NEW YORK — On the eve of St. Patrick's Day, as the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty nears, let us be mindful that New York's longest and greatest Irish parade came right up the bay.
More than 4 million strong they came--4,212,216 to cite the official count--on a proud, sad march away from famine and religious oppression. Rank after rank of them paraded onto the shores of the "best poor man's country on Earth" and up the streets of that dream city "where every day is like Christmas for the meat."
Wherever the Irish parade in America this St. Patrick's Day, a bagpipe band is sure to skirl: "It's not leaving of Liverpool that grieves me, it's my darlin' when I think of you."
What a melancholy experience that was 100 or more years ago: the leaving of Liverpool. Some days, 30 ships left the Albert docks on the same tide, bound for America with a thousand or more Irish carried as ballast in steerage. In 1851, the high tide of the famine exodus, 1,712 emigrant ships came up the Narrows into New York harbor.
Liverpool, which already had grown rich on the slave trade, was filling the holds of ships that arrived from America with cotton, tobacco and timber with Irish ballast, at $12.50 a head ($17.50 on steamships), for the westbound voyage.
As early as 1816, Secretary of State James Monroe told President James Madison "the principal freight from Ireland to the United States consists of passengers."
But the real parade began to form on that September morning in 1845 when Irish farmers sniffed "a dampish, putrid" odor coming from their fields. By nightfall, the potato stalks were "black as your shoe and burned to the clay."
In five years, what Benjamin Disraeli called "the single root that changed the history of the world," deprived Ireland of one quarter of her population: a million dead, a million and a half gone to America.
"The hunger is upon us," a common refrain, was spelled out in the verdicts at coroner inquests: "died of famine," "hunger and cold" "starvation." A newspaper in Limerick, where 2,513 famine victims crowded the workhouse, urged the coroner to give up holding more inquests. "It is mere nonsense. The number of deaths is beyond counting."
In 1847, when typhoid followed in the wake of the potato blight, 1,879 Irish emigrants died on voyages to New York, and 534 babies were born.
The journey to "the land of hope and freedom," as advertised by shipping agents on posters at country crossroads, on church porches and on the sides of sheds, began with a wake--the so-called "American wake."
On the morning of the leave-taking, friends and neighbors would gather in the glen with the sorrowing family to escort the emigrant to the main road. A horse-drawn cart stood waiting to take him, sometimes her, to the port. Like all Irish wakes, this was a time for tears and prayers and laughter and "heart-scalding" memories ever after.
The boys would be passing around a jug of poteen, intoning the lilting farewell toasts: "May the road rise with you and the wind be always at your back, and may the Lord hold you in the hollow of his hand." The parish priest, in cassock and surplice, would be on hand, with a freckle-faced altar boy holding the holy water bucket, for the goodby and Godspeed blessing. A tearful mother would be pressing a supply of oaten "journey cakes" on the traveler, baked hard as "a slate, and as good when they got there as when they left."
Oftentimes the emigrant tucked a bit of turf into his slender luggage.
The emigrant got a sample of the horrors that lay ahead when he crossed the Irish Sea on the open deck of a crowded steamer, exposed to the elements for 22 to 36 hours, lashed by the sea spray, packed in with cattle and swine bound for the English market.
"The parties who take them over get 10 shillings a head," observed John Besnard, who at the time was weigh master on the docks of Cork. "They do not get half that money for pigs, and yet the pigs are comfortably lodged between decks, because they are of value to somebody."
The Dublin & Liverpool Co.'s steam packet Princess carried 200 of its 350 passengers in the wooden stalls erected on deck for Queen Victoria's horses when she visited Ireland in 1849. The "Forty Thieves," as the dockside porters were known, extended Liverpool's infamous welcome by wresting sea chests and suitcases from the naive emigrants, charging exorbitant fees and delivering them to vermin-ridden boarding houses where they were overcharged, fed rancid food and often robbed of their money and belongings.
Money changers grossly cheated them. Shipping agents along the Waterloo road worked all kinds of swindles, selling passages to Quebec instead of New York, telling them "ST" on a ticket stood for stateroom rather than steerage, leading them to provisioners who conned them into buying elaborate cooking gear and a chamber pot for the voyage .