Hakai Magazine

After surviving starvation on the Irish island of Inishbofin, the women and children of the Halloran family never abandoned hope for a better future. Photo courtesy of Trinity College Library Dublin
After surviving starvation on the Irish island of Inishbofin, the women and children of the Halloran family never abandoned hope for a better future. Photo courtesy of Trinity College Library Dublin

Hunger’s Children

Fleeing the Irish Famine, some immigrants brought their islands with them to North America.

Authored by

by Ann Finkbeiner

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In a photograph taken in 1893, on an Irish island called Inishbofin, Mary Halloran stands with three women and a child in front of what looks like a thatched, drystone house. Mary is 13 years old. The women in the picture are Mary’s mother and two aunts; they are all dressed in plaid shawls, long-sleeved blouses, and ankle-length striped skirts. The women look hard, even harsh. The ground is stony and all five are barefoot.

Inishbofin, and its tiny neighbor, Inishark, are heartbreakingly beautiful places: soft hills, green fields bounded by stone walls and, to the west, the infinity of the gray-blue Atlantic. In the 19th century, the Hallorans and their friends and family lived in tight, self-sufficient communities, supporting themselves by fishing and farming. Both ways of making a living were unrelentingly physical, and during the 50 years before the photograph was taken, both livelihoods had failed repeatedly. When this happened, the islanders had nothing to sell and nothing to eat, and many people died or emigrated. Twice the islands’ small population dropped by a third. This might account for the look on the older women’s faces.

In 1896, when Mary Halloran was just 16, she left Inishbofin alone for America. She crossed the Atlantic and lived with relatives. A year later, Mary’s sister Kate, age 18, did the same: got on a boat to the United States and moved in with Mary and their relatives. Over the next few years, three more Halloran sisters followed, until the family home on Inishbofin was empty of daughters.

Some children on Inishbofin boarded ships alone in the local harbor, joining a chain migration to North America. On arrival, the child migrants often moved in with relatives and other islanders, recreating their home communities. Photo courtesy of Trinity College Library Dublin

The Halloran girls were at the tail end of a great migration of people fleeing from what is often called the Irish Famine, but was in fact a series of greater or lesser famines that began around 1830 and continued off and on until 1890. The worst of these famines, between 1846 and 1851, was called the Great Hunger, an Gorta Mór. Its effect is hard to imagine: out of a population of eight million, around one million people died and between one and a half and two million emigrated.

Many of the Great Hunger emigrants went to cities along North America’s east coast, from Quebec City to Baltimore. And then—you know how this story goes—within a generation or so, says historian Tyler Anbinder of George Washington University in Washington, DC, these immigrants often went “from destitute Irish peasants to moderately successful New Yorkers.”

But this pattern, the New World dream, was different for the islanders from Inishbofin and Inishark. Their famines occurred less often and they had alternative sources of food and money. So the islanders emigrated in fits and starts. Their biggest emigration came after the Great Hunger, in the late 1880s. They went to the same few cities in North America and they settled in. They went to the New World, thousands of kilometers from home, and recreated their small islands.

Largely forgotten today, Inishark remains an island of memories and ruins. Courtesy of William Donaruma, Ian Kuijt, and Aerial Photography Ireland

The Great Hunger began with a potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, which itself emigrated from Latin America into the United States and, via the ports of Philadelphia and New York, spread to Europe: by October 1845, it had reached Ireland. The potato plants turned black; underground, the potatoes rotted. The Irish poor lived by the potato: they grew little else, they ate little else. So by the hundreds of thousands, they starved.

The descriptions that journalists wrote were dreadful:

“I thought I would speak to the feeble old man,” Alexander Somerville wrote in the Manchester Examiner on March 5, 1847. “He was not an old man. He was under forty years of age; was tall and sinewy, and had all the appearances of what would have been a strong man if there had been flesh on his body. ‘It is the hunger, your honour; nothing but the hunger,’ he said in a feeble voice: ‘God have mercy upon me and my poor family.’ I saw the poor man and his poor family. They were skeletons all of them, with skin on the bones and life within the skin.”

In a famous painting entitled Gorta, artist Lilian Lucy Davidson (1879-1954) captured the horror of Ireland’s famines in the 19th century. The worst of these starvation times, known as the Great Hunger, killed nearly one million people in five years.

