August 16, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Baltimore and its Significant Role in Famine Relief

We continue our explorations of Baltimore’s Irish community, and find ourselves a bit amazed at what is out there to be found, and how little of it is common knowledge…at least for this writer. We know the bigger themes, don’t we? There was a Potato Famine, and lots of Irish received help from America, or came to cities like our Baltimore.

We’ve really learned a lot about the famine ships and their arrivals in lower Canton, at the quarantine station hospital built to care for them by the Hibernian Society. We’ve talked quite a bit about the care of orphans by Father James Dolan in a few different settings, and the creation of churches to care for their spiritual needs. There’s more though, and we are happy to learn about so many caregivers from our part of the country.

The City of Baltimore and surrounding region played a significant role in America’s coming to the aid of Ireland during the blackest of times, and in ways that are consistent with the unique traits of a city established on the largest harbor in the mid-Atlantic. The city’s major role in transportation, both on land and sea, was used effectively to meet the desperate needs of others. Established church communities and their members, both Catholic and Protestant, gave generously towards relief efforts, as did the abundant farming communities that gave and sent supplies to the Port of Baltimore. It was there that the hulls of ships were filled and prepared for the vital journey to Irish ports.

Today’s writing was inspired by a book that was recently published. It is titled Voyage of Mercy. Its focus is on the efforts of the New England community to give aid to the starving Irish in 1847 by packing the USS Jamestown full of food and sending it to Ireland. Readers learn about the community itself that gave so generously, the heroic ship’s captain and crew that volunteered to serve as crew on the borrowed Navy vessel, and the dramatic celebrations once they arrived at Cork Harbor.

An additional highlight of the book is learning about Reverend Theobald Mathew, a Catholic priest who gave of himself sacrificially to his countrymen as they starved and suffered (see his statue in Cork City, Ireland). He is more commonly known as the Apostle of Temperance, challenging millions to turn from the use of alcohol both in Ireland and abroad. This book does a wonderful job in telling the stories of his ministry to many during the famine years, and is well worth the read.

Boston has a story to tell about giving famine relief, as does New York and Philadelphia. How about our beloved Baltimore, and the greater Mid-Atlantic region? Join me as we consider some thrilling discoveries about our local heroes of 1847 and beyond.

The horrors of the Great Hunger in Ireland made their way to America via the slow methods of the time, and newspapers told the stories about the failure of the potato crop as early as 1845, when fields were suddenly blackened by disease. The poor Irish of the western counties were particularly traumatized as they saw their only means of sustenance, the healthful but erratic potato, reduced to a black mush in the fields they tended. These Irish were truly poor, and a crop as short-lived as the potato gave them little reserve to depend on. Methods such as public works schemes and soup kitchens offered a small measure of comfort to the starving millions, but by 1847 they had run their course, for the most part.

The horrors of life in Ireland’s workhouses (Clifden workhouse, pictured below) did little to help these desperate people, and over 300,000 perished among strangers, divided from their own family within these nightmarish structures. The notorious days of “Black ’47 “had arrived, and Americans knew they had to step forward if lives were to be saved.

Among those who knew intimately about the needs in Ireland were the recent immigrants from that same country who knew these starving people personally. Baltimore had agents that processed remittances as small as £1 to be sent to the banks of Ireland, purchased by the most modest of the local working class (see images).

These donors were often laborers and domestics who had financial troubles of their own, but desired to come to the aid of millions who faced hunger and affliction well beyond what they would likely experience. Firms such as Alexander Brown & Co. (established by an Ulster Irish linen merchant and investment banker) received as many as a dozen remittances a day from Baltimore’s generous poor.

It was not the first time that the people of the United States formed organizations that gave generously towards their own countrymen by birth. An Irish Relief Fund was established in America as early as August 17, 1822 when the Boston Pilot newspaper encouraged every pulpit in the city to appeal to their congregants regarding the need to give generously to the starving people of Ireland: a country susceptible to famine due to its temperamental potato crop, depended on by millions.

This fund was regenerated during other famine times, but never so vigorously as in early 1847 when relief organizations were established in major cities along the East Coast and further south. Large cities such as Baltimore served as collection points for a greater region of givers from points west. Money, food and supplies flowed into America’s port cities and were shipped to Ireland. These donations were received from great and small, in public and private settings, and from religious denominations that we would expect, from a modern vantage point, while others might not have been. Catholics and Protestants both gave generously.

Baltimore’s Irish Relief Fund was led by Hugh Jenkins, treasurer. He was a major merchant, and a leader of Baltimore’s Irish community and its Hibernian Society. Jenkins was a major supporter of the Manual Labor Farm for Irish orphan boys and a dear friend of Rev. James Dolan, pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Fells Point, and Rev. Bernard J. McManus, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in the future 10th Ward. Jenkins was also an Episcopalian.

