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.


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

The Venerable Hon. Charles Le Poer Trench

The Venerable Honorable Charles Le Poer Trench died in 1839. He was son of the Earl of Clancarty. The Trench family’s great house was located in Garbally, just outside Ballinasloe, in eastern Co Galway. The home is now St. Joseph’s college. Visit this site here to see a picture of Garbally Park (house).

Rev. Trench was the Vicar for the Church of Ireland parish in Ballinasloe for many years and was also Archdeacon of Ardagh. As Archdeacon, he was responsible for supervision and discipline of clergy. Another Trench relative was the last Protestant Archbishop of Tuam for the Church of Ireland. The Trench family erected this beautiful memorial to him when he passed. According to the plaque mounted at the base, the funds for the memorial were raised through subscriptions “of all ranks and religious distinctions.” See Irish Aesthete post here.

Some of the local folks believe this is a monument to the Earl of Clancarty’s pack of hunting dogs built during the Famine when folks were starving. The plaque is in Latin, so it is not surprising that many people do not know what it says. If they could read it, they would see that the memorial was erected years before the famine. For more about the Trench family and the Earls of Clancarty, see Ask About Ireland here.

During the Great Famine of the 1840’s, the Trench family refused to conduct mass evictions, as some landlords did. But, one Earl established free public schools and required tenants to send their children. But, the Earl also required that Protestant religion be taught. The family established a Bible study in Ballinasloe. The family was said to use physical force when proselytising. The Earls did not allow sub-tenants, which often lead to the predatory practices of middleman sub-lessors. If they were evangelical in their religious views, they were also fair-minded landlords.

During the Great Famine of the 1840’s, the Trench family refused to conduct mass evictions, as some landlords did. But, one Earl established free public schools and required tenants to send their children. But, the Earl also required that Protestant religion be taught. The family established a Bible study in Ballinasloe. The family was said to use physical force when proselytizing. The Earls did not allow sub-tenants, which often lead to predatory practices by middleman sub-lessors. If the Earls of Clancarty were evangelical in their religious views, they were also fair-minded landlords.

The Trench family legacy was mixed. Yet, the Protestant memorial remains in a town that is now much more Catholic than back in 1839. The American South is not the only place where memorials to a distant past remain despite changing populations. I visited the Charles Trench memorial in 2019 and found it neglected, but otherwise in wonderful condition. A memorial to a distant time and once cherished relationships.

Southern Support for the Irish

Early in the Famine, Southern cities offered aid to the starving Irish. Natchez, Mississippi, a busy river port, had a thriving Irish population. The Natchez Mississippi Free Trader first reported on the Famine on Feb. 17, 1847. The newspaper called on its readers to provide aid for the “starving Irish.” Natchez citizens met on Feb. 20 at the Mansion House hotel and agreed to set up a committee to collect money. Leading citizens proclaimed that the free land of America was watered by the blood of Ireland’s sons. One Samuel Cartwright denied the Irish were against “our Southern institutions” (i.e., slavery). He called on the city to contribute, so as to pay a debt owed to Ireland. A local planter, John B. Nevitt, agreed.

Within a few weeks, what had been a Natchez committee became a regional committee across several counties. By March 17, the committee had raised $1,300 for the Irish. That amount included several donations by Protestant churches.

The folks in Jackson, Mississippi followed soon after with their own collection efforts. They raised $444.50 which they sent to New Orleans. The Jackson committee expected another $100 within a week from Vicksburg and Woodville.

Sergeant S. Prentis, a leading politician in Mississippi and a Whig, took up the cause. In New Orleans, the “Whig Orator of the Old South” made one of his greatest speeches in calling on Americans to aid the Emerald Isle.

This support would continue until the Famine Irish started arriving on America’s shores. At that point, the worst stereotypes of the Irish began to predominate.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 102- 104.

The Irish Voting Block

The early Irish hooked themselves to the Democratic party. The alternative was the Whig party. But, American Whigs were not a real option. They generally held nativist sentiment. And, of course, back home in Ireland, the Whigs were the landlords. Later, during the Famine, the Whig party was the British party that took little to no action in response to the famine. So, when the Irish arrived in the US, the Democrats welcomed the Irish immigrants. Unlike the German immigrants, the Irish spoke English. They could negotiate the electoral process.

