Responding to the Great Famine of Ireland

  • Overseas
  • 1847

Potato blight ravaged crops all across Europe in the 1840s, but in 1846 three quarters of Ireland’s harvest was lost, leading to massive hunger and rampant disease. Amid shocking government incompetence, from a population of eight million a million people perished, and another million or so fled to the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. When it became evident that state authorities were not going to fend off the starvation, the Quakers in Dublin sent out a call for philanthropic action in November 1846. This, along with harrowing reports like those of starving dogs clawing up shallow graves and consuming the dead, got heavy play in U.S. newspapers. The result was more American giving for the Great Famine in Ireland than to any other cause in the first half of the nineteenth century. Donations poured in not just from Irish immigrants but from Protestants, Jews, Quakers, African Americans, and citizens of all stripes, mostly in small amounts but large numbers.

American aid “evoked a great national response in Ireland,” notes historian Merle Curti, and “encouraged emigrants and would-be emigrants to think of America as a place of refuge, as offering a chance to share in an abundant society. The Irish relief campaign also fixed fairly well the main pattern of American giving for the relief of a disaster abroad.”