What Immigrants of the Irish Great Hunger Can Teach US

In a recent conversation regarding the present migrant crisis in Europe, and the current fear mongering against Muslims, I began to see a similarity between the mass exodus of the Irish due to the Great Hunger in the years after 1845. Is there anything we can learn from a comparison?

Marginalisation of immigrants is a pattern that repeats throughout history. Europe and now America are continuing that pattern. Fear, always the main ingredient of marginalisation, now at an all-time high. “Who are we letting in?” being the question most people ask.

There are some similarities between the current European migrant crisis, our US terrorist situation and the Irish who managed to survive the treacherous trans-Atlantic ocean crossing in the years after 1845.

I’ve written here before about coffin ships and the horrible conditions Irish emigrants endured. Not every ship was a “coffin ship.” There were a few ships, such as the Dunbrody, and the Jeanie Johnston that made the journey with minimal or no loss of life. Most quarantined ships during the Great Hunger years brought emigrants to the Canadian port of Grosse Île in Quebec.

Grosse Ile quarantined the sick, controlled the spread of disease and the flow of immigrants into Canada and the US.

If Irish immigrants did survive the journey on the coffin ship, and many did not, it was the first in a series of hurdles that they would need to clear.

Approved for entry into their new homelands, the migrants did not look healthy compared to the natives. The skeletal immigrants were looked on as sub-human and diseased. They’d saved what they could for the long journey in a time when food and money were scarce. What little money they did have was put aside for passage fares on coffin ships, not food.

It was not long before “No-Irish Need Apply” signs began to appear in shop windows and lodging houses throughout the US.

The Irish, a starving people, did not fit in and were treated poorly because of it. They looked “sick.” Why was there a shortage of food in Ireland during the years 1845-1852? Ireland is a farming country. Lots of good farmland for growing crops and grazing livestock, so why not eat what you grow?

Christine Kinealy in History Ireland magazine says, “Almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London during 1847,…The food was shipped under military guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland;… A wide variety of commodities left Ireland during 1847, including peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, tongues, animal skins, rags, shoes, soap, glue and seed.”

Though popular opinion at the time would have alleged the Irish to be sick, lazy and half-witted, nothing could have been further from the truth. The Irish worked hard to assimilate into a new culture. Were all immigrants perfectly behaved? Of course not. But the larger population of Irish did work hard, making a respectable life in their new homelands.

Here’s a few  notable Irish-Americans who made a difference. There are a few gangsters in there too, I won’t revise history, but the positive immigrants and their lagacies by far out weigh the negative ones.

The Irish were not the only immigrants to go through a rough transition period. Italian, Chinese, German, Jewish and Mexican immigrants have all endured growing pains in the US. In 1875 the US government began to regulate immigration and only a few years later the US banned immigrants from certain countries. Sometimes ethnic groups such as African-Americans and Japanese,  already citizens and living in the US, were marginalized and discredited as well as being treated like third class citizens.

I am not against increased security checks for immigrants. I myself was interviewed, fingerprinted, TB tested, lung x-rayed and AIDS tested, yes I was. And so was every other Donnelly Visa Lottery winner. Determined to get a visa for the US, I was willing to jump through every hoop presented in order to get my legal visa, eventually a Green Card, and then citizenship.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (Picture via New York City Wallpapers)

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
(Picture via New York City Wallpapers)

In fact, I have nothing against comfortable and humane quarantine stations either, the cost of which should be burdened by all countries of processed immigrants. If we are taking in the tired, poor and huddled masses, share that burden with us.

There are a lot of ways  to do background checks and prevent undesirable immigrants from entering the US presently. Detaining immigrants until they have been fingerprinted and have background checks and deporting the ones who refuse is a good start.

Gun control is another excellent step in the right direction to protect us from terrorists at home and abroad. Despite what Donald Trump is saying, not every Muslim is a terrorist. Anti-Muslim sentiment is nothing more than Donald Trump’s scare-mongering for votes. Hitler did it and Oliver Cromwell did as well.

History. Sometimes we can learn from it, more often than not we learn nothing more than  we are doomed to repeat it.




            The dry cleaners smelled of perchloroethylene. That stink, sweet smell reminded her where she was and made her homesick; not because of its familiarity, but because of its strangeness.

