Introduction. The United States sent more than two million dollars’ worth of private relief to Ireland. Much of it came in the form of cash, food, clothing, and blankets. One of the first relief committees was set up in Boston at the end of 1845, though most of the relief efforts began after the second failure of the potato crop. The Boston Committee, which included many members of the local Repeal Association, saw the Famine in Ireland as the fault of British misrule. In 1847, various members of the American Government, including the Vice-President, George Dallas, were involved in giving assistance to Ireland. Jacob Harvey, who coordinated relief donations in New York, estimated that in January and February 1846 Irish labourers and servants sent $326,410 to Ireland in small bank drafts. By January 1847 their contributions totalled more than one million dollars. The second failure of the potato crop caused a more widespread response, helped by the fact that the USA had enjoyed a bumper harvest in all crops. An attempt was made by the American Senate to provide $500,000 to Irish relief, although ultimately it was unsuccessful. The President, James Polk, gave $50, scorned by one Boston newspaper as being too small and having to be ‘squeezed’ out of him. Reproduced below are five documents relating to these efforts at fund raising and relief.
Document I. Meeting of the Friends of Ireland
Source. Boston Pilot, 12 December 1845.
On Monday evening one of the most numerous and enthusiastic meetings that we ever attended assembled in the Odeon to consider the best ways and means of contributing to alleviate the distress which now threatens the people of Ireland, in consequence of the failure of the Potato Crop. The Odeon, capable of holding three thousand persons, was thronged throughout. …
It appears by undoubted evidence, recently arrived among us, that the British Government neglects to provide for the inevitable famine which impends over the Irish people by refusing to shut the Irish ports against the further exportation of the Grain grown upon the soil, which belongs by the laws of God to the Irish people, but on the contrary, induces the export of Irish Grain to England, by keeping up the inhuman Corn Laws, and forbidding the reception of foreign Wheat, Flour, or Corn into the United Kingdom, unless on payment of an agricultural duty. …
Resolved. That with a view to alleviate in some degree that Famine, which we deem to be inevitable, we now enter into a subscription towards the purchase of provisions either in Ireland or here, to aid to the utmost limits of our means our suffering brethren beyond the Atlantic. …
Resolved. That we call upon our fellow citizens from Maine to Texas, without distinction of creed or party, nation or color, to come forward at this dreadful crisis in the fate of a suffering people, and aid us in rescuing them from the horrors of famine.
Resolved. That we call from this spot, and on this occasion, upon the dormant Repeal Associations throughout America to revive their activity in the cause of Ireland and so co-operate with us and the patriots of Ireland in a vigorous effort to restore that great nation to her place among the communities of Europe, where her children shall be masters of their own rich soil, and be thereby abundantly supplied with every accessory of life.Document II. Meeting in Washington
Source. Daily National Intelligencer (Washington), 8 February 1847.
The undersigned, in view of the fearful ravages of the famine now prevailing in Ireland, hereby call a public meeting of members of Congress and all others at the seat of Government who will co-operate in the movement, for the purpose of devising some general efficient plan whereby the charities of the people of the United States may be concentrated for the relief of that unhappy country from the horrors of death by starvation.
Document III. The Washington Public Meeting
Source. Daily National Intelligencer (Washington), 10 February 1847.
Held last night in Odd Fellows’ Hall, for giving an impulse to a national movement for the relief of Ireland, was the largest meeting of the kind which ever took place in this city. The Hon. George M. Dallas, Vice-President of the United States, presided, assisted by a large number of Vice-Presidents, Senators and Representatives. The meeting was earnestly and impressively addressed by the Vice-President, by the Hon. Daniel Webster, the Rev. Dr Dewey, the Hon. Mr Maclay, the Hon. Mr Owen, the Hon. Mr Crittenden, and other gentlemen; and sundry resolutions for organising a general system of relief, and an eloquent address, were adopted.
Document IV. Aid from Boston
Source. Boston Pilot (Boston), 6 March 1847.
We are delighted to state to our readers that the work of the relief for Ireland is progressing beyond all expectation. The Right Rev. Bishop Fitzpatrick has already remitted nearly twenty thousand dollars. This speaks well for the zeal of the Irish and Catholics of Boston, and there is no doubt that the same amount will again be collected and sent over ere long. To those who may feel curious to know why money was remitted instead of breadstuffs, and how it will be distributed, we would inform them that immediate relief being required, it was thought best to send the money, as it will be conveyed in less than half the time that it would take to send over the produce. …We furthermore understand that the above and all subsequent remittances will be placed into the hands of the Archbishops of Ireland, and by them distributed in accordance with the wants of the various localities, and without distinction of creed.
Document V. Loss of the Bill for the Relief of Ireland
Source. Boston Pilot (Boston), 13 March 1847.
Washington. As I anticipated, the Bill appropriating $500,000 for the relief of the starving poor of Ireland has been allowed to die a natural death contrary, I would venture to say, to the expectations and wishes of three-fourths of the people of this country. It passed the Senate by a very respectable majority, some of the most distinguished members of that body voting in its favour and thereby sanctioning the constitutionality of the measure. … But the wiseacres of the House thought differently, and acted accordingly. … A meeting of the Cabinet was held a few days afterwards. There it was learned that James Buchanan (Secretary of State) had subscribed $100 and how would it look if the President refused to give a cent! Here policy got the better of economy. That yellow-covered book was now sent for, and the name of James Polk stands recorded upon the third page opposite to which is subscribed the sum of $50.
Christine Kinealy & Tomás O’Riordan