Jenkins certainly was not “all talk”, and gave £1,000 towards Baltimore’s fund (see image)…the equivalent of $4,400 at that time, and current equivalent of $150,000. This served more than just a bragging point for the Fund treasurer. His donation inspired thousands of others to give, both in the Mid-Atlantic region and points well beyond.

Jenkins’ generosity was the foundation of a solid contribution towards the needs of Ireland, and gifts such as his also made for good copy in out-of-town newspapers. New Orleans’ “Times-Picayune” encouraged their readers to follow Baltimore’s example in an article dated February 6, 1847.

Henry Clay (pictured above), the famous politician and orator from Kentucky, clamored for the same at a town meeting in New Orleans later that month. Referring to the Irish as “bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh”, and essential to America’s military conquests, Clay implored his audience to meet Ireland’s outstretched hand at its time of desperation with generosity. The city responded with their own collection of $7,000.

This was a bit of a “call-and-response” method of building large amounts of aid for the Irish, and newspapers listed givers and giving organizations by name. This acknowledged a gift receipt publicly, keeping the work of the Irish Relief Fund above board, but also served as a challenge to others who needed a little encouragement towards making a donation, with a bit of competitiveness thrown in to boot.

Baltimore used several methods to raise money for famine relief, including a fundraising ball held at the Holliday Street Theatre on February 18, 1847. The festivities raised $2,000 and was added to the existing fund balance of $3,000. Baltimore would never be able to give at the level of a huge city like New York, but records show that the city’s giving to the fund was considerable (see chart above).

Catholic Churches had a giving spirit towards the fund. St. Patrick Church gave $378 towards the fund, virtually matching the total at the Cathedral collected in late February. A second collection was taken on St. Patrick’s Day at the Fells Point parish, when St. Patrick’s netted an additional $260. St. Alphonsus (See modern picture below) and St. James were also generous towards the fund, as was St. Rose parish in Gaithersburg.

Considerable gifts were also received by the fund from the region’s Episcopal churches, including Christ Church (Rockville), St. James and St. John (both of Hagerstown), Christ Church (Cambridge…pictured below), Church of the Ascension (Westminster) and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Baltimore…Hugh Jenkins, member.

The Irish Relief Fund also received funds collected by the citizenry of several jurisdictions well beyond the city. Rockingham County, VA collected $766 towards the fund, and gifts were also received from Powhatan County. Small towns and Maryland counties also gathered funds, including Middletown and greater Frederick County. Union Bridge also sent a donation from its citizens. Nearby Ellicott’s Mills, just a 13-mile train ride from Baltimore, sent a generous gift of $454. York County (Pa.) sent in 100 barrels of corn meal by train.

Frederick County also sent a special gift for the care of immigrant Irish in Lower Canton, just beyond the border of Baltimore City. Its Lazaretto Point Quarantine Station  put good use to the $36 gift sent its way to nurse the suffering arrivals from Ireland.

Colleges and universities also made collections to meet the needs in Ireland, and included $270.50 from the professors and students of St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland. Yes, the politicians got involved as well. $2,131 was received by Baltimore’s relief fund from the two houses of the U.S. Congress and their members.

Baltimore was a centrally located destination for grain shipments overseas, and many sent donations to the port of Baltimore for shipment to Ireland. Ships Roanoke and Georgia transported close to 1,000 donated barrels of corn meal in early March, 1847. These were part of a huge total of cereals shipped to Ireland and Great Britain during this time of need: some 121,800 bushels of corn, 11,920 barrels of flour and 1,260 barrels of corn meal. The Roanoke carried a second donation of foodstuffs in May of 1847, including 289 barrels of corn meal and 9 barrels of flour. These were shipped in barrels donated by a generous Baltimore cooper named Mr. Henry Placide, who had a wife and nine children of his own to support.

While Baltimore could not quite match the generosity of a huge city like New York, the city’s unique position as a shipping center for regionally farmed grain, center of religious life and a solid destination for immigrants led to its prominent place among the list of American cities whose hearts were tender towards the Irish people, especially during their darkest hours.

Special thanks to each who contributed to the production of this writing, including:

Archdiocese of Baltimore

Baltimore Sun

Christine Kinealy, author

C.C. Knobeloch, photographer

Episcopal Diocese of Maryland

Stephen Puleo, author

Receive your Baltimore Irish History fix directly to your inbox

Get more ideas on what to do on the
Baltimore Travel Guide.