Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Coffin Ships and the Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor)

Sketch of an Irish woman and her
children from Illustrated London News, 
1849 (From Wikimedia Commons)

By Adrian McGrath

“Oh, son, I loved my native land with energy and pride
Til a blight came o’er my crops my sheep and cattle died
My rent and taxes were too high I could not them redeem
And that’s the cruel reason that I left old Skibbereen.

You mother too, God rest her soul, fell on the stony ground
She fainted in her anguish seeing desolation 'round
She never rose but passed away from life to immortal dream
She found a quiet grave, my boy, in dear old Skibbereen.”

(From the traditional song named “Skibbereen," first referenced in 1880 to Patrick Carpenter, about the town in County Cork where the famine was at its worst. See Skibbereen and Wikipedia.)

“They are going! They are going! The Irish are going with a vengeance. Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.

(From a London Times editorial, as quoted by Seumas MacManus in The Story of the Irish Race p.610. The London Times editorial prophesied that the destitute and starving Irish people would soon disappear from Ireland forever.)

In 1958 in his book A Nation of Immigrants, John F. Kennedy wrote about the significance of immigration to America. He quoted a passage from the American poet Walt Whitman who felt the United States was a special place precisely because it welcomed a diversity of people from many lands. Walt Whitman wrote, "These States are the amplest poem, Here is not merely a nation but a teeming Nation of nations."

Leaving Ireland for America
Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868
(From Wikimedia Commons)
In the 1840s the Irish became a part of America’s “Nation of nations.” The Irish did not come to America because of the potato; they came because of politics. They came because of centuries of British political tyranny and racial and religious prejudice which left them dependent almost totally on a single crop for food and trade. And when that crop failed with the potato blight, the Irish -- mainly the Irish Catholics -- starved to death or went into permanent exile, if they survived the horrendous voyage, to various places in Europe, Australia, Canada, and above all, to the United States of America.

The Irish National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park, County Roscommon in Ireland tells us at its website that between 1845 and 1850 two million of the then eight million people who lived in Ireland disappeared. One million died of hunger and related diseases and the other million left Ireland for permanent exile. See Strokestown Park.

The Irish Potato Famine (or as it is called in Ireland, the Great Hunger or in Irish Gaelic  “An Gorta Mor”) was the single most important event in the entire history of the Irish people. Why? Because the Famine transformed the entire Irish nation and transplanted the Irish people to a new homeland, America. (More people of Irish descent live in the USA than in any other country, by far, including in Ireland itself.)

In 1840 the population of Ireland was about 8 million. Only about four or five million people live today in the Republic of Ireland (4.7 million Irish population analysis). But about 40 million people in the United States claim some Irish ancestry  (See Irish American population. ) The Irish Americans are the new Irish. Much like with the ancient Israelites from Biblical times who were forcibly scattered to distant lands, the Great Famine was Ireland’s Diaspora.

For too long the Famine was misunderstood as simply the tragedy of a natural disaster. That was not the case. It was the result of centuries of British legalized oppression, forced poverty, and bigotry against Irish Catholics which was transformed into a hell on Earth when the primary, if not the sole, source of sustenance for the Irish peasants blackened and rotted away.

To its credit of state of New Jersey in the United States became the first US state to officially recognize the Great Hunger (Irish Potato Famine) as a part of its curriculum on genocide studies in its state school system. Other American states followed, including New York state, requiring that the Irish Famine be taught in its schools. Here is a link to the “Great Irish Famine” study guide for the schools of New Jersey .

The study guide was submitted to the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education in January of 1996 and is included in the Holocaust and Genocide Curriculum for the secondary level in schools. The state of New York also teaches the Irish Famine. But ignorance, prejudice, and denial still exist.  When the state law requiring the teaching was passed by the New York legislature and signed by the governor, the British embassy protested, as did some other politicians. See New Curriculum From Albany .

Prime Minister Tony Blair
visited Cork, Ireland in 1997
and apologized for Britain's failure
during the Irish Famine
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

To his great credit, however, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, while visiting Cork, Ireland in 1997, “That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain … Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy. We must not forget such a dreadful event.” See Tony Blair
Famine National Monument
at Murrisk, Ireland
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Indeed, history and facts must not be forgotten or denied. And the descendants of the Irish Famine, those who survived, live on in New Jersey and New York and all across America. Thankfully, they will not allow their own tragic history to be forgotten -- not just for the Irish or the Irish Americans, but for all people, everywhere, who believe in humanity and justice.

