A More Wretched Set of Human Beings

J.C. Prendergast, an native, of County Waterford, Ireland, published and edited the Daily Orleanian in New Orleans during the ante-bellum years. He was a complicated person. He was a Whig, yet favored immigration. He criticized the famine Irish immigrants, yet, he sympathized with them immensely. The paper loudly proclaimed in the first page of every issue that it was the “official journal of the Third Municipality.” Prendergast was proud of the “old Third,” a working class area teeming with German, Irish immigrants and other nationalities. But, it was always Ireland and her concerns that pulled at him.

The Mushroom Aristocracy

He often criticized the “mushroom aristocracy,” his term for the Irish immigrants who had come to the new world, had found success, but did not help the more recent arrivals. The famine immigrants started arriving by the thousands in 1849. To the prior Irish immigrants, the new, famine arrivals were a pitiable lot. They arrived with few possessions. They knew no one upon arrival. They wore clothing long out-dated, even by rural Ireland standards.

Prendergast would talk to these recent arrivals. One such encounter occurred on Feb. 18, 1849. That was a late arrival. Usually, they arrived by October. A more wretched set of human beings he had not seen for years. These were the recent passengers of the British ship, John Garrow. They arrived with no one to greet them, carrying all their possessions in boxes, laid across the levee. In those days, the New Orleans wharves were simple extensions from the levee. The levee was a rise of land, some 3-4 feet high along the edge of the Mississippi River. The passengers, he noted were still gathered the next day there on the levee with nowhere to go. It was a frosty day, said the editor. New Orleans generally has a temperate climate, but February will still see temperatures in the 40’s and 50’s (Farenheit).

A Cadaverous Countenance

Prendergast asked one man, of a “cadaverous countenance,” if they were going up river? Many immigrants would seek work upriver at the busy Mississippi river ports. Work was there, if they could just reach those upriver points.

“Oh no sur, God help us, we had barely what paid our passage to this country. To escape starvation in our own, and ye see, there is seven of us in family here. Only for some gentleman, God bless him, who I never saw before, we would have been dead, for he let us into this little house, without asking a ha’ penny for it” – which if he did, we hadn’t it to pay.” Prendergast explained the “little house” was a small shed on the ferry wharf. In it now resided the man, a wife, a mother and three children and their “miserable looking beds.” Another nearby ferry house was full of the recent female arrivals.

If they were crammed into those two little what sheds, they were much better than the remaining passengers, huddling on the batture, the space between the levee and the river’s edge, with nothing but their boxes to cut the icy wind.

The condition of these recent arrivals troubled Prendergast all the next day. He described them as “gaunt, half-naked, half-famishing wretches.” At evening time, he wound his way back to the levee. He found all the women and children had been taken to some kind person’s house. The men remained huddled around tiny fires, trying to star warm, there on the batture under the night sky. So, for one night at least, some had shelter.

Prendergast then let loose, criticizing the various Irish-American groups, the Emmet Club, the Shamrock Society, the Hibernian Society, and others who pledged thousands for Ireland’s freedom. But, Prendergast expected too much. There was just too many coming, who needed so much, for ad hoc fund-raising. Private philanthropy was just not enough. The city of New Orleans actually did much to help he impoverished arrivals. Individual Irish-American groups did raise funds for the destitute arrivals. In 1851, the Emmet Guards, an Irish militia, raised $481.50 for upriver passage for recent arrivals. That was enough to send 219 recent arrivals upriver to jobs and security. But, it was not enough for the tens of thousands who came, with nothing.

Sources:

New Orleans Daily Orleanian, Feb. 19, 1849, p. 1, col. 1

New Orleans Daily Picayune, April 20, 1851, p. 2, col. 1

Earl Neihaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), p. 27

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