The people who could leave, left. So many went to the United States that by 1850, a quarter of New York City’s population was either first- or second-generation Irish. They lived in the country’s first tenements in conditions still famous for wretchedness. But the Irish didn’t stay in the tenements long. They got better jobs and saved a surprising amount of money: after a decade in New York, nearly 40 percent of the immigrants each had bank accounts holding what would now be US $10,000. “The famine Irish, forced for years to practice extraordinary thrift and self-denial,” writes Anbinder, who has studied their accounts, “were especially well prepared to save.” The immigrants wrote letters home, saying they could serve more meat in a week than they’d been able to in Ireland in a year. They sent money for relatives to come join them.

Agusta State of Maine, December the 13th 1847:
Dear Mother I Rite these fue Lines to you hopeing To find you in good health As this Leaves Me at preasent I thank god for it … i fell in to good imployment At four shilling per Day British Money Dear Mother my sister Elon was Imployed the Day after we Laned in St. Johns New Brunswick … this is a good contry for strong Boded men and very good pleace for girls good smart girls have 6s. shilling per week and their Board. I Remain youre Afecnate Son own Boyle

Their children got educations, found white-collar jobs, opened their own businesses, bought their own houses. They built schools, churches, and started hospitals. By the 1880s, writes University of Maryland archaeologist Stephen Brighton, who studies Irish-American communities, the Irish had become a voting block. By the 1890s, the governments of some of the United States’ biggest cities—Boston, New York, and Chicago—were run by Irish political machines. In the process, the immigrants built their identities as Irish-Americans, then eventually, Americans.

The people who had lived on Inishark and Inishbofin, however, never wholly joined the Irish-American community; their lives were more, in a word, insular.

“Inish” means island; both islands are small—Inishark is roughly 2.5 square kilometers, Inishbofin maybe four times that—and both are off the Galway coast, several kilometers out in the Atlantic. On Inishark, the people lived clustered around a hill. In the 1800s, their houses were made of sod or stone with thatched roofs, often had three rooms, few or no windows, and hearths without chimneys. They would have been dark and smoky. The livestock often lived in the same house.

Illustration by Mark Garrison

Neither island had good soil though the islanders grew grain, vegetables, and of course potatoes—they ate several pounds of potatoes a day. They fertilized the stony ground with kelp they collected on the beaches, and this “made potatoes a more reliable industry,” says Ian Kuijt, an archaeologist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The islanders caught fish to sell—fish were too valuable to eat—by heading out into the ocean in currachs, small, heavy, rugged rowboats that took several people to launch.

In the mid-1800s, when the Great Hunger hit Ireland, Inishark’s 40 houses held about 200 people. The people on Inishark weren’t as hungry as many mainlanders because they could fish and eat the limpets that grew on the rocks. Their own worst famine was from 1879 to 1884. Not only did the potatoes rot, but the fish didn’t show up; some islanders said the fish remained far offshore, beyond the range of the currachs. And the islands were so isolated, Kuijt says, that nobody could even inform the government in a timely way that “things had gone horribly wrong.”

Inhabitants of the Irish islands of Inishbofin (shown above) and Inishark managed to eke out a living during the Great Hunger by eating seaweed, limpets, and fish. But in 1879, many islanders began dying when potatoes rotted in the fields and fish failed to arrive inshore. Photo by Antiqua Print Gallery/Alamy Stock Photo

Islander Mark Cunane, interviewed by a government appointee on Inishbofin: “Have had no potatoes since Christmas. Have six children, the eldest fifteen. Have lived on sea-weed since the potatoes were finished till last month, when the priest gave me a little meal.”

The islanders had emigrated before, in the earlier famines. But during the starvation times of the early 1880s, the population of both Inishbofin and Inishark skidded downward; by 1891, Inishark’s numbers fell to 123. People got tickets, sailed to North America, and settled in the same few places, one of them a small town in Massachusetts called Clinton. Once employed, they began saving to bring other family members over, just as the Great Hunger immigrants had done; the process is called chain migration.

The people on both islands had all known each other—the Cloonans, the Morans, the O’Malleys, Murrays, Laceys—and odds are that a lot of them were in one way or another related. So three years after Mary Halloran was photographed barefoot, she made her way from Inishbofin, likely carrying less than $3, to a port on the Irish mainland. She boarded a ship, and a week later, got off, maybe in Boston. Clinton was 72 kilometers west of Boston and had a population of 13,667, nearly 20 times that of Inishbofin. For Mary Halloran, “Clinton would have seemed like a metropolis,” says Meagan Conway, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. But the O’Malleys lived there, on 49 Front Street, and Mary boarded with them. She got a job as a weaver at a gingham factory.

