts flourished. Evangelicals also accused the Catholic hierarchy of seeking to subvert not only the Established Church but also the equally sacred British constitution.’ 

Protestant missionaries

Daniel O’Connell’s successful campaign for Catholic Emancipation, and his entry into parliament in 1829, heaped more fuel on the sectarian fires. Prime Minister Peel’s increase of the annual grant to the Catholic seminary at Maynooth in 1845 enraged the anti Catholic camp even further. Cries of ‘Papal aggression’ were uttered in fury when in 1859 Pope Pius IX restored the Catholic hierarchy in Britain. 

‘The steady flow of poverty-stricken Irish Catholics into British towns generated much hostility against these ‘alien intruders’ whose acceptance of low wages threatened the jobs of British workers - some of whom rioted against Irish railways workers, tunnel diggers, and agricultural labourers for religious, ethnic, and economic reasons.’ 

A few hardcore English evangelicals became missionaries in  Connemara hoping to convert the peasantry to the one and only ‘true fauth’. Armed with Irish-language Bibles and a little money, they promised local people free housing, food and education for anyone who sent their children to the new, clean, Protestant schools. Catholic priests condemned families who succumbed to such temptations in very hard and cruel times, as ‘soupers’, an insulting tag that often survived several generations.  Sometimes too, the same priests physically assulted these missionaries in Clifden and Omey. It was a period of very bad feelings, all of which did not endear the Irish emigrant when he arrived in England looking for a better life.

NEXT WEEK: Irish emigrants probably suffered more when they first arrived in America.


*The image of the ‘famine ships’, and their wreckage along the Newfoundland coast, have all the echos of the wicked exploitation by the ‘people smugglers’ of today. The plight of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians trailing through eastern Europe with their children on their backs; the desperate plight of those crossing the Mediterranean in the flimiest of boats, or stuffed into trucks moving through Europe, fill our newspapers and TV screens every evening. Many of whom, having paid their money, have been deserted by the criminal gangs taking advantage of their vulnerability. Hundreds have died in the attempt.

**Notice to Quit - The Great Irish Famine Evictions by L Perry Curtis, professor emeritus at Brown University, one of the latest series of books on the Great Famine, published by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Quinnipiac University, USA.


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