Let’s have a history lesson.
I’m not super into St. Patrick’s Day. It’s from going to college in Boston (and no, that’s not a euphemism for going to Harvard. Which is in Cambridge. Go Terriers!). I’m not a huge fan of crowds and navigating public drunkenness and overpriced bar menus…which are all unavoidable in that city on that day. It’s just not my thing.
But I get it. If you’re American and from the northeast, there’s a good chance you have some Irish heritage. I’m one of those people.
Like many American immigration waves, the Irish story is dark. I learned about the potato famine in school in a superficial way. The information was basically: The Irish ate potatoes, the potatoes got sick, so they sailed to America because we are a better place with food. It’s fine – for an eight year-old.
I learned the real story during my college study-abroad in Ireland. Irish-British relations were among the many things that Henry VIII ruined during his lifetime. He invaded the island and re-enforced central British rule, which had mostly disappeared by his reign. There were a lot of motivations. The most practical was the concern of having such a staunchly-Catholic close neighbor, but I think the real one was that Henry just wanted to conquer someone, preferably France. Ireland was easier.
Everything went south from there. During the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell led his own conquest. He dispossessed many of the Irish who owned the best farmland on the eastern half of the island and sent them to Connacht, where the land was less arable and they were farther from important cities and military outposts. There were an estimated 200,000 civilian casualties from war-related violence, famine, or disease. Irish popular history considers it a mass effort of ethnic cleansing, and I can’t say I disagree.
Over the next century and a half, the culture, religion, and rights of the Irish were systematically depleted by government policies strengthening British rule. Most of the landlords of Ireland were English nobility who were never present and thought little about their tenants across the sea. But the big problem was that the Irish poor – which was the strong majority of the population – became entirely dependent on a diet of potatoes. Specifically, one variety of potato – the Irish lumper.
The Irish lumper is a shitty potato. It’s a particularly wet tuber that stays waxy when cooked, instead of soft and floury. Agriculturalists in the 19th century recommended it as animal feed. But it was the perfect food for the impoverished: the lumper could grow in poor soil and had a high yield. It was a system that worked…until 1845.
The potato blight was a new disease. It hit many parts of Europe, but no one was so entirely dependent on the potato as the Irish. When the first crop failed, the Irish petitioned Parliament for help as they had provided in previous shortage years. This time, Parliament did not enact an export ban to keep Irish food in Ireland so they could keep merchants happy. Instead, their strategy was to import unmilled corn from the United States. Some shipments didn’t make it across the ocean. The Irish didn’t have the mills to process the corn and they didn’t know how to cook it properly, since it was a different variety than they were used to. Many developed severe digestive issues that could be fatal. Random public works were enacted just to give the poor projects to do for a wage.
When the government turned over in 1846, things just got worse. The Whig government had a “laissez-faire” philosophy and declared the market would solve the famine. They refused to halt food shipments to England and ended the relief efforts of the previous administration. The landlords didn’t want to bear the cost of the Poor Laws, so they evicted their tenants. Finally, a policy was passed that barred anyone possessing a quarter of an acre or more from receiving relief. That meant tenants had to sell all of their crops to pay rent and taxes and then stop farming, thus delivering all of their land to their landlord in order to be fed. In 1849, the Encumbered Estates Act saw mass amounts of land being sold off to appease creditors. British speculators gobbled it up and evicted the tenants to make grazing pastures for cattle.
By 1854, 1.5 to 2 million Irish had emigrated as a result of the famine. A century of depopulation followed.
One of those 1.5 to 2 million was Mary Cooney, my great-great-great-great-grandmother via Grandma Betty’s mother, Kitty.
Thanks to the transcriptions of obituaries, I’ve learned a lot about Mary’s life. Mary Carroll was born in 1794. She married Patrick Cooney, Sr. and they lived in Laghtmacdurkan in Meelick Parish, County Mayo. If you search for Laghtmacdurkan or Meelick on Google Maps, it’s just a pin in the middle of a field. In Connacht.
The Carrolls are a very old clan, most of whom lived in the petty kingdom of Eile in what is now County Offaly and part of County Tipperary. They probably would not have moved unless they were forced.
Patrick and Mary had at least nine children when Patrick died in 1845, leaving Mary alone just as the famine began. Many of her sons had reached adulthood by this point, which was probably a blessing. They endured the famine for two years before Mary, six of her sons, and two of her daughters left Meelick for the United States, where they ended up in Michigan City, Indiana.
I’ve said it before on this blog, but I don’t think it can be repeated too often: people do not immigrate lightly. Maybe one or two enterprising children, but entire families certainly do not. When your family’s history in a place is so long that it’s practically embedded in the earth, it takes a dire situation – a true nightmare come to life – to uproot you. They must have felt like the world was collapsing around them to board a cramped ship and make the likely-miserable passage across the ocean. It’s amazing that all of them arrived alive.
Mary’s son, Patrick Jr., was my great-great-great-grandfather. He was one of the older children, being 28 when Mary left Ireland. He arrived in Michigan City a few years later in 1850, marrying Annie Nicholson, another Irish refugee, in Syracuse along the way. The story has a happy ending. Patrick became a prosperous farmer in LaPorte County, working his land and raising his eight children until Annie died in 1891. He retired from active labor and moved in with one of his daughters. He died of heart failure exacerbated by the flu in 1895 at the age of 79. His daughter, Elizabeth, was my great-great-grandmother.
Mary knew how to stick it to the famine. She died in 1891 at 97 years old, well-known and respected in her community. She had thirty-five grandchildren and over fifty great-grandchildren at the time of her death. Life, uh, finds a way.
In Irish mythology, barriers between worlds can shift. Heroes wander through misty portals to the Otherworld, where there is perpetual abundance, youth, and joy. When I think back to my summer in Ireland, I’m always on some hill looking out over endless green fields veined with stone walls. I’m wrapped up, trying to keep rain out of my eyes. It’s beautiful, but there’s something about it that makes me uneasy. And I remember thinking, this is a place where I could believe in ghosts, and faeries, and tripping into another world. It hummed with life of all eerie kinds, reaching up out of the ground. I wonder if my family ever thought about home, or if they thought they had found their own portal, and were happy to never go back.