Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Happy Saint Patrick's Day with Guest Author, Caroline Clemmons

Today I'm happy to present a new guest blogger to History Undressed! Author, Caroline Clemmons, and she's here to celebrate Saint Patick's Day with us, doing what we do best here: giving you a bit of history!
Take it away Caroline...

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Or, as the Irish say, “Top o’ the morning.” Instead of repeating the greeting back, one says, “And the rest o’ the day to yourself.”

Ireland is a beautiful country, even lovelier than photos. It’s been many years since my husband and I first visited Ireland, which is one of our favorite places on earth. When we were in Ireland the first time in 1998, our guide told us that because so many Irish left for America, the Irish feel American tourists are only visiting the home country. Certainly, we were treated very well there. We were surprised to see in a restaurant, potato dishes are served at both lunch and dinner, sometimes two or three types of potato dish at one meal. Easy to understand why a surplus of potatoes equates a good life.

No doubt you’ve heard about the Great Potato Famine. Why did it cause so many Irish to starve or emigrate? It was a confluence of terrible events.

Each Irish tenant family on a great estate had a small plot of land on which to raise enough food for the family plus enough to sell to pay their rent. Crops were the root crops potatoes, parsnips, and carrots as well as a few greens. The family might have had a cow, a pig or two, maybe a several sheep, and a few chickens. These were small places, especially small when you consider they provided food for an entire family. Mortarless stone walls three or so feet high separated the plots and fields and were (are) so sturdy one could sit on them without stones toppling.

Along came a disease known as potato blight. If potatoes are your main crop, and you have no reserves, a disaster ensues. Tenants couldn’t pay their rents. Eager to rid the land on unprofitable tenants, some landlords paid the family’s fare to America with false promises of aid once they arrived. Many landlords turned them off the land with only what they could carry, but there was no where to go. Families lived by the roadside and under bridges like the homeless of today.

Here were Irish families with no education for anything but growing a few vegetables, most of whom couldn’t read or write. What were they to do? However, the English were not immune to the problems in Ireland. There had been potato blight in small spots previously, but this was the first nation-wide blight. Many assumed this would be a temporary problem. English Prime Minister Peel tried many measures to aid Ireland. Governmental bureaucracy being what it is, the solutions fell far short. The picture shows Captain Kennedy, a Poor Law Inspector, and his daughter giving clothes to famine victims in Kilrush, County Clare. He said "I was so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery... that I [wanted] to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met."

Understandable that unrest wracked Ireland and several estates were attacked. Fearing for their lives, some estate owners constructed high stone walls (with mortar) around their lands. They hired starving men to build the walls for a penny a day. These walls became called “penny walls.” The problem: a loaf of bread cost a penny-and-a-half. You see where this is going, right?

People literally starved. Approximately a million people died from starvation or diseases from malnutrition. The poorest of the poor fled to England, where they soon overwhelmed aid societies and were deported back to Ireland. Many able to do so left for America on “coffin ships.” The cramped, dark quarters included no ventilation and little sanitation, barely enough food to survive, and the ships often ran out of water before the voyage was complete. Usually there was not doctor on board, and dead were sent overboard with no record. This was the fate of an ancestor of my husband, whose mother died on the way to America leaving he and his brother in the care of an aunt.

In spite of the risk, people sold whatever they owned to raise boat fare. Many indentured themselves to whoever would pay their ship passage. Those who could sent money home to families once they arrived in their new country, but most were not making a real wage. Some families were fortunate enough to already have a relative who’d emigrated and could help--maybe even loan them passage and provide a place to stay until the newcomer was established.

With the great influx of weary, ill, and uneducated Irish, public attitude hardened. Signs were posted stating “No Irish Need Apply.” I’m sure even those who couldn’t read soon learned to recognize the hateful sign.

At Ellis Island, anyone who was ill or without cash was denied entry. I understand wanting to protect those already in the U.S., but can you imagine the terror of being turned away and sent back to starve and die? Even the thought is horrifying, but it happened daily. Although it takes place at the turn of the century, one of the best fictional accounts I’ve read of Ellis Island and the process immigrants endured is in Rhys Bowen’s first Molly Murphy book, MURPHY’S LAW. Two of my own books feature Irish heroines from this period: the paranormal time travel/romantic suspense OUT OF THE BLUE in which a woman from 1845 travels to today, and the western historical THE TEXAN’S IRISH BRIDE set in the 1880’s.