From 1845 to 1851 the Potato Famine raged in Ireland. Before the arrival of the potato to Europe, brought back from South America in the 16th century by explorers, the staple crops of Europe, and Ireland, were rye, wheat, oats, and barley. The potato was seen as a benefit to Ireland which had small farms with limited land; and the potato was a nutritious, high yield crop requiring little space and little maintenance. The perfect food for oppressed peasants. The Irish could live on potatoes and buttermilk while they worked the small lands -- which were usually owned by absentee English landlords -- and produced various other crops and food stuffs, including beef from cattle, which were shipped for sale abroad to profit the British landowners.

The Irish people became dependent on the potato not merely because of economics but because of centuries of political oppression. An early example of the English attempt to control the Irish, and the Anglo-Irish who followed Irish ways and became “more Irish than the Irish,” was the group of laws from the Middle Ages designed to eliminate the influence of Irish Gaelic culture and replace it with English beliefs and values -- the Statutes of Kilkenny of 1367 AD. These laws, for example, forbade the English who lived in Ireland to marry an Irish person, speak the Irish language, play Irish music, and accept Irish clergymen for an English settlement. Although in many cases, these laws were unenforceable, the existence of the laws revealed the English mentality towards the Irish and were harbingers of much more destructive things to come.

What did eventually come were the brutality of Oliver Cromwell’s invasion which killed and enslaved the Irish Catholics, driving many to exile into the west of Ireland (to Hell or Connacht), and the anti-Catholic “Penal Laws” of the 1600’s which stripped Irish Catholics of all fundamental human rights and left them homeless, destitute, and persecuted in their own land.  The British statesman Edmund Burke referred to the Penal Laws as “ a machine … of impoverishment and degradation of a people and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man. “

And there were also the “Plantations” where the English monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth and beyond confiscated the lands of Irish Catholics and gave them to Protestant English and Scottish settlers who were loyal to Britain and who were “planted” on Irish soil to make a British society flourish in Ireland and destroy the old Irish one.

British laws criminalized Irish culture and eventually persecuted the followers of Catholicism. To rotten British laws were now added rotten potatoes.

“Phytophthora infestans” or potato blight blackened and rotted the potato, but it did not affect any other food source. There was an abundance of fruit, vegetables, dairy products, seafood, and even meat, and indeed beef, in Ireland. So, why did the Irish starve? They starved because these sources of food, under British law belonged to the British, not to the Irish.

The British Parliament, steeped in prejudice and following a callous and extreme form of economics of Laissez Faire capitalism, refused to do anything to significantly help starving people if it would tamper with their rigid economic philosophy -- not to interfere with the “natural course of trade” was the expression commonly heard. (Of course, it was a “free trade” built upon past and continuing tyranny and unjust and discriminatory laws.)

And so nightmarish scenes appeared at Irish sea ports as British ships packed with livestock and food stuffs, guarded by British police and soldiers, set sail for Britain or for sale overseas, while Irish peasants starved to death all around these ports and along the city roads leading out to the countryside.

The Irish could no longer eat the potato, and they could also not sell it. So, they could not raise money to pay the rent on their pitiful homes and farms on the lands owned, usually, by English absentee landlords who actually lived back in England. As a result, the Irish were evicted and left homeless to roam the countryside and starve.
A Workhouse in 1846, overcrowded
and filled with disease
(From Wikimedia Commons/ Ridpath's History of the World)
Some went to workhouses which were in themselves hellish with minimal food and medical services and harsh labor like grinding corn or breaking rocks for roads. (Oddly enough, the British did not want this labor force to compete with regular labor for economic reasons, so workhouses were not encouraged or properly maintained; and much of the work was actually not very useful, although the rules and living conditions were strict if not brutal. Workhouses were overcrowded, and workers there often became seriously ill. It was often that people died there and were buried in mass graves. See  

In the countryside, in many cases, the peasants died of malnutrition and opportunistic diseases which went hand-in-hand with starvation. Fever, from whatever the source, was a prevalent killer.

It is true that the British Parliament took some limited actions to deal with the famine. For example, it allocated one hundred thousand pounds to famine relief. But first, it allocated two hundred thousand pounds to beautify London’s Battersea Park. (See The Story of the Irish Race by Seumas Mac Manus, p.602. Devin - Adair Co. New York, 1975.) The aid package was, of course, completely inadequate and could help about two million of Ireland’s then population of eight million.

