There is no doubt that the pivotal event of the 19th Century that forever changed the relationship between Ireland and America was the famine known as An Gorta Mór – The Great Hunger. In the mid-1840’s a fungus caused the failure of the entire potato crop in Ireland. More than 30% of the population relied on the potato as their main source of food. Coupled with the government inaction, the crop failure led to the deaths of more than 1 million men, women and children.
These pages cannot begin to accommodate the scholarship and analysis available on the impact of the Great Hunger on the Irish identity in America. However, the fact that more than 1 million individuals came to America between 1845 and 1855 marked the beginning of an Irish influence on America that extended well into the next centuries.
Famine immigrants included ancestors of Henry Ford, the man who introduced assembly line production methods to manufacture of automobiles. He was the grandson of a famine immigrant from County Cork. The Fitzgerald family of County Limerick left Ireland sometime between 1846 and 1855. During this same time period, Patrick Kennedy left County Wexford for the United States. Living and working in Boston, these famine immigrants created the foremost political dynasty in America.
Irish immigration in the 19th century brought one of the most influential labor leaders to America. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was born in Cork, Ireland. At 37 years old, Mother Jones lost her husband and four children to a yellow fever epidemic. She became interested in the plight of the working people, particularly immigrants. A controversial figure, Mother Jones was known as the “Miners Angel” and was an organizer for the United Mine Workers.