The Irish called it An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger. Between 1845 and 1850, a succession of potato crop failures hit Ireland, depriving poor families of their main source of food. The Famine was compounded by the failure of the British Government then ruling Ireland to correct the food shortage. As thousands starved, tons of grain were exported from Ireland to pay absentee landlords their rents.
Seamus Heaney's poem, "At a Potato Digging," describes the effects of the Famine: Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard, faces chilled to a plucked bird. In a million wicker huts beaks of famine snipped at guts.
Over one million Irish died of starvation and disease, while another half a million people were evicted from their homes for not paying rents. Newspapers reported people dying along the side of the road, their mouths stained by grass in a desperate attempt to survive. Thousands ended up in government poor houses overcrowded and riddled with contagious disease. Typhus became the chief cause of death in many counties.
Historian Cecil Woodham-Smith noted how starvation affected children's bones, "In Skibbereen, Elihu Burritt met children with jaws so distended that they could not speak; in Mayo the starving children had lost their voices....By April 1847, children were looking like little old men and women of eighty years of age, wrinkled and bent."
During this time, between one and two million people fled Ireland, many of them coming to North America. They boarded vessels so unseaworthy they were called "coffin ships." So many Irish died at sea that poet John Boyle O'Reilly called the Atlantic Ocean upon which they traveled "a bowl of tears."
Over 100,000 Irish refugees landed in Boston within five years, and were met with a mixture of compassion and resentment. "Native Bostonians might have been willing to send money and food to aid the starving Irish as long as they remained in Ireland," wrote historian Thomas O'Connor. "But they certainly didn't want them coming to America."
But the Irish were here to stay. Despite initial hostility and 'No Irish Need Apply' signs, the Irish transformed themselves from 'impoverished foreigners' to hard-working, successful Americans. In a modest way, the accomplishments of Irish-America stand as a vindication of the pain and suffering of the Famine generation.
Today, Irish enclaves around the world are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine. What began as introspection about a forgotten and traumatic episode in Irish history has given way to a broader appreciation for the fortitude and ambition that the Irish have displayed under the most difficult circumstances.
It appears that the psychological scars of The Great Hunger are finally beginning to heal. Recently British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for his government's role in the Famine, stating, "Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy. We must not forget such a dreadful event."