Some humanitarian aid did come from overseas -- notably from America which sent “Indian corn” -- a type of unrefined cornmeal which in many cases caused digestion problems, from the Sultan of Turkey, and impressively from the impoverished Cherokee Indians from America, who freely gave what they could though they were themselves destitute and oppressed.

The British passed laws such as the Coercion Bill and the Vagrancy Act which made it a crime to be out at night after curfew. As a result many homeless Irish were simply arrested and swept away to jail or even transported to a British penal colony.  Parliament also passed the Disarming Act which increased police powers. So, instead of passing laws to help starving people, Parliament passed laws to oppress starving people.

The worst year was 1847, called “Black ‘47.” In that year the dead, the dying, and the starving could be found all over Ireland.

As a result many Irish gathered whatever minimal resources they had and sailed for America.
The ships they sailed on were invariably poor quality, almost unseaworthy, overcrowded, and typically filthy. Some were indeed of good quality, however; but the impoverished Irish usually stayed well below decks in steerage where conditions were poor and harsh.

The Irish immigrants sailed on a dangerous and often deadly voyage across the Atlantic with many dying from an illness called “famine fever.” This illness was simply a result of various harmful things -- lack of food, bad food, no medicine, no doctors, inadequate warm clothing, hazardous and unsanitary living conditions onboard ships, various communicable diseases like dysentery, typhus, and a host of fevers and flues. Add to this the hazards of the sea and any pre-existing medical conditions, both physical and psychological, all of these abuses resulted in physical and mental deterioration and in very many cases death.

These ships which the Irish immigrants had to sail on to America were, as a result, known as
“coffin ships.”  In many cases a person was as good as dead once he walked on board. But there was little alternative. Die in Ireland or risk death at sea.

Replica of a Famine Ship, Jeanie Johnston (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
See more at
There were many coffin ships and many dangerous and deadly voyages to the United States and to Canada. The Larch, for example, which sailed in 1847 had 440 passengers -- 108 died. The Queen had 493 passengers; 137 died. The Avon had 552 passengers, and it had 236 deaths  in the voyage. (See MacManus p.610.)

In Canada at a spot called Grosse Island in the St. Lawrence seaway, the Irish immigrants were put ashore into quarantine. It was reported that about 6,000 Irish immigrants died after being removed over time from various coffin ships. They typically arrived emaciated, sick with fever, and poorly clothed for the harsh climate. We can only speculate as to their mental health.

Here are just two examples of the many which carried thousands upon thousands of Irish to a new life where they at first met nothing but more prejudice and poverty but eventually, after much struggle, equality and prosperity.

Fr. Thomas Hore led a group of 1,200 of his Irish Catholic parishioners from County Wexford in Ireland to New Orleans, Louisiana in 1850. This difficult trip of over 5000 miles went from Dublin to Liverpool to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi River to Iowa. They sailed on three ships headed to America  -- Ticonderoga, Chacsa, and Loodianah. The fare was five pounds. For this a passenger got a small space to put luggage, if they had any, a bunk bed, and sustenance consisting of limited drinking water, some flour, oatmeal, rice, some sugar, molasses, and tea. The journey across the Atlantic Ocean would take over a month. Fr. Hore established a community for his Irish travelers in Allamakee County in Iowa near the border with Wisconsin. They cut down trees and built a church and called it St. George’s Church. Then they named the place where they settled Wexford. So, Wexford, Ireland now became Wexford, Iowa.

In 1849 an Irish Catholic named Patrick sailed on the Washington Irving from Liverpool to Boston, Massachusetts. His family had a farm but could no longer pay the rent due to the potato blight. His older brother had died. He had a sister named Mary, a brother named James, and two elderly parents. Patrick felt that the only way he could help his family, since to remain in Ireland was impossible without employment or funds, was to emigrate to America. And so when Patrick saw an advertisement for the Train & Company’s Regular Line of Packets going from Liverpool to Boston, he decided to sail away on one of their ships, the Washington Irving. He might be able to get a job in America and maybe, somehow, someway, help his family. At least now they would have one less mouth to feed.

Patrick was 26 years old when he left home in New Ross never to return for an uncertain future.
The Washington Irving had a class for the rich which was very nice indeed with accouterments even for fine dining -- linen cloth, proper dining china, and silver forks, and spoons. Where the Irish immigrants stayed below decks in steerage, however, was a totally different situation. Patrick, like the other Irish emigrants would be lucky if they got some salty fish, or cheese, and bread which were typically old, stale, and nearly inedible.

