Greetings and salutations from the Irish Railroad Workers Museum. We’re continuing our ongoing series as we do "The Big Pivot"...bringing the Museum to you, rather than you coming to us during these difficult days.
We hope you enjoy our selections from two compelling displays. Our featured articles today are a contrast of themes. Today's presentation from our "Remembrance Room” shows the Irish in their depths of despair during "An Gorta Mor", or Great Hunger. Many came to Baltimore, and other destinations just to survive. Conditions at home had deteriorated for many years, and a horrible crescendo was reached in the mid 1840's, when death or escape seemed to be the only option for millions.
A new life awaited many in Baltimore, and illiterate, unskilled Irish began work as heavy laborers for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. They advanced as far as their strong backs and wits would take them, and we rejoice in sharing the story of Connor Healy: one of our “High Kings of Baltimore”.
These contrasting themes of despair and hope are presented for your consideration, and some might find a modern application of them as we experience these current challenging days.
The genetic strain that caused the European potato blight made its way from South America to the United States, and then to Europe by way of potato shipments and the seed trade. The blight had been detected in the US in 1843, two years before it showed up in Europe. Other European countries experienced the blight but only the people of Ireland suffered greatly as a result.
Ireland had suffered a famine in 1782–83. Irish ports of the era were closed to keep Irish-grown food in Ireland. There was no export ban in the 1840’s.
26 million bushels of corn and 300,000 sheep were exported from Ireland to England in 1845, and 480,000 pigs and 186,000 cattle the following year. In 1847, almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to various English ports. These ships contained a wide variety of foodstuffs, including cured meats, dried beans, seafood and all sorts of live animals and animal byproducts. One million gallons of butter, usually churned by Irish peasants, was exported for sale in England.
These numbers were but a fraction of the total exports during the years of the Great Hunger. In total, over three million live animals were shipped from Ireland between 1846 and 1850.
During the 16th and 17th centuries the British government confiscated a great deal of land owned by Catholics, and enacted severe penal laws restricting land- ownership to Protestants. For example, in 1770 a farm was let to one family; by 1845 the same land held over 300 sub- tenants. Former owners of land, usually Catholic, were now renters. They had to work for their landlords in return for the use of a tiny patch of land where they grew enough food for their own families. Landowners usually grew grain on their lands. It was harvested by Irish peasants and exported to British markets for sale. Tenant plots were so small that no crop other than the volatile potato was sufficient to feed a family.
There were other intermittent famine years, and thousands of small tenants defaulted on their rent. They were often evicted for non-payment. Many landlords destroyed their modest cottages to prevent their return, and lands were transitioned to more profitable cattle raising that required little labor.
British government officials firmly believed in the laissez- faire philosophy. Its tenants stated that the demands of the marketplace would provide a natural balance of food and labor, and many resisted the introduction of government intervention. British officials thought that the landlord system itself had caused the problem, and that “Irish property should support Irish poverty”. The British government eventually instituted a public works program and soup kitchens, but these efforts proved insufficient for the needs of so many. Anyone who held 1⁄4 acre could not receive relief, so many gave up their tiny plots and entered the 130 work houses scattered throughout the country.
These were supported by additional taxes on landlords to pay for relief efforts. Many tenants had been evicted, unable to pay rents, and landlords fell into debt. Many estates were auctioned off in 1849, and wealthy investors who purchased land turned it into grazing pastures for animals to be exported. The poor were unable to buy food, and were not provided with grains and other foodstuffs to supplement their diet. Many had to travel great distances to eat subsistence fare at soup kitchens. Over 328,000 died due to disease and poor nutrition in the workhouses of the period.
Emigration during the famine years of 1845–1850 was to England, Scotland, South Wales, North America, and Australia. It is generally accepted that over one million people died as a result of the Famine, usually buried in mass graves, while another 1 1⁄2 million emigrated. Ships were usually overcrowded, in a poor state of repair, and many sailed from small, unregulated harbors in the West of Ireland. Provisions were inadequate and poorly managed. Conditions led to the rampant spread of disease, and mortality rates were high. Poor food supplies both before loading, and during the journey itself contributed to passenger’s vulnerability to infections and contagious disease. These were easily spread between so many desperate people, often with weakened immune systems.
In 1847 three Irish immigrant ships carrying 674 passengers arrived at Baltimore harbor. The port of Baltimore's health officer would not allow the sickest of the refugees to come into the city. A quarantine area was established near the Lazaretto Point Lighthouse in lower Canton, across the strait of water from Fort McHenry, and was dubbed the Canton infirmary. Many immigrants carried what the health officer called "ship’s fever" or typhus, as well as dysentery. The Hibernian Society of Baltimore stepped in to help and raised funds for a temporary hospital. The Sisters of Charity, headquartered in Emmitsburg, volunteered as nurses. Orphanages were set up by Father James Dolan, of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Fell’s Point, to house children who had lost parents on the journey.
Connor Healy (pictured, in white suspenders) was born in County Sligo, Ireland in 1853, during the years of the Great Hunger. He immigrated to Baltimore in 1872, and began a long career with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, where he began as a laborer, as many illiterate Irish did. Connor married the former Mary Ann Hussey, a distant relative, at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in 1876. Her parents had also been married at St. Peter’s, on August 31, 1859, and Mary Ann was baptized there on April 29, 1860. Connor and Mary Ann established a home at 903 McHenry St., bordering the Mount Clare Shops. It was a two and one half story house just five doors down from Mary Ann’s parents. They raised two children there, and later lived at 421 S. Poppleton Street with several relatives.
They eventually purchased a three story Italianate rowhouse at 1605 W. Lombard St., just west of Union Square. A native Irish speaker, Connor became literate and naturalized. He was promoted to engine inspector with the B & O, and spent years working at the Riverside rail yards, south of Locust Point, where he inspected locomotives like this Q-1aa Mikado, built in 1911. He continued as an engine inspector into 1930, at 77 years of age, and was the head of a home that included nine, including grandchildren and great grandchildren.
The Healy family attended St. Martin’s Catholic Church. Connor passed away on August 31, 1932 and was laid out at home. His funeral Mass was held at St. Martin’s, and Connor was buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery, where his father in law Isaac Hussey had been buried 49 years earlier.
(Thanks to Christine Balmert Marshall, Connor's great-great granddaughter for her contribution of both images of her ancestor, and to the accompanying narration)