Sunday, January 13, 2008

The poverty-stricken Irish: Why did they pick Boston?

Boston, Massachusetts was not the destination of choice for most immigrants arriving in America in the 19th-century.

According to Oscar Handlin's Boston's Immigrants: A Study in Acculturation:
"Certainly, prospective settlers who could be at all selective would pass Boston by in favor of its younger and relatively more flourishing sisters. For in this community there was no room for strangers; its atmosphere of cultural homogeneity, familiar and comforting to self-contained Bostonians, seemed
rigidly forbidding to aliens. And above all, space was lacking. Boston offered few attractions in either agriculture or industry. Its commercial ranks were not broad enough to absorb the sons of its own merchant class, and the fields of retail trading and handicraft artisanry were limited. The constricted social and economic life of the city and the far greater opportunities elsewhere, combined to sweep the currents of migration in other directions."
All "currents of migration" that is, except one: the poorest of the poor, the Catholic Irish.

As I mentioned in my earlier post Boston was a place where, according to Thomas O'Connor's The Boston Irish: A Political History, "an Irish Catholic, under any circumstance, should never, ever, [have] set foot."

But no other major immigrating group in the history of Boston, or even possibly the nation, arrived with such urgency, desperation and poverty as the Irish exiles forced from their homes during the time of the Great Famine.

In the words of the Cork Examiner, March 10, 1847:

"The emigrants of this year are not like those of former ones; they are now actually running away from fever and disease and hunger, with money scarcely sufficient to pay passage for and find food for the voyage."

As Oscar Handlin's book describes, "At the port of embarkation emigrant funds were inevitably depleted by weary weeks of waiting for passage, and any residue was used up during the long crossing. In New York and Boston the penniless newcomer arrived with no alternative but to stay where he was."

That is most likely the way in which my 17-year-old great-great-grandfather Patrick Tierney made his arrival in Boston in 1857. The son of Michael & Mary (O'Neill) Tierney of County Tipperary, Patrick had been born just a few days shy of the feast of St. Patrick in the year 1841. He was born just four short years before the most devastating famine in the history of Ireland. In 1857, after surviving what must have been an incredibly traumatic childhood, he stood on the threshold of a new hope for his future as a penniless new American immigrant.

Patrick lived most of the rest of his life in Boston's North End doing odd jobs - laborer, grocer, trader, peddler. He married and he and his wife Catherine Kennedy Tierney raised at least seven children in the North End before their move to Quincy just a few short years before Patrick's death in 1900.

It was a hard life where the struggle for daily bread was probably never far from this father's mind. Yet his move to Boston had saved Patrick from what might have been certain death had he remained in his homeland wracked by severe overlords and horrible famine.

If Patrick Tierney felt as his wife Catherine did, he was happy to have chosen the life of a poor Irish laborer in Boston's impoverished North End as opposed to remaining in the depravity of the land of his birth.

Patrick surely could relate to the feeling of the poet who penned these words to The Emigrant's Farewell published in the Boston Pilot on August 16, 1862:

Farewell to thee, Erin mavourneen,
Thy valleys I'll tread never more;
This heart that now bleeds for thy sorrows,
Will waste on a far distant shore.
Thy green sods lie cold on my parents,
A cross marks the place of their rest, -
The wind that moans sadly above them,
Will waft their poor child to the West.

For more information about the Irish Immigration postage stamp pictured above see this U.S. Postal Service webpage.


Lori Thornton said...

Interesting post, Lisa. It is curious how our ancestors ended up in certain places. I love reading about your Tierney family.

Thomas MacEntee said...

Very good post. As well, I am just finding out more about my Irish ancestors and the places where they arrived in America. So far, I am working on the McGinnis/McGinnes line with both my great-great grandparents arriving in New York in 1883 and 1885.


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