Patrick met an Irish girl on board named Bridget Murphy. They liked each other, fell in love, and were eventually married. The couple joined the many, many Irish Catholics who landed in Boston only to be met with disdain and outright bigotry and hate by the established population. “No Irish Need Apply” is what Patrick and Bridget faced -- anti-Irish and Anti-Catholic bigotry.

But, Patrick did get work as a cooper -- a workman or smith who produced copper products. He made barrels from wood to earn money too.

Patrick’s story is not much different from that of any of the other impoverished and struggling Irish Catholic immigrant in those bad days … except for one thing. This Patrick was Patrick Kennedy, the great grandfather of John F. Kennedy.  In 112 years his great grandson would become the 35th president of the United States.

A descendant of Patrick Kennedy
who left Ireland during the Irish Famine in 1849,
John F. Kennedy
35th President of the United States
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Potato Famine killed a million Irish people and drove a million away never to return home.
The coffin ships killed many more, but they also brought many to America. The ancestors of Henry Ford, Eugene O’Neill, and countless others -- famous and not famous -- took a chance -- in most cases the last chance -- on a daring voyage to America. The result was that the majority of the Irish on planet Earth are no longer Irish. They are Americans.

Sources and further reading:

Curriculum guide for the State of New Jersey, USA for the Great Irish Famine for Holocaust studies

New York state teaches the Irish Famine in schools ; The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America by Edward Laxton, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1996; Article about Fr. Hore and Wexford, Iowa at ; Wikipedia article on the Great Famine (Potato Famine) at ; States which teach the Famine in schools ; Wikimedia Commons article on Coffin Ships at ; About the song “Skibbereen” at Irish Traditional Music Archives at  ; Site for the New Jersey Department of Education which mentions the Irish Famine ; The Great Irish Famine Teacher’s Synopsis for New Jersey at ; About the Jeanie Johnston famine ship at ; Read about the Irish Workhouses at ; Sketch of Irish woman and children 
from Illustrated London News, 1849 (Wikimedia Commons) ; Leaving Ireland for America Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868
(Wikimedia Commons) is at ; A Workhouse in 1846, overcrowded and filled with disease 
(Wikimedia Commons) is at,_comprising_the_development_of_social_(14749361956).jpg ; photo of JFK at,_White_House_photo_portrait,_looking_up.jpg; photo of Famine Monument at Murrisk at; Story of the Irish Race by Seumas Mac Manus, Devin - Adair Co. New York, 1975

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Fr. Joseph Timothy O’Callahan, SJ and the Medal of Honor

By Adrian McGrath

“The Bravest man I have ever seen.”
Captain Leslie Gehres of the USS Franklin commenting about Fr. O’Callahan

Fr. O'Callahan helps the wounded, USS Franklin
(Photo Wikipedia/ National Archives)

He was a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the United States Navy. He was a Jesuit Catholic priest, having been ordained in the Society of Jesus in 1934. And he was an Irish Catholic from Boston, born in Roxbury in 1905. He completed his bachelor of arts degree in 1925 from St. Andrew’s College in New York and later got a masters degree in 1929, studying mathematics and science. He became a professor of physics at Boston College and later was head of the department of Mathematics at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. Additionally, he was at one point a professor of philosophy at Weston College (Weston Jesuit School of Theology).

History recalls this man of God and man of letters, however, not necessarily for his scholarship or even for his service as a civilian priest -- both of which were outstanding accomplishments. We remember Father Joseph Timothy O’Callahan, however, because of the exceptional acts of bravery he performed -- while a priest and Navy Chaplin -- during combat in World War II.

This Irish Catholic priest and scholar rose to the occasion during a Japanese attack on the US Navy ship on which he served, the USS Franklin, and by disregarding his own safety, saved the lives of many men on board the Franklin while explosions and fires threatened to send the ship and crew to their doom.

He lived only 59 years, dying in 1964, after have many strokes. But the memory of his bravery and compassion for his fellow sailors, while under enemy attack, lives on.

For his selfless heroism Fr. O’Callahan was given the highest medal America awards -- the Medal of Honor. President Harry Truman personally presented this medal to him, and the United States Navy named a ship in his honor.