The accents were Mexican, Chinese, Korean, and American.  She was the only Irish one. An exotic bird in a cage of varied nationalities; looked down upon, less than, and doing the jobs that the locals refused to do. The work of lesser mortals, the Morlocks, doing the work that the Eloi preferred not to.

            Homesickness is an ailment that strikes the physical, mental, and spiritual being. The idle chit chat she once was capable of performing effortlessly became a tantamount effort at communication. She thanked God for the itemized slips. Never looking the customers in the eye, “5 shirts boxed with starch,” and she circled each criteria on the docket. “2 suits, same day.” All she ever had to ask was their name, and sometimes she had to ask them to spell it. It was then that they detected her accent. “Are you Irish?” “Yes.” “Oh! My grandparents were from Ireland!” “Oh really? What part?” “I don’t know.” Occasionally they would know and tried to remember the town, mispronounced the place name, or they began to recount their trip to Ireland.

            The Mexican taught her how to drive. She called him Mario Andretti for fun. She learned to say hello, goodbye, and count to ten in Spanish. The Korean said she looked too thin, and made an extra lunch every day to fatten her up. She learned to say hello, goodbye, and count to ten in Korean. The Chinese man looked down on her; she was, after all, a woman. The Americans praised her work efforts, told her to slow down, and warned that cancer was an evil that ran through families, promised to pray for her, or asked her for a loan to feed a gambling habit.

The Mexican and Korean learned to say hello, goodbye and count to ten in Irish.

            A family formed. All immigrants. Everyone was from somewhere else. The Mexican was an accountant, but made more money working as a presser. The Korean wanted independence, which work provided. And she was in university. The customers seemed shocked to hear it. But then again, in this town, the occupants had the luxury of choosing where to work. Where she came from, that option was non-existent.

How could you miss a place that couldn’t give you work? Is home in the blood? Do you still call it home when you’ve been gone twenty years? Will the homesickness go away eventually? She wondered if she would ever fit in. 

            Marriage, motherhood, twenty years of Thanksgivings, July Fourths, Memorial Days, and Labor Days. All it takes is two days in Ireland to bring back the homesickness. It will pass, she tells herself, but she knows it’s getting worse as she gets older. She wonders if other immigrants die with this feeling of not belonging. At what point will she be more American than she is Irish. And she secretly hopes that this will never be the case.

            An immigrant, she tells herself, is an ethnicity abroad. There are more immigrants than there are nationals. The world has been pulsating with shifting tribes for thousands of years. She reminds herself that to be Irish means to be part of a culture that was conquered by the Celts, Vikings, Normans, Spanish, and the English.

            A piebald heritage, not one hundred percent of anything. This gives her solace. She is not the first, and won’t be the last, to feel homesick for a land that she belonged to for eighteen years. Homesickness is transferred into pride. Home is in the blood.

Update via Irish Times on the Couple locked out of their house on a ghost housing estate

Ghost Housing Estate Ireland

Ghost Housing Estate Ireland

The couple, Michelle and William Burke, have been paying their mortgage for the last seven years and still have not spent one night in their home. I wrote about it in my blog post entitle How Bad is the situation in Ireland? Pretty Bad.

According to the Irish Times, the couple protested outside that estate today, and good on ’em! Let’s hope that the more attention that is brought to this matter the swifter the problem will be resolved.You can hear Michelle on Ireland’s national radio telling her story below.

Just a note that the audio will only play when you are in Internet explorer, not in Firefox.


The First Trip to Ireland

Myself and Kevin in Killarney,  August 1994, and the last time that himself wore a watch.

Myself and Kevin in Killarney (aka Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head) August 1994, and the last time that himself wore a watch.

It was 1994, August, and the weather was behaving itself for a change. I told my husband that his perception of Ireland, based solely on the John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara classic movie, The Quiet Man, was totally and utterly inaccurate.

“People don’t dress like that!” and “We don’t eat spuds at every meal!” and “Ireland has become modernised, for Gawd’s sake!” or “We even have pasta now! There’s lasagna in the country! Waffles, pancake syrup, and corn on the cob in the supermarkets in Galway city!” This was 1994 and the idea that someone could like a stereotypical notion of Ireland was silly to me.

Then a funny thing happened on the journey around southern Ireland. The people proved me wrong.

