Irish immigration documented

Gettysburg professor's book focuses on reaction

March 23, 2000|By Ascribe News

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- By the 1850s, Americans were inclined to solve social problems locally rather than at the national level. Across the ocean, Britain's lean toward central government solutions was likewise well pronounced. The event that snaps this into focus is the massive immigration of the Irish to the United States and England in the mid-19th century.

That's one conclusion from "Receiving Erin's Children: Philadelphia, Liverpool and the Irish Famine Migration, 1845-1855," by J. Matthew Gallman, professor of history at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa. The book, to be published in May by the University of North Carolina Press, examines the responses of an American city, Philadelphia, and a British metropolis, Liverpool, to the waves of Irish immigrants caused by the great potato blight.

"The difference in the responses of the two cities is one of degree," cautions Gallman, noting that both Philadelphia and Liverpool used a combination of solutions to counter the problems of disease, hunger, overcrowded housing, and unemployment that arose from the migration.

Nonetheless, "Americans, and certainly Philadelphians, rarely looked beyond local government for assistance, or even guidance, in addressing urban social problems," says Gallman. In Liverpool, however, "England's central government repeatedly played a crucial role in molding local decision-making."

The potato famine in the late 1840s killed an estimated one million Irish, a ninth of the population. Between 1845 and 1855, 1.5 million Irish came to America to escape starvation. Another 600,000 went to England. When the Irish landed in cities such as Philadelphia and Liverpool they quickly overtaxed the available resources for health care, housing and other social needs. By 1850, 72,000 Philadelphians were Irish immigrants comprising nearly 18 percent of the population.

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