Amazing how much an event in a small country can influence our history, isn’t it? So many people with Irish ancestry have made massive contributions to the United States. Famous Americans of Irish descent include Nora Roberts, Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Clancy, Mickey Spillane, Margaret Mitchell, Dennis Lehane, Spencer Tracy, Carroll O’Connor, Rosemary Clooney and her nephew George Clooney, John Cusack, Sandra Day O’Connor, J. Paul Getty, William Randolph Hearst, and the Kennedys--John, Ted, and Robert. Whether you’re of Irish descent or not, celebrate.


Caroline Clemmons writes romance and adventures—although her earliest made up adventures featured her saving the West with Roy Rogers. Her career has included stay-at-home mom (her favorite job), newspaper reporter and featured columnist, assistant to the managing editor of a psychology journal, and bookkeeper. She and her husband live in rural North Central Texas with a menagerie of rescued pets. When she’s not writing, she enjoys spending time with family, reading, travel, browsing antique malls and estate sales, and genealogy/family history. Her latest contemporary and historical romance releases include THE TEXAN’S IRISH BRIDE, OUT OF THE BLUE, SNOWFIRES, SAVE YOUR HEART FOR ME and the upcoming HOME SWEET TEXAS HOME in July. Her backlist of contemporary and historical romance is available now at Smashwords and Kindle. Read about her at www.carolineclemmons.com or her blog at http://carolineclemmons.blogspot.com She loves to hear from readers at caroline@carolineclemmons.com


Eliza Knight said...

Thanks for posting Caroline! A fascinating post. I am proud to also be among those with Irish ancestry. It truly is a beautiful country. I've aonly been once several years ago, and I plan to go again soon.

Happy Saint Patrick's day!

Caroline Clemmons said...

Eliza, thanks for having me as your guest on this wonderful site. I'm honored to be here.

Susan Macatee said...

Great post, Caroline! I like to include Irish characters in my Civil War romances, because so many Irish-Americans, as well as new immigrants to the U.S., fought and died on both sides of the conflict.

I also visited Ireland many years ago, and still have vivid memories of that beautiful country. Also, my maternal grandmother was Irish.

Bobbye Terry said...

My maternal grandmother was also Irish, Susan, and I love this day! Great history lesson, Caroline. It's great for us to remember how far we've come. People ought to read your books, too. You're a wonderful storyteller.


Stephanie Suesan Smith, Ph.D. said...

You left out someone famous of Irish descent -- You!

Amazing how a little fungus can influence the world so profoundly.

Stephanie Suesan Smith, Ph.D.

Ann Yost said...

Hi Caroline - I have no Irish blood and possibly because of that I haven't studied the potato famine - thanks for a valuable history lesson! I do, however, love the name Caroline which is my own, my mother's and my daughter's middle name.
Ann Yost

Denise Pattison said...

Great post, Caroline. You did a wonderful job teaching us about the potato blight and the terrible end result of depending on only a few things to make a living.

marylou anderson said...

Thanks Caroline. Great summary.
What always amazed me, since my great grandfather kept on of those IRISH NEED NOT APPLY signs--if the Irish were so hated and looked down upon--isn't it a grand lark that everyone wants to be Irish now?!?
Our ancestors certainly made being Irish look like more fun than a flea circus!
marylou anderson

Ruby Johnson said...

My grandmother's surname was Elmore prior to marriage. Her family arrived in this country before the Potato famine. I never really knew her since she died after childbirth with my mother. My mother grew up being cared for by her sisters, who were much older than her, and she was shifted back and forth between them. My grandfather let the older children take care of her. He later married and had three more children. My mother was never close to him and she said she thinks he blamed her for her mother's death. The irish arrived in such numbers in NY that many of them were close to starving. Little kids were on the streets homeless and in ophanages. Thus the advent of the Orphan Train Riders in the late 1880's and 1900's was begun. Many of the children were shipped to Texas, Missouri and Ohio and never saw their families again. The stories are really sad. But they say time heals everything, even the concept of the shanty and lace-curtain irish.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

How interesting to learn the facts on the potato famine. Do you know what time period all of the migration happened? It would be interesting what the cost was to the emigrants and what kind of passage they had.


Barb H said...

I really enjoyed the post, Caroline and Eliza. I,too, have Irish ancestors (these on my father's side) and find your information both fascinating and tragic. I've never visited Ireland, but I'd love to. The pix I've seen--yours included--show such a beautiful countryside. Thanks for being here.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Thanks to everyone who stopped by. Hope I've whetted your appetite to study the period's history and your own genealogy.

Unknown said...

CAROLINE-I'M LATE--SORRY> (I found your post on Sweethearts loop in Spam! I guess because of the title.)I don't think I'm Irish, but my Daddy's family has the biggest, brightest blue eyes. Irish, right? Actually, we don't know what we are. The stories of the potato famine is intriguing, and the mass immigration of the Irish to the US. Fascinating stories. Celia