Mr. and Mrs. Potatoe Head.....the metamorphis is complete.

Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head…..the metamorphosis is complete.

It started when we had dinner at a restaurant in Killarney. We ordered our meal and, this is a true story now, without even asking for potatoes the main course arrived with scalloped potatoes, boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes, chips (French fries) baked potatoes and roasted potatoes.

“Yearra shure ye’ll be well able for it!,” was the encouragement the waitress gave us when she saw my husband’s eyes do a cartoon bulge out of his head and back in at the sight of food on the table. “Potatoes are in season now shure! Give us a shout if ye need anything else!” Mushrooms were in season too. Two massive bowls of mushrooms were placed on the table. And we were not charged anything extra for all of the extra food! Not a penny! Mind you, we didn’t eat ALL of it either.

The restaurant, I can’t remember the name, was the Bubba Gump Shrimp of potatoes. So much for this metropolitan, modernised version of Ireland that I was trying to push on my husband.

After doing tours of the Jameson distillery and Waterford Crystal factory we headed off to Dungarvan to play 9 holes at the Gold Coast Golf Club. Located on a beautiful peninsula just outside of Waterford city, it was an absolutely gorgeous location and the weather was glorious.

Gold Caost Golf Club County Waterford ariel view

Gold Coast Golf Club County Waterford

Around about the third hole, an old farmer stood watching us over the barbed wire fence that separated his farm from the golf course. We began to feel a little uneasy. It effected my golf game greatly, I started to play lousy under his gaze. 🙂 He watched us hit our drives and then threw his leg over the fence and followed us all around the course.

Old Irish FarmerI wish I had a camera to take his picture. He wore a tweed cap, the peak tipped to the side of his head, and his trousers were held up with a rope. He stopped, watched us take our shots, and then quietly followed us around as he pulled on his tobacco pipe and shoved his hands into his pockets.

Then, with a tip of his cap, a nod of his head, he disapperead back over the barbed wire fence onto his own farm. Maybe he was an avid golfer himself and wanted to see how well the young Yanks could play, I don’t know. But he proved me wrong about the Irish being modernised.

In 2007 my husband, son and I went back to Killarney. We sat in a restaurant and ordered dinner. The boom had come and gone, but its effects were still evident.

“That’s what I miss most,” my husband said as he looked around the restaurant, “the accent.” Most of the people who worked in the restaurant were not Irish. Though the waitress was friendly and lovely to us, she was Spanish. The woman behind the bar was Polish, big changes in a what seemed to us the blink of an eye, 13 years.


We have baked, boiled, scalloped, deepfried, mashed and roasted spuds! Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man

The world is shrinking, people are migrating, and the old fashioned idea of wanting to hold onto a stereotype of Irish culture is a foolish thing. But that day in the restaurant I didn’t try to push a modernised view of Ireland on my husband, because I missed The Quiet Man version too. I wanted Maureen O’Hara to bring out a bowl of spuds to our table, but she didn’t.

Today we serve lasagna, cappuccino, banoffi pies and we can take your order in lots of different languages. There’s nothing wrong with that, diversity is good. But we’ve gotten a bit nicer in Ireland, because we realise that we almost lost our identity in the boom, almost. The Euro won’t steal away our identity either, because on the peninsulas and back roads of Ireland, there are little old farmers wearing ropes as belts and little old Irish women serving lumgullion.

Mona, the Body in the Bog

Mona, The Body in the Bog, my current book, is available on Amazon and Kindle.

Stephen King has nothing to worry about. Here’s my first ever attempt at writing a book.

Though the story begins with two male warriors, it really is about two women; one lives in ancient Celtic Ireland, and the other lives in the present.

Here is the introduction to my ancient Celtic murder mystery and love story.


Never before had he seen the symbol of the triune goddess on anyone else but his wife and himself. Now, lying on the beach here before him lay a defeated Fir Bolg with the same symbol dangling from his neck; three intertwined silver leaves glittering in the golden, sinking sunlight.

A hand reached up to touch his tunic. The sun blinding the fallen warrior’s eyes, the figure standing before the Fir Bolg warrior now a black silhouette, in stark contrast to the brightness surrounding him.

