One of the most wrenching changes of the 1800s was not the result of a reform movement. A terrible famine devastated Ireland in the 1840s. Millions left the country, an emigration that changed the social fabric of Ireland and the United States forever.
In 1845 a previously unknown fungus struck the potato crop, the mainstay of Irish agriculture. Plants that looked fine one day wilted the next or yielded potatoes that quickly rotted. The blight returned, year after year, and in the wretchedly poor country, hunger led to weakness, which led to epidemic and starvation. Unable to work or to pay their landlords, thousands of Irish families were evicted from their homes to die in the streets and countryside.
Children, as in all famines, suffered most: “their limbs fleshless … their faces bloated yet wrinkled and of a pale greenish hue.” Famine and disease probably killed between 1.1 and 1.5 million people. Few in the British government cared. Some charitable efforts were made, and Sir Robert Peel urged policies to help the Irish, but relief was often too late. Distrust was so deep that some Irish refused British corn, fearing that the unknown food was poisonous.
Those who were able to do so left Ireland. More than 2 million people left between 1845 and 1855, doing anything they could to raise the money needed for passage. In America life was hard. Starving, often without skills, and facing both religious and cultural prejudice, the Irish were treated poorly. Exploited by employers and slumlords, women often became servants, and men became laborers.
Nevertheless, the Irish eventually became a potent force in American labor and politics. Many saw themselves as involuntary exiles and vowed to return to Ireland someday. Though they had left their native country they never abandoned their love of it, and pride in the ancestral home land endures today.