Canadians and Americans are at war with themselves. A battle in that war involves President Trump’s attempt to close the border to those from seven troubled countries. Another is revealed through one of Canada’s Conservative Party leadership candidates who once touted a hotline for Canadians to rat on their neighbours and now wants mindreading to shape immigration policy. As soldiers in the war for our soul, we must consider who we are. We must decide whether we wish to swap our values for a false sense of security and lives of fear or, rather, share our bounty with those whose homelands are in crisis. As always, the past contextualizes the present. So, let’s draw lessons from our response to a catastrophe that struck another people in peril.
In the early 1800s, rich English families owned 95% of Irish farms. The absentee landlords had middle-men subdivide them into smaller and smaller plots while charging higher rents. About half of rural Irish families suffered crushing poverty. Potatoes were the staple crop with most folks and farm animals living on little else. At the same time, English factories were stealing work from pre-industrial Irish towns. About 2.4 million of about 8 million Irish were unemployed.
A bad situation turned to crisis when, in 1845, potato plants turned black. Potatoes shrivelled and became inedible. British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel ordered a commission to investigate but found neither cause nor cure. To address the ironic crisis of farmers without food, Peel ended Corn Law tariffs to lower food prices. It had little effect. Poor Law revisions split Ireland into 130 parts, called unions, and each was assigned a workhouse. Desperate urban poor traded prison-like conditions for housing and food while famine ravaged the countryside.
Starving tenant farmers were evicted from their homes for non-payment of rents. Soldiers marched the families away as landlords had houses knocked down to avoid taxes and keep the desolate from returning. Between 1849 and 1854, 250,000 people were swept from the land. Sixteen middlemen were shot by farmers resisting the mass evictions. London sent more soldiers.
The English gentry and business elite felt Peel was spending too much money and time on Ireland and voted his party from office. The new prime minister, Lord John Russell, cancelled food shipments to Ireland and ended Irish relief. The man in charge of the crisis, Assistant Secretary of the British Treasury Sir Charles Trevelyan, said the Irish needed to self-fund future relief programs and allow the market place to right everything. Linked to the British government’s belief in laissez-fair economics was its faith in providentialism. Trevelyan made the idea clear when he explained the Irish crisis as, “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence, one which laid bare the deep and inveterate root of social evil.”
While the English blamed victims and debated ideology, hunger’s effects caused dysentery, fevers, and dropsy. Typhus, called Black Fever by those it was killing, turned a sufferers’ skin thin, brittle, and black. The Russell government created soup kitchens but, because they had to be paid for by dwindling Irish taxes, they were too few and most too far from rural areas. An increasingly common sight was entire families who had set out to find food and work – blackened skeletons in rags – laying side-by-side in ditches where they had died.
Landlords began hauling delinquent tenants to the docks. The first waves left for Canada. The hellish journeys lasted 40 – 90 days with cramped passengers suffering pots for communal toilets, thin and often rancid gruel, and all the while robbed of sleep by screaming hungry, babies and the incessant coughing of the sick and dying. Approximately 5,000 families carried loved one’s bodies from the fetid below-decks to ships’ rails where, after a few words of scripture, they were tossed into the roiling Atlantic. The vessels were dubbed Coffin Ships.
The emigration peak came in 1847 when 100,000 starving Irish migrants arrived in Quebec City. At one point in June, 40 Coffin Ships bobbed in a two-mile line waiting to be processed. Makeshift hospitals on Grosse Île helped emaciated people trying to survive their fifteen-day quarantine. But mass graves betrayed the growing tragedy. When Coffin Ships kept coming, some were waved through to Montreal and some further on to Kingston. Churches and charities did what they could to help the sick and settle the rest. Within weeks of arriving in Canada, 11, 543 died.
Desperate Irish families were also arriving in America. Unlike in Canada, where the majority were Protestant, most of those arriving in the United States were Catholic. This fact caused consternation among the predominantly Protestant public and public officials and spurred harsh immigration restrictions. Captains had to somehow guarantee that no passengers would ever become wards of the state. Passenger fares rocketed to three times that of ships heading to Canada and regulations restricted the number of people that could be aboard each ship. But the ships kept coming and the numbers swamped the rules. New York became home to more Irish people than Dublin.
As Irish immigrants moved into more American cities, anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudice and discrimination grew. This was nothing new. George Washington had spoken out against anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiments as far back as 1776. But in the 1840s, anti-Catholic street riots in New York and Philadelphia had raged for days. A sign appeared on store windows and factory gates: “No Irish Need Apply.”
Anti-Irish xenophobia played a significant role in creating a new political party called the Know-Nothings. Later renamed the American Party, it demanded a closing of borders to all immigrants, a 21-year waiting period for citizenship, and that foreign-born Americans be permanently banned from voting and holding public office. In 1855, the American party won 43 seats in the House of Representatives. American Party member and Massachusetts Governor Henry J. Gardiner attacked Irish and other immigrants as, “aliens born, aliens unnaturalized, and aliens entirely ignorant of our institutions.”
Irish migrants faced similar problems in Canada. The resentment and reaction were seen in Toronto. Between June and October 1847, 38,000 Irish economic refugees overwhelmed the city that had a population at the time of only 30,000. Many Irish families moved quickly through Toronto to join established Irish communities in places like Peterborough County, but that didn’t stem anger regarding the city’s changing demographic. George Brown was the influential owner and editor of the Globe and future Father of Confederation. He spoke for many when he observed, “Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are ignorant and vicious as they are poor…They are lazy, improvident and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons.”
Barred from integration, Toronto’s Irish congregated in Cabbagetown and in nearby Corktown, named after the county from which many had come. Many businesses refused to hire Irish people with the powerful anti-Catholic Orange Lodge bolstering anti-Irish feelings. To defend themselves, the Irish created the Hibernian Benevolent Society. Toronto witnessed 29 riots involving Orange Lodge members and Irish migrants. Orange Day parades and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations always sparked violence.
Irish Potato Famine Monument in Toronto (Photo: Toronto Star)
The potato famine reduced Ireland’s population from 8.4 million in 1844 to just 6.6 million six years later. About one million died of starvation and related diseases. Between 1845 and 1860, 360,000 Irish migrants settled in Canada and 1.7 million in the United States. It took a couple of generations, but the prejudice and discrimination directed at them slowly faded as they became contributing members of society and, in America, soldiers in the Civil War. The xenophobic hatred they endured remained but its cruellest wrath was refocused on newer newcomers.
So here we are again. Some want to help and others are eager to direct fear and hatred at the latest group of ‘others’ to arrive in search of better lives. Syrians and others from countries torn by war, political corruption, and economic catastrophes are the new Irish. Muslims are the new Catholics. They are gazing up at us in our fort, constructed years ago, without permission, in an Aboriginal tree. Mr. Trump and some seeking Canada’s Conservative Party leadership are urging us to push down the ladder. It’s up to us.
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