According to U.S. Census data, the number of Pittsburghers who claim Irish heritage is as large, if not larger, than any other ethnic group. While the Irish have had some presence in the region since some of the first settlements on the three rivers, the greatest influx of Irish immigrants came in the 19th Century.
Many of the economic and political forces that caused antecedents of many Pittsburghers to leave Ireland were the same ones that shaped the atmosphere of discontent that led to the Easter Rising and the Irish War for Independence in the early 20th Century.
For many Pittsburghers, to better understand this chapter in Ireland’s history is to better know why and how their own families came to be here.
Historians call it the push-pull effect. Some dynamics push people away from their homes, while other forces pull those same people to a new destination. This is what happened steadily and then dramatically by the mid-1800s.
For many in Ireland throughout the 19th Century, work was scarce and all too often food was more scarce. Under the British monarchy, an oppressive system made living conditions unbearable for Irish commoners, particularly Catholics who were out of favor with the ruling class.
Because 19th Century Ireland was so dependent on agriculture, factors like grain prices could bankrupt entire families. When grain prices dropped, the ruling class decided to convert land for crops into cattle ranches to meet growing demand for meat in England’s growing industrial cities. Wealthy landlords had decided to clear their lands as part of this conversion by refusing to renew leases to indigent tenants. This drove reluctant migrants away from their homes, some to cities, and others to America where industry was growing.
In Ireland, tenant farmers were given extremely narrow options on the crops they could grow and the amount of land they were allowed to farm. The potato was among the few affordable crops for these farmers. As tenant farmer families grew, this reduced the amount of acreage per family. Compounding this was the rising cost of feeding and clothing a family, as well as rising rent, taxes and tithes the families were required to pay. This forced the tenant farmers into dependence on the potato, since it was the crop that gave the most yield per acre and provided necessary vitamins and minerals. Their inordinate dependence on the potato literally became a matter of life and death.
So, when potato crop failures began to occur in the mid-1800s, a tragedy of unprecedented proportion occurred. Millions went hungry and starved, often to death. Families were wiped out. Towns were decimated. This is the period is known as the Great Hunger. In America, some may have heard it described as “the Potato Famine,” but such a name can deceptively create the impression the issue was nothing more than a shortage of a particular crop, easily replaced by another. In fact it was much more complex and tragic than that. Other crops, which grew in abundance, belonged to the landlord and were sent to the ports under armed militia to be exported to England and Europe for profit. Thus, the Irish were prevented from sustaining themselves on crops grown in their own land.
From 1845 through 1852, millions died of hunger and another one million sought refuge mostly in America.
What is accepted broadly is that millions of men, women and children starved to death or fell victim to preventable disease in a land that exported hundreds of tons of food annually. The number who died is elusive. Different death tolls are cited by different sources. The census of 1841 reported Ireland’s population to be 8,175,000, while the census of 1851 recorded 6,552,000. Those not inclined to investigate further calculate a decrease of about 2,000,000, and divide that into a million emigrants and a million starved, but that’s far too simplistic an assumption. An in-depth look at the facts reveal that its impossible to even determine how many emigrated since accurate counts of passengers weren’t kept, and it is well known that many died in shipwrecks in the storm-tossed north Atlantic, or died on board or shortly thereafter in the lands to which they fled.
Since births and deaths were not recorded until 1864, the census was the only written indication of population. It has been estimated that millions hid from the census to avoid being registered for tithes and taxes, and some census takers refused to venture into woods, bogs, and hills to tally the Irish, leaving many uncounted and unrepresented. Some estimates are at least 25 percent higher than recorded.
In the end, with adjustments allowed for the likely actual population of Ireland and where it stood post-Hunger, well more than one million to were lost through emigration, disease, and starvation. A still conservative estimate ranges from two to five million.
Through it all, it appeared to most in Ireland that the British power structure was insensitive to the needs, plight and welfare of the Irish people.
By the mid-1800s the pace of Irish emigration to Pittsburgh had accelerated. In 1850 Irish immigrants totaled roughly 10,000 in the city, which represented 20 percent of the total population, and the largest foreign-born group. Most were Catholic and from the “laboring class.”
Friends and family members who stayed in Ireland found their own ways of responding to the hardships they faced. A longing for self-governance and independence from Great Britain began to take hold.
Connecting with Our Heritage
The Irish Tourist Industry Confederation reported earlier this year that that the number of North American visitors to the Emerald Isle in 2014 totaled roughly 800,000. That accounts for about 24 percent of the total number of tourists who travelled to Ireland during the course of the year. Proportionally, while current statistics aren’t readily available, given the size of Pittsburgh’s population of those with Irish lineage, a respectable share of those tourism numbers likely can be traced to Western Pennsylvanians. They are drawn to Ireland because they have some direct or historical familial connection to the country.
Even though many Pittsburghers are generations removed from their ancestors who journeyed to America to flee oppression and pursue an uncertain future, these same Pittsburghers continue to feel a bond with their ancestors and heritage. This bond manifests itself as people take steps to learn and understand all of the issues that came to define Ireland’s struggle for independence.
In 1916, a perfect storm of discontent produced the Easter Rising, which in the end proved to be a major development in the formation of the Irish Republic as we know it today.
By then, Pittsburgh was a place of refuge for a fortunate few. But if they could have looked back across the Atlantic Ocean, they’d have been able to see what their brothers, sisters, cousins and other family members were working to overcome.
Today, we have history, books and literature, and technology to reconnect with our ancestors, sometimes with just the click of a mouse or a tap on the screen of a smart phone. Easter 1916: Pittsburgh Remembers is an effort to help Irish Pittsburgh connect with those who came before us.