SOC 2280 Lecture Notes - Proletariat, Phytophthora Infestans
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• The Irish came to the New World as early as Columbus. The wave of newcomers would later swell to
the extent that people of Irish descent in the United States today outnumber those living in Ireland by
three to one.
• The Irish Catholics were an oppressed ethnic group in their native homeland as well as in their
adopted homeland, the United States. In the 1640s, when Oliver Cromwell’s English troops defeated the
army of Charles Stuart, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, they forced thousand of Irish Catholics off
the land to which they had legal title, executed thousands more, and sent others to live in the bleak,
infertile western territories of Ireland. Many more were transported as slaves to Virginia.
• In the 1690s, the discriminatory Penal Laws were enacted by the British Parliament. These laws
reduced the Catholics, a numerical majority (about 75 percent) in Ireland, to the status of minority
• At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ireland was the most densely populated country in
Europe—a situation that would soon change. In the 1820s the first potato crop failure in Ireland
occurred, and starvation followed. By the 1840s a much more devastating form of potato blight
destroyed almost half of the basic subsistence food crop of the Irish Catholics. Many saw no choice but
to abandon their country and move to the United States. This massive movement of people has been
referred to as the flight from hunger, and the Irish immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s became known as
• The potato famine was one of the greatest disasters of modern Western Europe. In the space of a
decade Ireland lost 2.5 million people, probably less than half by migration. Between 1847 and 1850
somewhere between one million and 1.5 million Irish Catholics died while the British government did
little to save them. Indeed, it continued to export agricultural products from Ireland and to clear tenants
off the land.
• The crossing of the Atlantic was a life-threatening experience for the Irish, and those who survived
could hope for only a slight improvement in their lives. Many of the ships were called “coffin ships”
because they did not supply adequate food and water, they were overcrowded, and they were
• The Irish immigrants were exploited from the beginning—even before they got off the ship. “Runners”
employed by hotels or saloons boarded the ship and “took charge” of the newcomers’ luggage, bringing
it to the hotel for “safekeeping.” Often the immigrants were tricked. The hotels overcharged them for
meals or rooms and then took their luggage in payment. Another common fraud practiced by the
runners involved the sale of passage tickets; only after the immigrants began their journey did they
discover that the tickets were no good, or were good only for part of the distance.