Famine and Flight

Although many of the Irish who arrived in Connecticut during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did so under the forms of duress already outlined, this was not the case for all new arrivals. Many others came as a result of the harsh conditions that gripped Ireland for decades following the Cromwellian occupation of the country. Bryne notes that such individuals, “were heartsick with the intolerable existence they were compelled to undergo ‘at home.’ They were driven from the Green Isle not by the lash of the man-hunter, but by the force of circumstances which flowed naturally from the iniquitous laws and barbarous treatment of former years.”19 The author notes that although English prejudices fell most heavily against Irish Catholics, such conditions impacted both Protestants and Catholics alike. Among the hardships was an almost perpetual state of poverty and famine. As the English government had either seized or ruined the majority of Irish land, commerce, and manufacturing, the Irish population was forced into a tenant farming system dominated by aristocratic landlords with little general concern for the well-being of the peasantry. Obliged to maintain unrealistically high rents, the population often found itself gravely short on food.

Notable among the famines that ravaged the country during the eighteenth century were those that took place during the late 1720s. In his History of the Irish Catholics From the Settlement in 1691, published in 1813, Matthew O’Conor wrote, “The years 1725, 1726, and 1727 presented scenes of wretchedness, unparalleled in the annals of any civilized nation.”20 Worse still was the fact that these conditions continued throughout the century. The Reverend John Lancaster Spalding noted,

In 1734 Bishop Berkeley asked this question: Is there on the face of the earth any Christian and civilized people so destitute of everything as the mass of the Irish people? In 1741 the graveyards were not large enough to contain the multitudes who died of hunger. In 1778 thirty thousand merchants and mechanics in Dublin alone were living on alms, and nine-tenths of the people had no other nourishment than potatoes and water.21

Such were powerful forces driving Irish immigration to the American colonies during the mid-to-late eighteenth and into the nineteenth century. Byrne notes that between 1771 and 1772, 17,350 Irish immigrants landed in the New World, with another 3,500 to arrive in 1773. By 1790, a total of 44,273 individuals of Irish origin were estimated to be living in the United States, 1,589 of these in Connecticut. Many of these persons established a strong and immediate bond with their new home, this hardened by their experiences under British rule in the Old Country. As a result, leading up to and during the Revolutionary War many of these new arrivals answered the call to disobedience and eventual service against British rule despite their short time in the colonies. Connecticut’s Irish population was no exception. In his 1919 book, A Hidden Phase of American History: Ireland’s Part in America’s Struggle for Liberty, Michael Joseph O’Brien identifies some 22 men of Irish birth or descent who served as army or naval officers in Connecticut’s military, and 86 non-commissioned and enlisted men of the surnames Burke, Connolly, Connor, Doherty, Kelly, Murphy, McCarthy, O’Brien, O’Neill, Reilly, Ryan, and Sullivan, alone. Such would not be the last examples of personal sacrifices made on the part of Irish immigrants for the state and country in their respective histories.22

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