Fr. O’Callahan became a chaplain and officer in the US Navy’s Chaplain Corps in 1940, one year before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. His first ship was the USS Ranger, an aircraft carrier. Although he was an officer, he would regularly take his meals with the enlisted men, on purpose, in order to better understand and communicate with the men. Such an action made the crew immediately like and respect him. He was “one of them,” so to speak.
Fr. Joseph Timothy O'Callahan, SJ
(Wikipedia, National Archives)

In March of 1945 Fr. O’Callahan, now Lt. Commander, was serving on another aircraft carrier called the USS Franklin. His ship was to take part in the invasion of Okinawa. This invasion was the largest amphibious invasion in history, even bigger than the famous D-Day invasion at Normandy in 1944. As a prelude to the invasion, the Franklin would conduct air raids against the mainland of Japan itself.

The USS Franklin (which was named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, by the way, and sometimes nicknamed "Big Ben") was attacking enemy bases on Kyushu and Honshu. This would help in the planned US invasion of Okinawa.

The Battle of Okinawa is noted for the ferocity and fanaticism of the enemy Japanese. They were now fighting on their own soil and fought to the death, even with suicidal attacks. One form of these suicidal attacks was called the Kamikaze or Divine Wind. Japanese air planes packed with bombs and explosives would deliberately crash into US ships causing extreme explosions, killing many crew members and severely damaging or even sinking US Navy vessels of all types. Additionally, the Japanese used whatever conventional aircraft available to bomb or strafe US ships.

On March 19, 1945 a Japanese plane attacked the USS Franklin dropping two 550 pound bombs. These were not ordinary bombs, however. They were armor-piercing which meant they were designed to penetrate decks and plunge deep into the US ships, and then blow up. The idea was to attack the ammunition magazine or engines to cause massive damage and destruction. Both of the bombs in the attack did penetrate the decks of the USS Franklin, and they set off massive fires as well as explosions.

In addition to destroying American aircraft, the bombs and fires made contact with the fuel supply used for the aircraft. These raging fires in turn made contact with the ammunition -- which was now loose in many cases rolling about the stricken ship. Ammunition and bombs on board the ship blew up, and this resulted in much more destruction and even more fire. Tragically, many men in the hangar deck, where the airplanes were kept below the top flight deck, lost their lives.

The USS Franklin was ablaze. Smoke, fire, and more explosions seemed to come from all directions. The ship was immobilized. It was taking water and leaning partly on its side (called “listing” in the Navy). The radio was out. The situation was desperate for the ship and its crew.
The USS Franklin severely damaged, March 19, 1945
Fr. O'Callahan was on board ministering to the wounded and dying
and leading rescue teams. USS Sante Fe came alongside to assist.
(Wikimedia Commons and National Archives)

Fr. O’Callahan had been wounded in the attack. Shrapnel from the bomb blast hit him, and he was in grave danger from both his wounds and the fires aboard the vessel. Despite his own injuries, he quickly went to help the wounded sailors. He gave "Extreme Unction" or Last Rights to the dying men while explosions and fires raged around him. He helped the wounded and dying of all faiths with his words, prayers, and by applying first aid and leading medical rescue teams to the wounded men through the smoke and fire.

Throughout the ordeal, Fr. O'Callahan would hear the shouts of men, "Padre! Padre!" They were calling for him to come, and he did. He went through corridors in the ship filled with smoke and fire to help the wounded and dying men.

Fr. O'Callahan was not considered young and was not in top condition to do the incredible deeds he did during and after the attack. By 1945 he was almost 40 years old. He was nearsighted. He had high blood pressure. He suffered from claustrophobia, the fear of small confining places -- and he had to go through smoke-filled, narrow passageways on board the burning ship to search for and rescue injured crewmen. Despite his medical issues and his new shrapnel injuries (for which he later received the Purple Heart), "Father Joe" -- as he was often called -- moved forward to help the distressed crew.

Fr. O’Callahan then took it upon himself to lead the firefighter crews on the top deck. He then organized the sailors to throw live ammunition overboard which was about to explode, preventing further destruction. He helped to water down the ammunition magazine to prevent the fires from igniting the bombs and weapons there. He personally took a fire hose and wet down bombs which were about to catch fire and explode. He did all this despite the toxic smoke, fire, and explosions all around him.

In one incredible incident, a large bomb started to roll down the deck. (Bombs and other munitions were loose due to the explosions and the listing of the ship.) When the bomb came to a stop, some of the officers and crew feared it would explode but knew it had to be defused right away. Quite naturally, they were hesitant to approach it. Then Fr. O'Callahan went to the bomb. He stood perfectly still and folded his arms. Seeing this calmed the officers, who then went towards O'Callahan and defused the dangerous bomb.