Clinton was a fast-growing mill town that had always relied on immigrants. By 1855, nearly 40 percent of Clinton’s population was immigrants, most of them Irish. And 40 years later, states one early town history, “the original immigrants of Irish birth either in themselves or through their children have rendered notable service to the community.” Their progress, the writer concludes, “has been unsurpassed.” By 1896, when Mary Halloran went to Clinton, the people who had fled the Great Hunger nearly 50 years earlier had become an established Irish-American community. The chief of police was named Thomas Murphy, the medical examiner was Thomas O’Connor, town treasurer was Patrick Heagney.

A year later, in 1897, Mary began her own little chain migration. First, her sister Kate arrived and moved in with Mary and the O’Malleys. Sometime during the three years that followed, their sister Bridget came over. In 1903, 17-year-old Annie immigrated, and all the sisters moved a few doors down onto Beacon Street. Later they ended up in a house owned by Patrick Murphy whom Kate married in 1907. Then in 1910, their littlest sister, Ellen, now age 16, but whom Mary would hardly remember, moved in with all of them.

Illustration by Mark Garrison

All told, the sisters moved nine times. The houses they moved between were similar: they generally had wood frames, windows with shutters, front and side porches, and looked well kept. No one knows why they moved so much; Lauren Couey, a graduate student at the University of Denver who tracked the Halloran sisters, wrote that she could only guess, but that the other islanders moved around too. What’s clear, Couey adds, is that “home was not a certain building but was created with and around the people they were living with.”

Home. The usual meaning is a house in a specific place, somewhere you come from and can leave if need be. For the 19th-century Irish in Ireland, “home” wasn’t necessarily a house. The reality was and had been that the houses the Irish lived in and the lands they farmed belonged to English landlords. So “home” to the Irish was the landscape on which they lived and more importantly, it was a net of people, connected by blood, or shared history, or memory, or all the above.

All this was especially true for the people of Inishark and Inishbofin. Islanders in general, social scientists say, have a strong sense of their own separate identity, an “us” that’s not “them.” Islanders know they’re on their own; they must mind the state of their own resources, resolve their own disputes, and look out for each other. For them, “home” is their community, their island landscapes, and their human net.

To escape the famine brought by a foreign potato blight, many desperate Irish boarded ships bound for America. But conditions on the coffin boats, as they were called, added to the misery: many would-be immigrants perished on the overcrowded ships. Photo by Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo

So though Clinton’s islanders switched houses easily, home was pretty much one section of town, called Burdett Hill. A city map shows clusters of islanders—Laceys, Cloonans, O’Malleys—in the same few blocks for over 25 years. “The lower end of Beacon,” wrote Conway, “had an islander in almost every house.” Kuijt says the islanders would get together Sunday afternoons. They hung out at a local store in Burdett Hill. While Clinton’s mainland Irish gathered at the nearby Ancient Order of Hibernians, its membership included few, if any, islanders. They frequented a bar run by an island family.

Immigrants often begin life in their new countries by living in communities from the same country, but the islanders didn’t even mix with Clinton’s other Irish. They came over from their green, stony islands, brought their home with them, and re-created it in their new world.

Eventually Inishbofin joined the modern world—paved roads, plumbing, electricity, ferry service, about as many people as there ever were. But in 1960, Inishark was abandoned: not enough young people stayed, getting off and on the island was too hard, and though the people didn’t want to leave the surrounding sea, they did. One man whose sons had died in an ocean storm, their bodies never recovered, stayed behind until he was certain the sons wouldn’t be searching for him; then he left too. All that’s on Inishark now are the graves, the seabirds, and empty stone houses.

In one of those old Inishark houses, Festus Halloran grew up. In 1898, when he was in his early 20s, Festus crossed the ocean to the town full of other islanders. He worked at the mills, married a woman from Inishbofin, had children and grandchildren.

Festus had been a saltwater fisherman on Inishark; in Clinton, he could never get interested in fishing in the local river. But he’d sit for hours in front of his garage making fishing nets, said his grandson in a documentary that Kuijt and his colleagues made, moving the spindle with its green netting in and out, over and under, making the big ocean drag nets. “Why are you making those nets,” his wife would say, “we’re not going to go back.” He’d hang the nets in the garage where they eventually deteriorated. “He just never left the island in his head,” says his great-niece, Anne O’Halloran Pendergast. “In his head, he was still in Shark.”