Potatoes, Labor, Service, & Escaping Grinding Poverty

Before we begin chasing Margaret Tiernan, I want to offer a bit of context for what we’ve seen so far and illustrate why the passenger listings show scores of young men and women, families, and groups of unaccompanied children pouring out of Ireland.

“The Irish Potato Famine” is the common name for an event better called “The Great Famine,” since it was a lot more than just potato blight that screwed things up. While Ireland’s poor were deeply, deeply dependent on the one crop, and its failure was devastating, there were larger economic problems exacerbated by the British government’s policies toward Ireland. And then there was the typhus. And a few other problems. (I’m eliding a LOT. For more detail, start here and check out the books and articles in the reference sections.)

But this is why the clerk on Moses Wheeler could fill out the passenger logs by writing at the top, “Country to which they severally belong: Ireland” and “Country of which they intend to become inhabitants: U.S.A.,” and just squiggling alllllllllllll the way down the page. They all intended to make the U.S. their home, because there was nothing behind them but devastation.

The famine lasted from the mid-1840s into the early/mid-1850s. So an Irish girl born around 1838 would have been shy of 10 years old when the very worst set in, but she’d likely have suffered in meager circumstances her entire childhood (again, some of this was the product of longer-term policy decisions, not just potatoes). She might have been an orphan, or she might have been one of a dozen children growing up in a tiny house in grinding poverty.

One of the things that differentiated this migration from others was that males and females emigrated in more nearly equal proportion, where others were a predominantly male phenomenon. But what surprised me the most was the groups of children, traveling individually or with siblings. In Christine Kinealy’s This Great Calamity, which I have ordered (Amazon says it has shipped!), she appears to go into some depth on this phenomenon, which, as far as I can tell, she’s arguing didn’t happen the same way in other mass migrations. We shall see when that book arrives.

Across most of the age spectrum, but certainly across the largest demographic of migrants — young people — the clearest occupation was labor or service. For girls, we’ve already seen the two basic life patterns from there.

My friend J. thus also recommended The Irish Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America 1840-1930 by Margaret Lynch-Brennan, so I’ve picked up the e-book of that. It occurs to me that I should also probably go dig out a book I own somewhere on Irish immigration (though it might be more 20th-century focused, hm) and maybe Jim Webb’s Born Fighting.

I’ll fill more in as I have more from those texts. In the meantime, we turn our attention to Margaret Tiernan, EBY 1847, in the Kenrick household in Newton, MA in the 1865 Massachusetts Census. In context with the above, we can place her birth shortly after the start of the potato famine, which is usually pegged specifically to 1845.

We’ll start with Massachusetts Town and Vital Records, including marriages post-Summer 1865. Then we’ll look ahead and behind, to 1860 and 1870 to identify potential matches, then we’ll crosscheck against 1865 to knock out potential matches we can see elsewhere. We’ll also crosscheck with findagrave.com to see if any of their deaths were memorialized with details of their lives. Then we’ll look through the Massachusetts Passenger Lists and other Boston arrivals listings.

In terms of where this larger project of investigating the Kenrick Serving Women has taken me, I’m interested to once again be looking at Irish folks passing through Liverpool. Liverpool is where I suspect my own Irish McNallys were — neatly just across the Irish Sea from the homeland. But it’s also where my English Pearces passed through on Empress of Ireland on the Salvation Army’s dime in their own attempt to escape grinding poverty, more than a half-century after the girls who became the Kenrick Serving Women did the same. As I sifted through ships’ records, Liverpool was the departure point for a quite sizable chunk of famine-era Irish emigration.

As a side note, in addition to the Kenrick Serving Women, I’m also working on the story of a woman named Rose who we know was enslaved in the Kenrick household in the mid-1700s. She would, in that regard, have been a contemporary of Titus, whose story I also owe you an update on. We’ll also check back in with Judith Waldo Durant soon, and we’ll investigate the lives of Tassunsquaw, Frances Rousmaniere Dewing, and Mary Mehitable Kenrick Taylor.

Did I mention March is Women’s History Month? 🙂


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