J.C. Prendergast first encountered the former tenants of Viscount Clifden in February, 1849. Some 250 passengers – men, women and children – from the ship Challenger shivered on the loading docks of the New Orleans port. They had been left on the New Orleans levee from Saturday afternoon through Sunday night. They were the tenants of the Viscount Clifden, of County Kilkenny. Prendergast, editor of the Daily Orleanian, and Waterford native was appalled.
This would have been the 3rd Viscount, Henry Agar-Ellis (1825-1866). Lord Clifden held an Irish peerage, as well as a British rank. He also held the title of Baron Dover in the British peerage. He resided primarily in England.
Viscount Clifden paid for the tenants’ passage to New Orleans. He told them food would be provided on the voyage. So, the passengers spent their meager funds on clothing, not on food. They starved during the two month voyage. Steerage passengers were supposed to provide their own food. His Lordship was quite wrong about the food. That so many passengers emanated from the same place indicates they were victims of a land clearance. Clearly, Lord Clifden was clearing his estate of tenants. Several large land holders in Ireland were taking advantage of the Great Famine to rid themselves of those tenants who, in some cases, had farmed the same soil for generations. This was not a forced eviction, but something very similar. It was a brutal practice in the midst of the greatest famine in modern European history.
New Orleans Generosity
But for some humane New Orleanians, the passengers would have continued to starve upon their arrival in the new world. Edward White provided them with seven dollars worth of bread, which they consumed ravenously. “Notorious” women from the ball rooms came to aid the young women of the Challenger early Sunday morning. Other Irish residents of New Orleans not opulent, Prendergast tells us, contributed to their cause. Mr. Lebeau of the Cotton Press donated the use of his tenements in which they could vie until they left town. Those passengers left town for the upriver states where jobs were available. A cotton press was a business that compressed the cotton bales for shipment.
The 250 or so tenants had left County Kilkenny in December, 1948. Travelers generally avoided Winter travel. But, as the Norfolk News noted in 1848, the Irish tenants were so desperate to leave Ireland that in December, 1848, there were four ships already booked, even though those four ships still had yet to reach Galway harbor. It was a shipper’s market. There were more emigrants than ships.
One Pound Each
The Lord Clifden had promised the tenants one pound each. He told them he would forward the money to a bank in New Orleans. But, upon arrival in the city, the money was not there. It did not arrive. The travelers reported that the Lord told them himself. But, Agar-Ellis generally lived in England. He was an absentee landlord. Perhaps it was his agent who made the promise? It was one of his agents, a Mr. Ryan, who went to Liverpool to arrange their passage to New Orleans. Ryan was known for having quit a prior landlord, who was oppressing his tenants. Ryan was not believed to be an oppressive sort of agent. In any event, someone told Clifden’s tenants to expect a pound each upon arrival. But, upon arrival in the Crescent City, they received nothing. Not one red cent.
The Viscount Clifden was generally considered a kindly landlord. He reduced the rent during the famine, both prospectively and retrospectively. But, he was also a spendthrift. He spent a “princely sum” on race horses. He saw some early success, winning major races in 1848 and 1850. But, in time, his fortune would be lost. Indeed, he may have picked New Orleans, because it was cheaper. Passage to New Orleans cost almost one-half the fare to New York, Boston or Philadelphia.
The editor of the Orleanian, Prendergast believed it was better for the poor emigrants to remain in Ireland than suffer this sort of experience. The tenants arrived in the Crescent City with literally nothing. They arrived when cholera was then spreading throughout the city. Only due to donations by the citizens of New Orleans were they able to book passage upriver. They were able to travel upriver to St. Louis. But, cholera appeared again on the steam boat. Many of the long-suffering Irish immigrants were tossed overboard, after dying. Some were buried along the river in the hills. Prendergast tells the tale to persuade Irish not to emigrate. He lambasts the Irish landlords for “exterminating” their tenants. But, says Prendergast, only one in 20 will find work and that work will entail working 16 hours a day in the sun. Prendergast exaggerated the difficulty in finding work, but his point remained.
Norfolk News, Dec. 2, 1848, p. 4, col. 2
Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal, Jan. 6, 1849, p. 2, col. 2
New Orleans Daily Orleanian, Feb. 26, 1849, p. 2, col. 1
New Orleans Daily Orleanian, March 4, 1850, p. 2, col. 3
New Orleans Daily Orleanian, March 22, 1850, p. 2, col. 2
London Era, Feb. 25, 1866, p. 3, col. 3