Only naturalized citizens could vote. The Irish were willing to become naturalized, so they could vote. And, the Irish voters tended to vote in a bloc. They understood how to navigate the democratic system. In the old country, the rural Irish had a strong tradition of organizing quietly, secretly. In the 1840’s, an immigrant could become a naturalized citizen after residing in the U.S. for a number of years. Theirs was a minority bloc, but it was one that could tip an election. In 1853, they helped the Democrats elect the mayor in New Orleans. A few Irish candidates were elected across the South, but mostly it was the Irish voting bloc that made a difference. The Irish workers then often received public jobs and contracts.

So, in some ways, the Irish in the South fared better than their brothers and sisters in the North. Joe Gleeson was an ex-policeman in Charleston. He invited his father in the North to come down to Charleston, instead of “perishing” in the North. Joe assured his father that he, Joe could return to his job as policeman after his father assumes Joe’s current job. Joe could get a job as a policeman “any time,” he assured his father.

Perhaps because of the Democratic party support for slavery, the Native American Association (not American Indian) found little support in the South. In Boston and Philadelphia, the nativists openly attacked the Irish community. No such large scale attacks occurred in the South. In 1844, anti-Irish riots lasted three days in Philadelphia before the militia was called in to restore order. Evangelical preachers had claimed, incorrectly, that the Irish were seeking to ban the Bible from public schools. St. Augustine’s Catholic Church was burned to the ground. No such large scale attacks occurred in Southern cities.

See more about the anti-Irish riots of 1844 here.

A Young Jefferson Davis was newly elected Democratic Congressman from Mississippi in 1845. Assuming office, he promptly castigated the nativists in Congress for their “sordid character [and] arrogant assumptions.” He argued that instead of restricting naturalization, laws should be passed making naturalization easier. And, in general, many Southern newspapers were sympathetic to Ireland’s cause.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 100-102.

What did the United States do to Help with the Irish Famine?

The Famine in Ireland during the 1840’s was the worst disaster in Europe during the nineteenth century. A country of some 5 million lost 3 million people in just a few years. It is said 1 million died and 2 million emigrated. It was a scarring experience for all Irish. The Irish children of the 1840’s would grow to become the Irish soldiers, North and South, in 1861.

What did the United States do during the Famine? Private citizens donated huge amounts in the 1840’s. Some 118 ships left U.S. shores for the Irish nation. They carried some $545,145 worth of food stuffs. Doubtless, much of that was donated or generated by Irish immigrants then living in the U.S. What did the U.S. government do during the Famine?

It was not clear at the time that the U.S. government should help. Many Congressmen and Senators argued that it was unconstitutional for the country to use public funds for private relief. At least two bills to authorize the spending of public money to help Ireland died in committee. One Democrat senator, John Niles, a slavery opponent, opposed one bill, saying charity begins at home. The country should aid those within the U.S., not persons in far off lands. Another Congressman, Lewis Levin, an early Know Nothing party leader, always opposed Catholics. He argued one proposed bill was actually intended to feed “party vultures,” not Famine victims. He meant the bill was to help some politicians secure Irish votes in America, not feed the starving. The American (Know Nothing) party started in New York in 1843. The nativist sentiment in the United States was strong in the 1840’s. Rep. Levin wanted to increase the requirement to become a citizen from living in the U.S. from five years to 21 years.

The U.S. government eventually did allow that two U.S. war ships could be used to transport food to the victims of the Famine. Congress passed a bill making this possible. Remarkably, they felt it was constitutional to use government resources, so long as actual ownership of U.S. property was not transferred to private persons. One ship, the Jamestown, was quickly loaded in Boston and was in Cork within 15 days of departure.

But, the second ship, the Macedonian, languished in New York harbor until the Jamestown returned. The New Yorkers simply did not contribute the way Boston’s citizens contributed. That was probably because New York City was ground zero for the new American (Know Nothing) party. The nativist attacks on Irish immigrants in New York were severe. When the Jamestown returned, the Boston committee quickly collected enough donations to finish loading the ship. The captain of the Jamestown, George DeKay of New Jersey, spent $30,000 of his own money outfitting the Macedonian. This set back Capt. DeKay financially. He requested relief from Congress. Before the body could act, however, he died exhausted and penniless.

Timothy J. Sarbaugh, “Charity Begins at Home: The United States government and Irish Famine Relief 1845-1849,” History Ireland, Vol. 4, Issue 2, Spring, 1996.