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The Great Escape from Ireland

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Harry Stevens - Regina Magazine - published on 07/05/14

An American tale of one Catholic family's immigration, hardships and success.

“Far away– oh far away–


We seek a world o’er the ocean spray!


We seek a land across the sea,


Where bread is plenty and men are free,


The sails are set, the breezes swell–


Ireland, our country, farewell! farewell!”

Ireland in the early 1800s was a country under siege. Grim poverty and bitter conflict disfigured the lives of countless Irish Catholics; for them, life was a struggle—the “haves” against “have-nots,” Protestants against Catholics, English against Irish. Among them was a lad named Patrick Hoy.

Who Was Patrick Hoy?

Born in 1803, my Catholic Irish ancestor Patrick Hoy was a “have not.” Hence, his almost total obscurity; literally nothing is known of his parents, or place of birth. Nevertheless, today we can piece together Patrick Hoy’s experience from what is known of Irish immigrants in the 1830s-1840s, plus family history facts drawn from a ship’s manifest and U.S. Census records.

Patrick Hoy’s Ireland

Ireland was an agricultural country of eight million, among the poorest of the poor nations. Life expectancy was short—40′s for both men and women. Many women died in childbirth. There was a high infant mortality rate. To be Irish was to know suffering and oppression.

An Irish nationalist uprising in 1798 was brutally put down by the English. Hangings were common. By 1800, Ireland became a part of England. Catholics were excluded from Parliament, with its long history of anti-Catholic hostility. Protestants owned 95% of Irish land.

As the century wore on, there were only marginal improvements. Catholic Emancipation came in 1829 through the heroic efforts of lawyer Daniel O’Connell. Nevertheless, an 1835 British Poor survey showed a whopping 75% Irish laborers without work; many were beggars.

The Irish Horror

Fleeing poverty in their occupied country, between 1815 and 1845 one million Irish left Ireland— including my family, the Hoys. What truly beggars belief, however, is the horror that came next—the Famine.

In six short years, one out of every eight Irish people starved to death. Between 1845-1851, another million Irish left or were expelled from their native soil. The statistics are astounding. By 1880, Ireland’s population had decreased 30%—a loss unequaled in modern European history.

How Patrick Hoy Escaped

Like the majority of his countrymen, Patrick Hoy was a laborer, toiling the soil and doing odd jobs. He worked for another, and paid rent out of meager wages. Patrick married Catharine, and raised a son, Patrick, born in 1833. Very likely his family lived in a single room windowless mud-and-stone hut.

Somehow, by age 33 Patrick had saved enough to escape with his young family to the New World. In 1836, before the famine was ever imagined, they probably went by way of Dublin to
Liverpool, England, one of the main ports to gain passage to America.

Their Journey

The Hoy’s Atlantic passage would have cost between 3-5 pounds; an entire year’s wages to get to America, plus what it cost to get from Dublin to Liverpool.

In Liverpool, the Hoy family would have next had to pass a medical exam certifying that they were free of contagious disease. Then, within a day or so, they boarded the Dalmatia, at Liverpool’s Waterloo dock.

The Dalmatia, a sailing ship of 358 tons, with room for about 150, had George Winsor, Jr. as Master. As this was before the famine, the ship was probably well-built and equipped, and provided a safe journey.

The Hoys’ fellow passengers in steerage on the Dalmatia hailed from Wales, Germany, Scotland, England, and Ireland. They were prepared to work in America; occupations on the Dalmatia’s manifest were listed as laborer, blacksmith, shoemaker, millwright, domestic, tailor,

The Dalmatia Arrives

Their journey would have taken about 21-30 days, depending on wind and weather. The manifest shows that two emigrants died en route and the Dalmatia docked in Manhattan on September 30, 1836.

The Hoys then had to run a gauntlet of hucksters and “runners” on the dock, some speaking Gaelic and trying to take advantage of the unsuspecting, tired, hungry, and unknowing. Hopefully Patrick knew in advance to avoid these charlatans, and headed for the closest Catholic parish, and safety.

Life in New York

Once in America, the Hoy family would have settled in an Irish community in the New York area and found a Catholic parish, because that is what the Irish did in the New World—they stayed together in the cities.

The Catholic Church for immigrants was the focal point for community; it would have been a place of comfort and safety. It would have been the nuns who taught the family English and helped Patrick find a job. The priests brought the family the Sacraments and protected them from the New York politics and gangs.

Where were the Irish New York parishes? The first was Old St Peter’s near the lower Manhattan docks, built in the 1790s. Then old St Patricks’ Cathedral cornerstone was laid in June 1809, for the Bishop’s seat.

By the time the Hoys arrived there would have been two new parishes from the 1830s spate of church-building: St. John the Evangelist’s Church in 1830 and St. Mary’s on Grand Street in 1832. As the famine-stricken Irish came to New York in the next decade, they would have found succor in the new Church of St. Brigid on East 8th Street, St. Raymond’s in the Bronx, St. Andrews near the infamous Five Points slum, and St. Columba on the West Side.

The Irish Priests

Catholic priests first started emigrating to America in the 1830s; they were needed in America and there was a surfeit of clergy in Ireland. By the end of the nineteenth century, Irish priests were the most common foreign-born priests in the U.S., with about 4,000 coming in the decades after 1840. By the mid-1800s, 59% of priests in the diocese of New York were Irish-born.

They faced intensely anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment in America, largely from the native-born “Know Nothing” movement determined to repel the “papists.” In 1844 there was violence and burning of Catholic churches in Philadelphia. In New York, Archbishop John Hughes, on hearing of the Philadelphia attacks, deployed armed Irishmen to protect his own churches. Then he paid a visit to New York’s mayor and warned him that if just one Catholic Church was touched, the Irish would burn all of Manhattan to the ground.

By 1850, New York had more Irish-born citizens than Dublin.

The Hoys Move On

By then, Patrick and his growing family had moved out of New York City to Pittstown, New York, a farming village in upstate New York near Albany. By this time little Patrick was 17 and had six siblings. Then tragedy struck, as Catharine died in Pittstown. (We don’t know the exact date or cause of her death, though it may have been from childbirth.)

The Hoys in the West

By 1856, Patrick had joined the westward movement of Americans, restlessly seeking their fortunes away from the crowded East Coast cities. Perhaps losing his wife had been the final blow; at any rate, we next encounter Patrick marrying Elizabeth Doherty, also born in Ireland, in 1856, hundreds of miles away from Pittstown in Illinois.

In fact, Patrick and Elizabeth and family turn up in the 1860 US Census in the town of Palos, Cook County, Illinois. They were the proud owners of 350 farming acres.

Twenty-four years after Patrick, the common laborer, had scraped together his meager earnings in order to buy his little family passage out of an Ireland on the brink of disaster, they had found the American Dream.

It was from Patrick and Elizabeth that my great grandmother Alice Hoy was born, later when they moved to another farm in Waterloo, Iowa. And it was from this marriage and family that the faith was handed down to my own mother.

Deo Gratias.

Harry Stevenswrites forRegina Magazine.  Reprinted with permission of Regina Magazine, © 2014. All rights reserved.

Tags:
CatholicismImmigrationIreland
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