...in 1847, Boston's leading citizens held a meeting at Fanueil Hall in response to news of the famine devastating Ireland. With the failure of the potato crop several years in a row, tens of thousands of Irish peasants were suffering from malnutrition, disease, and exposure. Between 1847 and 1851, 1,000,000 Irish men, women, and children died. As people in Boston realized the enormity of the disaster, donations poured in. The city's Catholic community sent $150,000 to the famine-stricken country. A relief committee collected 800 tons of food and clothing and persuaded the U.S. government to allow a fully-loaded warship to sail on a mercy mission from Boston to Ireland.
Early in the winter of 1845, people in the United States began to hear dreadful tales of hunger in Ireland. A fungus had infected the Irish potato crop, destroying nearly a third of it. Ireland was soon facing a famine.
Although farms in Ireland also produced grains, meat, and butter, everything but the potato was exported. Exports yielded the cash needed to pay rent and taxes owed to English landlords. The potato was the mainstay of the Irish diet and the key to the peasantry's survival. When the potato blight struck, people began to starve.
In the U.S., Irish Catholic immigrant communities were the first to respond to the crisis. As early as December 1845, Father Thomas O'Flaherty, a parish priest in Salem, set up an Irish Charitable Relief Fund. By the following summer, American Catholics were sending considerable sums of money to Ireland. In December 1846, the Quakers launched a well-organized relief operation. But most Americans expected the potato blight to be a short-term problem; the new crop would surely restore Ireland and the Irish to health.
On January 25, 1847, a steamship from Ireland reached the U.S. for the first time since the previous fall. It brought news of the extent of the catastrophe. The blight had returned, ruining yet another year's potato crop. Men, women, and children were dying of hunger by the tens of thousands. The winter weather was the most severe in memory. People were surviving the hunger only to die of exposure. Death was so common and people so weak that corpses were left unburied. Survivors lacked the strength to work. Witnesses to the disaster were shocked by the enormity of human suffering.
As the severity of the situation became clear, Americans responded quickly and generously. In February 1847, Vice President George Dallas called a public meeting in Washington, DC. He urged every city, town, and village in the nation to raise money for the suffering people of Ireland.
Teas, concerts, balls, and bazaars were held throughout the country. Protestant churches, Catholic dioceses, and Jewish synagogues all collected funds to send to the Central Relief Committee in Dublin. Even the Choctaw Indians and slaves on an Alabama plantation contributed to the effort.
With its large Irish population, Boston was at the forefront of the campaign. On February 7, 1847, the city's newly appointed Bishop devoted his first pastoral letter to the plight of the Irish: "A voice comes to us from across the ocean, the loud cry of her anguish has gone through the world. . . ." He urged his parishioners to give unstintingly. "Apathy and indifference, on an occasion like this," he said, "are inseparable from crime!"
That very night, the Bishop and his flock created a relief committee. Within a few weeks' time, $20,000 was on its way to Ireland from the Diocese of Boston.
Non-Catholic Bostonians also responded. On February 18th, they held a large public meeting at Faneuil Hall "to consider what Boston should do for Ireland." The result was the Boston Relief Committee, headed by Mayor Josiah Quincy Jr. and a large number of prominent civic and business leaders.
The BRC set to work immediately, petitioning Congress for permission to transport provisions to Ireland in a naval vessel. Although the country was at war with Mexico and ships were in short supply, Congress agreed to turn the U.S.S. Jamestown, a ship berthed at the Charlestown Navy Yard, over to the Boston Relief Committee.
Robert Bennet Forbes, the son of a wealthy Boston merchant, enlisted a volunteer crew. Supplies poured in, and on St. Patrick's Day, the all-Irish Boston Laborers' Aid Society began loading the vessel. On March 27th, the Jamestown sailed out of Boston Harbor with a heavy cargo of life-saving supplies.
The ship made the crossing in just over two weeks. It arrived at the docks in Cork to a cheering throng and a band playing "Yankee Doodle." That night celebratory receptions and bonfires were held for the crew of the Jamestown.
By the summer of 1847, Americans had sent over $500,000 and many thousands of tons of supplies to Ireland. Hopes for a good harvest did not materialize. The suffering continued. Anyone who could leave Ireland did. In 1847, the worst year of the famine, the Irish-born population of Boston swelled by more than 13,000. On a single day in April, over 1,000 Irish immigrants arrived at the port of Boston.
Between 1845 and 1855, fully one-third of the population of Ireland left their homeland. By 1855, there were more than 50,000 Irish in Boston. Over the next decades, they would transform the city's political, social, and cultural life.
In 1998, on the 150th anniversary of the Great Hunger, a $1,000,000 work of public art, the Boston Irish Famine Memorial, was unveiled at the corner of Washington and School Streets. The sculpture stands just a few blocks from the docks where immigrants who were lucky enough to survive the rigors of the voyage arrived.
Fitzpatrick's Boston 1846-1866, by Thomas H. O'Connor (Northeastern University Press, 1984).
The Boston Irish: A Political History, by Thomas H. O'Connor (Northeastern University Press, 1995).
The Famine Ships: Irish Exodus to America, by Edward Laxton (Owl Books, 1996).