August 16, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Irish Poverty, Irish Prosperity

The Irish people have thrived in America, and accomplished much even during the earliest years they lived here. They entered a system where hard work was rewarded, wealth could be accumulated in various measures and education opened doors to new, dramatic possibilities. Each was nigh impossible for many Catholic Irish in their homeland, who lived in an agrarian culture where land ownership was virtually unknown to them. Education was rare and building wealth of any size was remarkably difficult.

British theft of Irish lands in the early 1600’s and their enactment of the Penal Laws (1692-1829) caused deep poverty to be commonplace among the many modest, landless workers in the West of Ireland. Imagine being a farmer, and that for generations; an invader comes along and steals your family lands at the point of a gun, and gives it to others.

Your choice is to leave or adapt, and the Irish loved their lands and culture beyond measure. They were driven to the rougher patches and survived however they could, and the only option available was to work on their stolen land for the new owners if they wanted to remain. This labor served to pay their rent, and not much else.

Poor Irish saw no other real option, and stayed.

The homes of millions were made of the earth itself (pictured below), with rock walls, a roof made of thatch and modest wooden beams to hold it above them. Pigs lived in their usually windowless one-room houses with the family…and without chimneys or air flow beyond what might come in the front door. Smoke from cooking hopefully dissipated through the thatched roofs, as there was no chimney in many instances.

Turf fires cooked their meals, right on the floor, and their food itself was what could be grown on tiny plots nearby that were designated for their use. Potatoes were the only crop that could be grown in sufficient amounts to keep body and soul together, and they were thankful for them: albeit it was a crop that could be stored for nine months or so before it began rotting in the storage space available to them.

No wealth in the way of crops could be realized by the growing of the healthful, erratic and short-lived potato. The Irish climate was not the best for raising cereal crops such as oats, barley, wheat and corn, which could be dried and stored from year to year (and had been for millennia).

While these grains could be grown on nearby acreage, land-poor Irish could not produce the volume of food that families needed. A potato crop could provide 2-4 times the calories in comparison to grain, and 50% of the Irish people lived on potatoes and buttermilk.

Grain crops, due to their hardiness from year to year, could serve as a form of currency and a gathering of wealth. The potato could never do so, and was known as the food of the poor.

Virtually all in the landless laboring class were Catholic (2-3 million), and worked half the year as farm laborers. There was little in the way of industrial labor in other parts of the economy, and those who could worked as domestics or in the fishing industry.

Some made pocket money through churning butter or needlework, or perhaps selling an egg or two from chickens they were able to keep. Linen production could be done at home, as it was in the northern region known as Ulster, but any significant savings became impossible for most.

The Penal Laws put many restrictions on the Catholic Irish, who could not even educate their children within their faith tradition. Being a Catholic schoolmaster was a capital offense, and their efforts in dune schools or hedge schools (pictured above) were a secretive affair. For most Irish Catholic families the hope of a brighter future through education was denied, and they remained on the precipice of total despair for generations.

By government estimates, 60% of Irish lived in fourth-class housing in 1840. An example of the conditions was written about by Lord George Hill in his Facts from Gweedore, a narrative of an area he purchased, developed and then described. He wrote about the townland found there known as Tullahobagly, County Donegal.

Hill’s survey of 1837 described its 4,000 residents as having 10 beds, 93 chairs and 243 stools among them. Hill made many improvements to the area during his years there, but received criticism from both Catholic and Protestant observers. Some criticism was valid, but we learn about the conditions of deep poverty that existed there by his writings. We cannot be sure how much of his calculations were based on “poor-mouthing” of the Irish themselves, but certain perceptions can be deduced. Ireland was considered the most densely populated country in Europe, and dramatically poor.

Once the horrors of the Great Hunger visited Ireland, many former countrymen who had previously immigrated to Baltimore helped as they could. They had already found a bit of success in America, as had an earlier generation of Irish Americans. 1/3 of Irish who came to America in 1834 traveled on tickets bought for them in America by successful relatives, and once these earlier arrivals had found a touch of success themselves, they helped their countrymen from their new home.

