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America's First Humanitarian Mission: The Irish Famine

Stephen Puleo, author of Voyage of Mercy: The USS Jamestown, the Irish Famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission, describes the unprecedented relief effort by the American people on behalf of Ireland during the Great Famine of 1847—and how it changed the world.

By
Stephen Puleo
4-minute read
voyage of mercy

More than 5,000 ships would leave Ireland during the famine era carrying passengers who were fleeing utter destitution in their home country.  The USS Jamestown was the first to travel in the opposite direction, laden with food and supplies for Ireland, and its celebrated mission provided the catalyst, the symbolic and physical impetus, that injected further momentum into the nationwide American famine-aid movement that had begun in February.  

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As spring bloomed and temperatures warmed, as frozen canals thawed and snow drifts melted from rutted wagon trails and dirt-packed roadways and clogged railroad beds, most communities in the United States, large cities and tiny frontier towns, shifted their plans into action.  

Famine in Ireland evoked a spirit of brotherhood across America.

They set aside religious, racial, social, economic, and political differences to collaborate on an unprecedented countrywide demonstration of voluntary philanthropy on behalf of Ireland.  The plight of a ravaged foreign country and its desperate people pierced America’s hardest hearts and opened its most obdurate minds; the desire to relieve Ireland’s suffering touched Americans of every striperich and poor, men and women, from all backgrounds and religions and ages and races, from north and south, from the coast and the interior.  

Not in the sixty years since the U.S. Constitution was adopted and the United States was established as a republic had the country expressed, or acted upon, near unanimity on any topic, let alone a peacetime endeavor that involved aid to a foreign country.  When Americans turned their attention to Irish assistance in the spring and summer of 1847, the contentiousness that had permeated the national debate for decades – on issues such as slavery, the War of 1812, sectionalism, government policy toward Native Americans, the Mexican War—dissipated like morning fog. 

It was a universal tenet, a spiritual one for certain, one that political opponents found impossible to argue with.

Time and again, political and community leaders, journalists and clergy, farmers and bankers cited a similar theme as they collected and shipped food to Ireland: the United States had been blessed by God with rich, productive land and teeming oceans that provided its residents with seemingly endless abundance—in exchange for this bounty, its people had a duty and obligation to help others suffering for want of food.  

It was a universal tenet, a spiritual one for certain, one that political opponents found impossible to argue withvirtually all Irish relief efforts were nonpartisan in natureand one that was shared by all major religions and denominations.  In addition to the obvious desire of Roman Catholics to help, other religions and sects eagerly sought to offer assistance. Jews, Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Unitarians, and others all set aside their fears of Irish “popery,” at least temporarily, in the name of humanitarianism.  

It was an unlikely, even remarkable, causal event.

Famine in Ireland evoked a spirit of brotherhood across America.

Not in the sixty years since the U.S. Constitution was adopted and the United States was established as a republic had the country expressed, or acted upon, near unanimity on any topic. 

What made the fellowship even more impressive was the nature of the contributions.  Yes, people of all economic means sent money, but for the most part, Americans contributed food to the Irish relief effort, crops they had planted and harvested and livestock they had raised and slaughtered and cured, food they had planned to feed to their loved ones, or sell at market to purchase other good for their farms and their families. 

Through the Fourth of July 1848, fifteen months after the assistance had begun, Americans donated a massive amount food, more than 9,900 tons, to sustain Ireland.  They sent barrel upon barrel of corn, peas, wheat, meal, flour, rice, biscuits, oats, oatmeal, barley, rye, bread, breadstuffs, hominy, hops, beans, arrowroot, vinegar, pork, bacon, beef, ham, venison, dried peaches, dried fish, andyespotatoes.   And beyond that, Americans donated nearly 650 crates of clothing that they had sewn and tailored by hand, as well as supplies such as soap, candles, hats, eating implements, pots and pans, and other sundries. American ships sailed with their precious cargo into the Irish ports of Belfast, Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Londonderry, Sligo, Waterford, and also to Liverpool England, where food and supplies were distributed to Ireland and Scotland.

Newspapers across the United States urged local communities to join in the national cause to help Ireland, publicizing meetings, tracking total contributions, tugging at heartstrings and appealing to the consciences of their subscribers, sometimes encouraging competition between communities in contributing food, other times shaming readers outright.  “Pittsburgh has not contributed one half of what, of right, ought to be its share towards the relief of the sufferers of Ireland,” declared the Morning Post in one typical editorial.  The editor at the tiny Hollidaysburg Register in Pennsylvania noted that Americans across the country had given to Ireland “without distinction of sect or party.”  In New York, one Albany editor noted that other cities, such as New York, had moved more quickly on famine relief, and asked his readers: “Are not we here to have a share in this movement?”  Another Albany publication encouraged abolitionists to exhibit the same compassion to the starving Irish as they did to slaves, pointing out that both groups endured brutal hardships and should be similarly pitied as “miserable sufferers.” 

Response was rapid and overwhelming. With the Jamestown’s departure on March 28, the floodgates opened wide.  

The wellspring of direct-aid from the United States to Ireland became a first-ever national deluge of generosity that shocked the world, and, in many ways, changed it.

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