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Plentiful Country: The Great Potato Famine and the Making of Irish New York: Forensic study highlights migrant triumph

Tyler Anbinder digs deep into real-life records to animate the social and economic strides made by the Irish in the US despite arduous conditions and initial press demonisation as ‘lazy’ Catholics

Plentiful Country: The Great Potato Famine and the Making of Irish New York
Plentiful Country: The Great Potato Famine and the Making of Irish New York
Author: Tyler Anbinder
ISBN-13: 978-1804186992
Publisher: Eriu
Guideline Price: £22

“Any man or woman,” Margaret McCarthy wrote from New York in 1850, “are fools that would not venture and come to this plentiful country where no man or woman ever hungered, or ever will, and where you will not be seen naked.” Margaret had escaped an island where millions had been “half-naked, and but half-fed” even before the Great Hunger turned the country into what Kerry priest John O’Sullivan called “a living tomb”. As Ireland died at home, the promised land across the Atlantic was a last hope.

We have generally viewed the people Tyler Anbinder calls the million and more “Famine refugees” with condescending pity. Historians have characterised them as Fr O’Sullivan did, as “the most wretched people on the face of the earth”. Many died on “coffin ships” crossing the Atlantic, more soon after in the disease-ridden tenements of New York. Those who survived lived “gloomy” lives of poverty and “seldom rose” up the social ladder. Only in later generations, it has been widely assumed, did “Irish Americans” move “from rags to riches”.

Yet when Anbinder began sifting through the records of the Emigrant Savings Bank – founded by Irish people in 1850 – in New York Public Library, he found a very different story. In research that should reshape history on both sides of the Atlantic, Anbinder finds that large numbers defied the odds, transforming their lives and their new home.

Anbinder’s previous books have told the story of 19th-century immigrant New York, from the infamous Five Points to the Know-Nothing nativists who tried to keep the Irish out. But the Famine Irish’s American lives have long eluded historians, their names too common and their details too thin to trace through records. In the bank’s accounts, however, and especially in their identity “test books” (the first in the world to use mothers’ maiden names as security), he found a way to follow them.

With an army of research students, Anbinder created a database that could then be cross-referenced with genealogical information, census records, local newspapers and more. By working with economic historians Cormac Ó Gráda and Simone Wegge, he was able to confirm that the bank’s clients were broadly representative of Famine Irish arrivals in general. In the end, there were more than 1,200 men who could be tracked for at least a decade.

Many could never escape poverty and ‘the signs of alcohol’s destructive power were everywhere’

While about half started in unskilled work, more than 40 per cent of those would experience social mobility during their lives in America. A remarkable third would run their own business (a higher proportion than among “native” New Yorkers), while notable numbers ended up in “white-collar” and professional work. Those results stand in stark contrast to previous assumptions, and to recent research from Ó Gráda and Neil Cummins indicating that Irish emigrants in England did not see such social mobility for generations.

That experience perhaps explains the evangelicalism about America in letters home. Eliza Quin, who left Sligo in 1847, told her family that it was “the best country in the world”, a place where “it is easy making money”. People wrote that their wages were five or 10 times higher than they had been in Ireland, and that, as Bridget Rooney put it, “we are fed every day like on Christmas at home”.

Anbinder makes sure not to paint an unrealistically rosy picture, emphasising not just the squalor and danger of New York’s slums, but also the backbreaking and exploitative work. Irishmen laboured tirelessly on construction sites, gasworks and foundries where horrifying numbers died due to overwork and unsafe conditions. An incredible 70 per cent of the city’s domestic servants were Irish women (three times more likely to be working outside their home than white American women), who were paid “shockingly little” for endless hours.

Alongside wage labour were enterprise and hustle, as Irish people worked as everything from porters to peddlers. Thomas Field sold and then made umbrellas in Brooklyn, while Cornelius O’Sullivan built his savings by selling bottle corks. Chain migration led many into networks. Tyrone men from the Sperrin mountains carved out livings selling charcoal, while from a “Little Killybegs” on Mulberry Street, Donegal peddlers sold far and wide, some with great success – when Andrew Brice died in 1913, his estate was worth $4.5 million in today’s money.

Further up the ladder were the third who began their American working lives in skilled occupations: artisans who had had just enough to escape starving semi-colonial Ireland. Cappoquin apprentice and Young Irelander Hugh Collender worked making window blinds before marrying the daughter of Michael Phelan, a celebrity billiards champion from Castlecomer. Collender & Phelan billiards tables became famous from pool halls to the White House, and Collender would die a millionaire.

Indeed while large numbers had been destitute, Famine emigrants to America were “disproportionately” from the “lower-middle ranks”. But “then, as now”, Anbinder writes, Americans wrongly assumed immigrants were “penniless paupers, the dregs of their homelands, when in fact such migrants have never made up a very large proportion of those who move to the United States”.

