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Hundreds of Poor, Starved People Toddling Feebly Down The Street and Going Up The Dublin Road

 

County Longford during the Famine

After 36 days at sea, Thomas Gannon arrived in New York with his sister Mary. He'd already made the long journey from County Longford to Liverpool, leaving his widowed mother, Mary, and brother, Michael, behind in Edgeworthstown.

The significance of Gannon's need to record the 36-day trip for his ship, Columbia, from Liverpool should not be ignored. This fact reveals more about Gannon than the $40 deposit into his Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank account on November 11th, 1853. Gannon's mention of the exact length of his journey is akin to Concord travelers of the late 1990s boasting of how fast they traveled from London to New York. The Columbia was a packet ship carrying just under 500 passengers, and packet ships were the Concords of the mid-19th century. The impressionable youngster must have marveled at the speed at which he crossed the Atlantic Ocean, leaving his childhood memories of Ireland and the famine behind.

Gannon arrived in the port of New York on Tuesday, July 8th1851. The famine was a year away from its final crop failure, but no end was in sight for those who had already endured a succession of crop failures since 1845. Gannon was possibly one of the many of the "poor starved people toddling feebly down the street," that 100-year-old Biddy Macken recounted to teenage school student Richard Hyland in 1912 for The School's Folklore Collection compiled between 1937-1938. These people were headed for the docks in Dublin, and emigration was their opportunity to hopefully survive and succeed elsewhere. With $40 in the bank and his fresh memory of a 36 day Atlantic crossing, Gannon must have been filled with hope headed into Christmas 1853.

During the early years of the Irish Famine, Biddy Macken was an adolescent servant to Maria Edgeworth, a renowned novelist who lived in Edgeworthstown, part of Mostrim Parish in County Longford. In her early eighties, Maria Edgeworth performed many charitable acts for the people in her vicinity during the famine. In late January 1847, a questionnaire she completed for the Society of Friends Dublin Central Relief Committee estimated the parish population at 5,000, of which, Edgeworth claimed, 3,000 needed relief. Over half the population of Mostrim Parish needed help in 1847. Was Thomas Gannon's family in that group? They likely were.

A teenage Biddy Macken no doubt considered herself fortunate to have a job in the "big house," working for the charitable Edgeworth during the famine years. "I went around with her from house to house in this town and far outside it carrying a big basket filled to the brim with food," Macken recalled to Hyland in 1912. "No house was passed by Maria without calling. Not only food was given, but turf and warm clothing purchased in the town."

Charitable Maria Edgeworth received assistance from the Dublin Quakers and far-off places such as Cincinnati, Ohio, where a Miss Ryan convinced her Relief Committee to send $180 worth of cornmeal to Edgeworth. Contributions came from Harvard University's Professor Ticknor, who had been to Maria's town in 1830. Boston school children sent their pocket money to her. Robert Bennet Forbes, an American Ship Captain, delivered $280 and 100 barrels of supplies from Boston to Edgeworthstown. Although unsuccessful, Maria even implored Captain Forbes in a letter to bring back "ten poor men and their families, for you would do a greater good by any one individual, by any other persons in this neighborhood that I know of or can conceive." Maria Edgeworth's final novel, Orlandino, was used to raise funds for the famine relief effort. She died at the age of 83 in 1849.

In the 1841 census, the population of Mostrim Parish was recorded at 4,933, of which 864 lived in Edgeworthstown. By 1851, the census showed a population of 817 in Edgeworthstown, a decrease of 47 people. But these are the people who can be accounted for. There are many more who disappeared without a trace. Did they die, or were they part of the "hundreds of poor starved people" witnessed by a teenage Biddy Macken going to Dublin, making their way to ports like Liverpool? One unfortunate individual is described by Macken in detail. "I well remember one November evening to be called by Maria to attend a wandering creature that fell in a weakness in the clover. We went to the beggar man - a long, thin, worn fellow. We got him lodgings at the backs of the gardens and I was sent with them, with things, from the Big House. He remained around for a few days and then went away and we heard no more of him"

What happened to our young Thomas Gannon? We know he was a waiter at the Clinton Hotel in 1853 and lived at 759 Broadway, New York. I imagine the impressionable young Gannon recalling the excitement of his speedy 36-day Atlantic crossing to anyone who was interested as he made the long, slow hour-and-a-half commute, either by horse-drawn carriage or foot to work, each step and each year depleting his enthusiasm until it was a distant memory. Less than a month after Gannon made his $40 deposit, he withdrew it on December 6th, 1853. In the words of Biddy Macken, "We heard no more of him."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Loretto Horrigan Leary, a native of Portumna, Co. Galway, Ireland, and now a resident of Norwalk, CT, is a published freelance feature writer. Her contributions to Irish Central, Yahoo News, The Irish Echo, and other prestigious publications have included stories of the Irish diaspora. Drawing from historical records, letters, and diaries, Loretto gives voice to those who endured The Great Hunger in Ireland and America. Loretto is a board member of Ireland's Great Hunger Museum of Fairfield and a member of the Gaelic American Club.

 

Loretto is passionate about Irish History, especially the Great Hunger.  Her vast research into historical records, letters, and diaries has given a voice to those who endured the Irish Famine. This passion has fueled a series of articles about the counties of Ireland and how they were affected by the Famine of 1845-1852 (Stories of the Famine). Loretto has also created a Famine Commemoration Day Slide Show Presentation (taking place at the GAC on May 17, @7pm) to honor the memory of the millions who suffered and acknowledge their descendants in America. 

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