Behind the wounded Fir Bolg warrior, the waves rolled in, crashing against his back, knocking him off balance. Again his hand reached for the tunic, but slipped, grabbing the checkered braccae that stuck to the Irish Celt’s legs with each crashing wave that broke against his muscular calves.

The spear was a thin wooden shaft, its iron point projecting at an angle, making it ready for a downward stab, a fearsome threat to the Fir Bolg laying half raised on his left arm as he lay, helpless and defeated on the pebbled beach.

The spear remained aloft, ready to strike at any moment, instilling fear into the Fir Bolg, yet he refused to show it. None of the  warriors from his Belgae tribe were trained to die showing pain. Alone on the beach, here and now, with his Irish enemy before him, he struggled to hide his fear of death; the silhouette of his enemy looming above him, like a lightning bolt, ready to strike at any moment

The warrior on the sand was a Fir Bolg, a Celt from northern mainland Europe, young and fierce. Although he had dealt vicious blows with his sword toward the Irish Celt now standing before him, the Fir Bolg warrior did not give up easily.

His outstretched hand now grasping the braccae of his Irish enemy, not a threatening move, the Irish Celt could see that the Fir Bolg was weak. The attempt to invade Ireland’s shores from the south of the island had failed for the Fir Bolg. The Irish had defended their shores successfully, this time.

The Irish Celt moved forward, extending his hand to the warrior. Although at least ten years older than his Fir Bolg counterpart, they had fought a fair battle, and now one would leave a victor and the other would die.

The outstretched hand grabbed the wrist of the Fir Bolg. Blood streamed down the Fir Bolg’s forearm, when it hit his elbow it dripped furiously to the sand, staining it a deep red.

Believing that his enemy would perish on the beach, the Irish man prepared himself for the final stab of the Fir Bolg. He lifted his foot from the sand, resting it on the defeated warrior’s left shoulder, then shoving down with his foot. The Fir Bolg felt himself press into the wet sand, now feeling hard, like stone. The Irish Celt threw his spear aside and his right hand reached to the scabbard at his left, withdrawing a small sword with a wide blade.

The Irish warrior dropped to his knees and grabbed the long, blond, wet hair of the Fir Bolg Celt. Grabbing the sword even tighter, the Irish Celt pulled the hair back with his left hand and positioned the sharp blade of his sword below the area of the Fir Bolg’s neck, where the beard hairs were short and the skin was smooth.

His blade began to apply pressure to the skin and a trickle of blood appeared, dribbling over the silver triune goddess symbol, sparkling in the sun, silver and blood. The Fir Bolg wore the same triune goddess symbol around his neck as the Irish Celt, Diarmuid, wore on his wrist.

Easing the pressure of the sword, he looked at his wrist, the enormous hand softening its hold on the sword. The leather strap was blood stained, but the symbol of the triune goddess shone in the sunlight. He had never seen anyone else wear this symbol, only his own wife, Etain. It was she who had given it to him.

The Irish Celt removed the sword and shifted his grip from the Fir Bolg’s hair to the cloth at the front of his chest. The Fir Bolg felt himself pulled to standing. They stood, face to face, and the Irish Celt spoke in a tongue similar to the Fir Bolg warrior’s own language.

“My wife reveres all life. Today I have killed my last man. If I spare you it is because of this,” he shook the wristlet on his left arm. “Birth, Life and Death, do you understand?”

The Fir Bolg nodded. He recognized the wristlet, three intertwined leaf symbols. The Irish Celt took a step backwards, he stretched out his hand and placed it on the Fir Bolg’s left shoulder, “Live,” he said, “Today you will live!” Then he stepped away, turning towards the mainland, and disappearing into the forest.

The Fir Bolg watched his enemy walked away, then he collapsed back into the damp cold sand and semi-consciousness on the cold shores of Cork in the south of Ireland.

In sixteen years the two men would meet again, but only one would be spared.


The Irish Accent: Galway

Connemara born actor, Peter O’Toole. A lovely lilt if ever there was a lovely lilt. Photo via Scenestealers.com

Galway, in the west of Ireland, has a plethora of accents. Think of the actor Peter O’Toole’s accent for a moment. It is a refined  and subtle upper class English accent; not an ounce of starch in that lovely lilt.O’Toole is a native of Connemara, a Gaeltacht area, which are locations in Ireland renowned for speaking the Irish language, Gaeilge, first, and English is the second language.