In the first week of April 1847 seven ships sailed from Baltimore to Liverpool, Londonderry, Cork and Glasgow with grain, totaling 121,800 bushels of corn, 11,920 barrels of flour and 1,260 barrels of corn meal. The city had 73 rigged ships in port (later image shown, in Fell’s Point) during April 1847, and 39 were being loaded with grain for Europe.

Baltimore’s St. Patrick’s Day Mass in 1847, held at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Fell's Point, took up a collection for the Irish poor totaling $260.00.

These are just a few examples of how Baltimore helped the suffering Irish during the famine years, but a real solution was not to be. 570,034 poor Irish families, who had lived in fourth-class homes, vanished from the land by 1891.

Approximately 17,000 famine-era Irish both immigrated to and stayed in Baltimore, with many more traveling farther westward. Wage work was waiting for the men in the large industries of the city, and schools were already in place for the children, both parochial and public.

Schooling was a frustrating experience for children who had never been in a disciplined educational environment, and they were expected to focus and perform by teachers that included the Sisters of Mercy (see photo of Sister Mary Rita Liberty). They referred to their earliest Irish pupils as “listless and lawless”, but seem to have adopted a few methods to bring them to a more earnest demeanor. As a result of their immense efforts, literacy became common among a people who once had no opportunity to become so.

Christian Brothers arrived in Baltimore to work with young Irish boys, and had much success in parish schools such as St. Peter’s Male School, St. John the Evangelist Male School and St. Vincent de Paul Male School. Irish orphan boys learned the trade of farming, along with their normal education and catechism from the Brothers of St. Patrick, newly arrived from County Galway.

Single women often became domestics in large homes in the city, and mothers did housekeeping in recently built rowhouses. No longer working a temperamental potato patch, women might have taken in laundry and boarders, creating their own financial acumen. They shopped and socialized in Baltimore’s many public markets.

Churches flourished, and the parish itself had many organizations and societies that focused on religious and Irish themes. Men were joiners in those days, for sure, and lots of religious, political and Irish-oriented gatherings kept them engaged. Bars were for men, and many gathered there to socialize and have a few.

Families that once depended on the state of one crop for their very survival now were part of a vibrant city. These people were truly challenged to begin a new way of Irish life, and many responded magnificently.

Our “Big Pivot” series, and Museum writings over the years have focused on many who found success in their new lives in Baltimore, and across America. Once denied property, a developed religious life, education and any means to acquire wealth, they redefined what it meant to be Irish in their new land.

Some examples are listed below, as is where they once lived:

County Antrim: James McDonnell Sr. and Family

County Cavan: Miss Bridget McPhillips and Family

County Cork: Timothy M. Hurley and Family

County Donegal: Rt. Rev. Edward McColgan and Family

County Fermanagh: Mary Maguire McIntyre and Family

County Galway: Catherine Meehan O’Donnell and Family

Inishbofin Island, County Galway: Peter Grogan and Family

County Kerry: John Dee and Family

County Kilkenny: Patrick Brennan (Brother Leonard) and Family

County Leitrim: Miss Cecilia Flanigan and Family

County Limerick: Honorah Dougherty McSweeney and Family

County Louth: Henry McShane and Family

County Mayo: John P. McGowan and Family

County Monaghan: John P. Winters and Family

County Offaly: The Carroll Family

County Roscommon: Michael Quinn and Family

County Sligo: Conor Healy and Family

County Tipperary: James and Sarah Feeley, and their families

County Tyrone: Luke McCusker and Family

County Waterford: Joseph Whalen and Family

County Wexford: Mary Doyle and Family

Many thanks to these contributors to this issue:

Hill, Lord George. Facts from Gweedore. Queen's University of Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies,1971.

Library of Congress (Sachses Map)

Many Irish Families who have visited the Museum

Maryland Historical Society

Sharon Knecht and Family

Receive your Baltimore Irish History fix directly to your inbox

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