Irish immigrants were demonised by the press as “lazy” Catholics “with no plan, and no energy to form one”, except to “beg, and steal, and starve”. Such nativist bigotry would lead not just to the Know-Nothings, but also to the first US immigration controls, targeted directly at the Irish. But Anbinder emphasises how Black Americans “faced far more systemic barriers to socioeconomic advancement than any Irish immigrant”, not least around voting rights. Democracy meant that the Irish – and their votes – could not be ignored.

The book’s structure around the “social ladder” can make it at times repetitive, but it is hard to overestimate the importance and achievement of Anbinder’s work. His notes are meticulous, although the publisher’s elimination of note numbers simply makes it harder to follow the rich sources. Readers do not need to be protected from complexity, and many would surely like to have read more of the innovative economic history that Anbinder and his colleagues have undertaken with his data.

The archival detective work and storytelling are engaging throughout, illuminating some incredible characters. Bartley O’Donnell from Limerick inflated his age to take advantage of the craze for long-distance race-walking as “the octogenarian pedestrian”. Kerry saloonkeeper Murty O’Sullivan invented relations to Irish patriots while organising a “Kenmare Guards” militia and the allegedly unbeatable “Kenmare Hurlers”.

Saloonkeeping was the “most lucrative” business open to the Irish, one that could bring “prestige and political prominence”. The life of failed saloonkeeper Thomas D Norris was “the very personification of the American dream”: the Killarney tailor opened two clothes shops, sold them to fund an Irish brigade in the civil war, fought to the end, ended up on the streets, and was eventually saved by political patronage, even delivering a message in Irish at a presidential inauguration.

People wrote home that their wages were five or 10 times higher than they had been in Ireland, and that, as Bridget Rooney put it, ‘we are fed every day like on Christmas at home’

As America expanded, “a land of opportunity beckoned”. Margaret McCarthy advised her relatives to “go west”. Those who left New York, Anbinder finds, had even more social mobility than those who stayed. With vast lands being “settled” as indigenous Americans were dispossessed, many Irish sought their own farms. John Griffin and his wife Ellen from Castlegregory ended up with a 2,000-acre ranch in California’s San Joaquin Valley that Ellen and her daughters would run profitably for decades after John’s death.

Anbinder rightly highlights the agency of women even when the records hide them behind their husbands’ names. He uncovers many extraordinary women’s stories, such as unmarried Kerrywoman Honora Shea who came over with her two children from different fathers. Honora sold fruit on the streets and saved $275 for her children, a nest egg of over $10,000 today.

There were tragedies too. Many could never escape poverty and “the signs of alcohol’s destructive power were everywhere”. Maurice Mariga drank himself to death after all his children died in a brief period. Infant mortality was horrendous: Galway woman Mary Ann Abberton and her piano-maker husband Anthony outlived 11 of their 12 children (despite Anthony once being a victim of a vicious attack with a meat cleaver).

Despite the challenges, as early as 1878 American newspapers were marvelling at Irish success. “By all obvious reasoning”, the New Orleans Item wrote, “the Irish should have been a failure”, since they were unwelcome and “reviled”. But “step by step, they advanced”, and within a few decades their children were “second to none in the land”.

By defying nativist insistence that they would be permanently lazy and poor, Anbinder argues that the Famine Irish “fundamentally changed how Americans viewed immigrants and the American Dream”. “The Irish did more than help build America,” reflected Barack Obama – himself the descendant of a Famine migrant – in 2015. “They helped to sharpen the idea of America.”

Anbinder makes sure not to paint an unrealistically rosy picture, emphasising not just the squalor and danger of New York’s slums, but also the back-breaking and exploitative work

On this side of the Atlantic, the demographic devastation of the Famine decade remains the defining event of our modern history, even more so than the independence that only recently freed us from mass emigration. Its deepest scar still lingers: contrary to the far-right lie that “Ireland is full”, we remain unique in having a smaller population than we did in 1845. Anbinder’s revelation of the Famine Irish’s successes has profound implications for how we think about our past and present, home and abroad.

Our politics is now infected with the kind of anti-immigrant nativism the Famine Irish faced. Those who shamefully spread it, or cynically exploit it, want us to forget that it was once our migrant ancestors seeking refuge and opportunity, literally in their millions. Just like today’s migrants and refugees, they were not the “hapless beings” or lazy scroungers of bigoted imagination, but people writing their own story.

Christopher Kissane is host of Ireland’s Edge and a historian with the department of economic history at LSE

Further reading

Becoming Irish Americans: The Making and Remaking of a People by Timothy J Meagher (Yale University Press, 2023). Meagher explores how the Irish in America created a new Irish-American identity, and how it evolved through each successive generation.

The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea during the Great Irish Famine by Cian T McMahon (NYU Press, 2021). Using letters home, McMahon reveals the often-hidden experience of the harrowing passage to America.

Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the 19th-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy by Hidetaka Hirota (OUP, 2017). Hirota reveals the central importance of anti-Irish bigotry in creating America’s immigration system.

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