Where I grew up, Portumna, in south-east Galway, the accent was definitely broguish, but again  mild affectations, the kind Hollywood likes to exaggerate.

Words like “room” came out as “rum,” if something was outside it was “abroad in the yard.” The little lights in the night sky were not “stars” but “shtars,” and we lived in the “wesht” of Ireland. Everything is either “lovely” or “grand” when it is good. A day of bad weather is a “durty oul day.” “Sure” is “shure,” and “It is” is ’tis, whereas, “It is not” becomes ’tisn’t. We’re very economical with our speech in the wesht of Ireland; money we’re getting more economical with by the day.

Though I have lived in America for 19 years now, when people hear me speak, they hear a strong Irish accent. When I visit my homeland, I am told I have such a yankee accent; keep in mind the words “yank” or “yankee” have nothing to do with the civil war in America, it is a general term in Ireland which means “American.”

I became aware of the differences in accents in the west when I went to Connemara for 4 weeks to further my ability to speak Irish, Gaeilge. The locals spoke English with an Australian accent because they learned most of their English from watching television. In the early 1980’s Australian soaps were very popular on Irish television. The greeting in English was “G’day.” That most certainly has changed now as the internet and multiple television channels have exposed the native Irish speakers to more outside influences.

“It’s an orthopedic matraas and it’s a great matraas for back pain. Not an expensive matraas either, mind you.”
“What’s a matraas?”

Even closer to home, only forty or so miles away from Portumna, is a town called Tuam. Words such as girl, lad, laneway are all suffixed with “een.” So the sentence, “The girl and boy walked down the laneway,” would come out as, “The girleen and ladeen walked down the boreen.”The word “mattress” always reminds me of my college room-mate in Galway University, herself a Tuam native. She teased the daylights out of me for shortening the word “room” to ‘rum.”

One Sunday night she returned to school and told me about a new “matraas” that she bought for her bed at home in Tuam. After enduring the teasing over my own pronunciation of “room,” I saw my chance and sprang at it with pure delight. I asked the questions which prompted the answers. “Is it an expensive “matraas?” Is it a comfortable “matraas?” I heard her out on how good this “matraas” was; it was an orthopedic “matraas,” and it wasn’t an expensive “matraas.”

Finally, after hearing her pronounce the word mattress as  “matraas” several times, I asked, “Would you mind telling me, what the $%*$ is a “matraas?”

Here’s me, with my Galway accent after 20 years of exposure to the American twang, reading an accent challenge posted on twitter.

The Irish Accent: Borrisokane, North Tipperary

The art of asking a question and providing the answer to it all in one sentence is a very complicated oratory gift. My father’s people were from a town in North Tipperary, Borrisokane. They seemed to possess this gift in greater quantity than anyone else I knew in Ireland.

I call this gift “double barrel speech.” It happens so swiftly that the listener must pay special attention, otherwise the punchline has come and gone before the words register in your head.

For example, as a child I remember sitting in the family car outside a store in Borrisokane, The Gem this store was called back then. It was a hot summer’s day, we don’t get too many of them in Ireland. The windows of the car were rolled down and the conversations of the passerby on the street were clear and distinct.

Two older men approached each other from opposite directions. The greeting was as follows.

“Ah hello. Are you not gone home yet?”

“No. Are you?”

Wasn’t the answer just staring them in the face?

Another example of double barrel speech was the offering and refusal to offer a cup of tea, all in a few short words. Again this speech pattern is specific to Borrisokane.

“You won’t have a cup of tea will you?”

Ah, let me think about how to answer that. Yes I will not have a cup of tea? No I will not have a cup of tea? Maybe I will not have a cup of tea? I guess the right answer is that I won’t have a cup of tea, thanks all the same.

“You won’t have a cup of tea, will you?” “Am? Do I win the tea if I give the right answer?”

I am poking fun at the Irish accent here, but I am allowed to, I am Irish. I love how we speak. I love the fact that we are a small island and we have such a diverse dialect that we can pin point where a person is from just by listening to the accent.

Today’s lesson was lovingly dedicated to Borrisokane in North Tipperary. Tomorrow we’ll head off to Galway, my mother’s home county and “The besht in the wesht!”