The Great Hunger of 1845 had a profound effect on the state
Updated 11:10 p.m., Friday, March 16, 2012
In the last three centuries, there have been hundreds of widespread human tragedies, but only a few of these have left indelible marks on the culture and mind-set of Americans.
The short list includes the Holocaust, the African slave trade and the conquest of Native Americans.
Ireland's Great Hunger, known to most as the Irish Potato Famine of 1845, is on this list too, because it sent more than 1 million Irish people to American shores.
Ireland was particularly vulnerable to potato crop failure, because by the 18th century it was a staple food of Ireland's poor, who were dependent on the tuber to get through the winter.
When the blight struck, there soon weren't enough coffins to bury the dead. Still, Irish exports of other foods, such as cattle, pigs and grain, continued almost uninterrupted.
Technically, this wasn't a famine because Ireland produced plenty of food. But this bounty was extracted by powerful landlords and shipped off to feed England and Europe.
The crop failed again the following year, and by 1847 parts of Ireland resembled a post-apocalyptic landscape.
Many families, skeletal in appearance and too weak to work the fields, could do little more than wait for the Grim Reaper.
About 1 million Irish died of starvation between 1847 and 1852.
"The Great Hunger had a tremendous effect on the psyche of Irish-Americans that carries over to the present day," said Vincent McMahon, vice president of the Connecticut Irish-American Historical Society, which maintains archival collections and a library of books about Irish history, culture and genealogy in the Ethnic Heritage Center at Southern Connecticut State University.
"That's why we took secure jobs -- police, fire, railroad -- because we still have that sense of insecurity of never knowing what the landlord would do next."
Connecticut, land of opportunity
In contrast, Connecticut was a land of opportunity and bounty in the mid-19th century. Situated between Boston and New York, it quickly became home to scores of industries, machine shops and the insurance business.
Hundreds of men were put to work building the rail lines that crisscrossed the state. It was still a highly productive agricultural state, too, and mines and quarries were busy as well.
Between 1845 and 1850, the state's Irish-born population soared from 5,000 to 26,700, and this number doubled in the next decade.
Connecticut in 1850, with 7.2 percent of its population born in Ireland, was behind only Massachusetts, at 15 percent, and New York, at 12.8 percent. Just about every town and city in the state had at least 5 percent of its population born in Ireland.
Another wave of Irish followed on the heels of the failed Fenian Rising of 1867, a rebellion against British rule. Many of the embittered left for American shores.
"The Fenian movement in the United States was actually stronger than the one in Ireland," McMahon said, "and there was even a Fenian attack on Canada launched from the U.S. that was unsuccessful."
"The Irish don't like to stay in one place," said Mary McMahon, who emigrated from Ireland in 1959. "The Irish are wanderers. In my case, I got in touch with one of my uncles over here, and they decided to sponsor me. I met Vincent (her husband) a week after I came."
She soon landed a job as a nurse at the Hospital of Saint Raphael in New Haven.
The Irish in Connecticut retained ties to the counties of their forebears, at least at first.
"Many of the Irish in America came from the counties in the west of Ireland, because that's where Cromwell began his invasion," Vincent McMahon said, "and he pushed the Catholics ahead of his army."
Even as late as the 1950s, there were active Irish county associations in Connecticut.
"In Middletown, there were hundreds of people from County Cork who came over to work in the quarries," said Neil Hogan, historian for the Connecticut Irish-American Historical Society and the author of several books on the subject. "In New Haven, there were hundreds from County Leitrim."
The county affiliations were a two-edged sword for some.
"My dad was from County Carlow, so he was always a lone marcher in the New Haven St. Patrick's Day parade," said Maureen Delehunt, of Cheshire. Her father, as with hundreds from Ireland, came to Connecticut in the 1920s to work on the railroad, she said.
Little more than slaves
The very first Irish in North America arrived with the first well-to-do English settlers in the mid-1600s. They were their laborers, maids and butlers, and although records that far back are sketchy, the evidence seems to indicate they were little more than slaves.
"In one correspondence, a property owner in New London talks about purchasing one of his servants from another British settler in Boston," Hogan said. "The letter states, `I bought four Irish people.' "
Other, more well-to-do Irish -- all Presbyterians -- arrived soon after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the mid-1600s, according to Vincent McMahon.
"Most of these were from Northern Ireland, and they came with fairly decent resources," he said. "A lot of these people came over in search of land, because one brother inherited the land in Ireland and the other had nothing else to do."
Two of the most famous Irish-Americans weren't real people at all, but rather fictional characters that sprang from the pen of Mark Twain.
"There's plenty of evidence to support the thought that Huck Finn's father was an Irish immigrant," said Christopher Dowd, a professor of American literature at the University of New Haven.
"His last name was Irish, but in addition there were elements of the text that clearly paint a picture of Irish stereotypes," he said. "His father lived in a `shanty' in the woods, and that (he) was always drunk and that he slept with pigs, characteristics that were commonly associated with the Irish."
Dowd explained that Mark Twain -- Samuel Clemens in real life -- grew up in Missouri, where both Catholics and the Irish were viewed with derision, in much the same way undocumented immigrants are viewed by some today.
"Twain lived in the nativistic environment in which you had to be native born to be a true American, and it was also a place that was very anti-Catholic, too," Dowd said.
"Huck had all of the worst things that people feared about the Irish in the 19th century," he said. "At the time, there was even a debate as to whether the Irish were even `white.' Many thought that they belonged to a different race of people than the Anglo-Americans."
He said in a sense "Huckleberry Finn" is a book about two outsiders -- Jim, the runaway slave, and Huck, the son of an Irishman.
"When I was in high school, the ending was portrayed as a happy one, with Huck heading west," Dowd said, "but in reality, he was an outcast who, because of his Irish father, really didn't fit in."