How a U.S. “Voyage of Mercy” to Ireland During the Great Famine Forever Bonded the Two Countries

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Many people are at least nominally familiar with the Irish Potato Famine of 1847 and the devastation it caused to the people of Ireland. But there are a lot of details to that story, especially the human aspect, that you may not have heard of. For instance, there was a heroic Irish priest who tirelessly served those who were suffering. And in the United States, an unprecedented effort was made to save the Irish people from starvation.

Historian and author Stephen Puleo shares this largely forgotten bit of history in his book, “Voyage of Mercy: The USS Jamestown, the Irish Famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup.” (podcast below)

Though Ireland had been through smaller famines previously, 1846-1847 brought what is known as “the great hunger.” Puleo explains, “A blight destroyed Ireland’s potato crop at a time when about 30% of Ireland’s population relied exclusively on the potato.” Mass starvation ensued, with a million people dying and another million or more emigrating to other countries, including the United States.

Considered a part of the United Kingdom at the time, Ireland sought help from the British government. Their response, says Puleo, “was a mixture of incompetence, indifference, impotence, ineptness, benign neglect, and anti-Catholicism.” In fact, Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary at the British Treasury, said he believed the famine was sent by God “to teach the Irish a lesson, and it must not be too much mitigated.”

Puleo elaborates, “The British start out, I think, with this very laissez-faire attitude that this is the way things go, we can’t disrupt corn markets and other green markets by (a), either giving the Irish food or (b), preventing the export of those kinds of grains from Ireland. And so one of the great sources of bitterness and rancor between the Irish and English for 150 years…was this image of starving Irish peasants wandering the Irish countryside in tatters, many of them evicted in freezing cold weather while carts filled with food guarded by British troops made their way to ports for export.”

On the other hand, a hero of the famine emerged in Father Theobald Mathew of County Cork. Originally known as “the temperance priest” for his work getting hundreds of thousands to sign an anti-drinking pledge, he was a true priest of the people.

Puleo says, “Father Mathew is known as the poor man’s priest. He had a reverence for poverty…He helped the Irish people during cholera, typhus, diseases, those kinds of things. He worked in fever sheds and in hospitals. He was a devoted servant…He would listen to the poor folks’ confessions at 5:00am before they went out into the fields, and as late as 11:00pm when they returned from work…When the famine hits, he resumes that kind of effort. He not only works very hands-on with starving Irish people, helping them with food, he actually allows people to stay in his home. He contributes his own money. He helps bury the dead. He ministers to the sick. He’s one of these priests who the hierarchy doesn’t care for so much. He’s too ecumenical. He helps everybody of all kinds of religions, whether they actually go to Mass or not. He’s that kind of a priest and a real heroic character on that side of the ocean.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, the Irish escaping the famine were landing on America’s shores with stories of the devastation being experienced back home. In February 1847, President Polk, Congress, and leading government officials rallied Americans to contribute food to Ireland that would be shipped over on the USS Jamestown, a warship that was redesignated into a ship of mercy. Though the Irish already living in the U.S. immediately expressed a willingness to help, so did many other groups and the country as a whole.

“Many of the people who contributed to the Irish effort were poor,” explains Puleo. “They were simple farmers. Children in orphanages contributed. People who were members of slave churches in the South contributed. It was just incredible. Every walk of life, every occupation, every geographic region contributed to this effort. At the same time, 1846 was this period of manifest destiny in America…where Americans were pulling up roots and moving westward for better economic fortunes. There was a sense that we were a country of abundance and plenty…and that we had an obligation to help others. And in the midst of all this, too, is this religious revival in so many different areas, like prison reform, mental health, the abolitionist movement…And so it all comes together in this perfect storm of assistance and help toward Ireland in a way that was unprecedented. I would say it unifies the United States in such a way that it had not been unified in its prior 60 years of existence…and unifies the United States in a way that it was not unified for almost another 100 years until the attack on Pearl Harbor.”

The U.S. efforts were also notable because of the way that countries had previously interacted. Prior to that point, says Puleo, “[Countries] went to war with each other. They pillaged each other’s cities. They burned each other’s crops. Occasionally, they traded with each other if the economic conditions were right. But this notion that you would help the people of another country for purely altruistic reasons on a widespread scale, was just not heard of…[though] there were tiny pockets here and there. So when the American response begins with the Jamestown voyage and continues over the next 16 months, where 150 ships from the United States of America, loaded with food are sent to Ireland, it’s an amazing effort on an unparalleled scale.”

Helming the USS Jamestown’s mission was sea captain Robert Bennet Forbes , who one historian described as living “a life that Hollywood would be likely to turn down as too improbable.”

Puleo elaborates, “[Forbes] first crossed the Atlantic at the age of six, when his mother took him across, chasing his ne’er-do-well father to Europe. At the age of 13, he sailed as a cabin boy to China. At the age of 20, he commanded his first voyage to China, his first ship. Before his life was over, he would visit five continents. He became a millionaire by the time he was 30. He lost it all a few years after that. And then he made it all back by the time he was 40. So he’s that kind of a swashbuckling character.”

Forbes was also a family man. He and his wife Rose endured the heartbreak of losing two children early in their marriage, though they went on to have several that survived. Rose wanted her husband close to home so he settled in as a ship builder and ship owner until 1847 when word about the Irish famine spread, along with President Polk’s nationwide call asking citizens to step up and help.

“It’s Forbes [and his brother] who have the idea to take a warship sitting idle at the Charlestown Navy Yard here in Boston, and convert it into this ship of mercy. And when he’s asked why he would command such a venture, he says, ‘It is not an everyday matter, to see a nation starving.’ He really feels like it’s his duty. He’s a man of a great sense of duty, and a great sense that you need to do things the right way, that you should give back whenever possible. And keep this in mind. He asks a few experienced captains to serve as his officers, but most experienced Navy people and sailors are taking part in the Mexican War on ships that are at the battle of Vera Cruz. So he enlists as his crew an inexperienced, ragtag bunch of clerks and cooks and accountants, all of whom volunteer for this effort. They do it with great enthusiasm. And he takes them on and navigates this voyage to Ireland.”

You’ll have to read “Voyage of Mercy” to discover the rest of this riveting and important piece of Irish and American history. But Puleo points out that the precedent set by America’s response to the Irish Famine continues to guide our international charitable efforts almost 175 years later.

He concludes, “If you look at the public-private partnership effort of the Jamestown voyage, think about this. The government part of that is turning the ships over. But there really is no government money involved here. There was an effort to approve $500,000 that President Polk said he would veto because he felt it was unconstitutional. The real contribution is made by the American people. And as I said to you earlier, they made these contributions no matter where they are and no matter what their walk of life is. They take food that they would have grown for themselves and send it to Ireland. If you look at the way we do foreign assistance and humanitarian assistance today, it’s basically the same way. There is a portion of the United States budget that goes there, about $50 billion. But last year, about $70 billion was contributed by American people individually, via charities and religious groups and foundations and things like that. So the American people’s generosity that continues today, is often made person to person, rather than government to government. I think that’s important to know.”

(To listen to my full interview with Stephen Puleo, click on the podcast link):

Stephen Puleo interview – Christopher Closeup