Over 700 Americans were killed in the attack, in the smoke, the fires, and the explosions on board the USS Franklin that day; and over 250 were wounded (including Fr. O’Callahan). We do not know exactly how many men were saved because of the actions of the Jesuit priest that day, but it was certainly many. Fr. O’Callahan personally stayed by the side of the dying men, with danger all around, giving them emotional and spiritual support and comfort as they breathed their last breaths on this Earth. He coolly, despite his own injuries, led other men to prevent further explosions and organize rescue teams. His actions that day were simply extraordinary, as if he were sent by God to help the severely damaged ship and its wounded and dying crew.
Fr. O'Callahan (right) with President
Harry Truman and other
Medal of Honor recipients, 1946
(Wikipedia and National Archives)

In February of 1946 Fr. O’Callahan went to the White House in Washington DC to be given the Medal of Honor personally by President Harry Truman. (The Medal of Honor is sometimes referred to as the "Congressional Medal of Honor," although "Medal of Honor" is the official name.) This was the first time in the history of the United States Navy that a chaplain was presented the Medal of Honor. Furthermore, Fr. O’Callahan was the only American chaplain to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II.

The captain of the USS Franklin, Les Gehres, perhaps summed it up the best upon the ship's return to the Brooklyn Naval Yard in New York. Fr. O'Callahan's mother came aboard the ship and the captain praised her son highly. He reportedly said to her that he was not a religious man, but he saw what her son did during the attack and the fires. The captain said, "If faith can do this for a man, there must be something to it. Your son in the bravest man I have ever seen."

After the war Fr. O’Callahan, forever the Jesuit, went back to teaching. He quietly taught mathematics at Holy Cross College once again. He retired from the Navy Reserve with the rank of Captain.

In 1965 the United States Navy honored the priest’s profound service by naming a ship after him -- the USS O’Callahan (DE-1051).
USS O'Callahan
Named after
Fr. Joseph T. O'Callahan
(Wikimedia Commons)

Fr. O’Callahan joined the long line of Irish who have seen honorable, and in many cases extraordinary, service in the military of the United States.

Sources and further reading:
Ethnic and Racial Minorities in the U.S.Military: An Encyclopedia (See the section entitled O’Callahan, Joseph T. (1904 -1964), Irish American Chaplain and Medal of Honor Recipient in World War II); Wikipedia’s article on Fr. O’Callahan at ; the photos are from Wikimedia: USS O'Callahan at ; photo of Fr. O'Callahan in WWII from National Archives at ; portrait photo is public domain at ; Photo with Harry Truman is public domain at; Photo of USS Franklin listing public domain; See more about the USS Franklin at; An article from the New England Historical Society called "Joseph T. O'Callahan, A Claustrophobic Priest, Wins the Medal of Honor" at

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Irish Stew: Traditional or Make Your Own

Irish Stew: Traditional or Make Your Own
By Adrian McGrath

A bowl of Irish Stew
(Photo by Adrian McGrath)

There are a few dishes that are clearly associated with the Irish. In many cases, however, they are not really Irish. They may have been altered for various reasons, but they are still called “Irish.” One is, of course, Corned Beef and Cabbage. This favorite for St. Patrick’s Day in the United States is not really Irish but is a variant of the popular Irish dish called “Cabbage and Bacon” -- which is made with a type of bacon similar to what is called Canadian bacon in America. Corned Beef and Cabbage is still a great dish, and we really cannot have a proper St. Patrick’s Day feast without it.

Other popular Irish dishes or recipes in the USA would be Irish Soda Bread, Irish Potato Soup, Shepherd's Pie, and, of course, Irish Coffee. But one of the most classic Irish dishes is Irish Stew. With a climate in Ireland that is often cool to cold and usually damp, what is more comforting than a large bowl of hot Irish stew. But the question is what makes up real Irish Stew? Of course, there is no one answer. People will argue about this. Originally, it was probably just lamb or mutton plus some root vegetables. (Lamb is from young sheep; mutton is from old sheep.) Potatoes were added, of course.

The general idea today is, however, that the stew consists of meat, onions, and potatoes. It might include other root vegetables popular in Ireland like turnips and carrots. The meat would be what is or was available in Ireland. That would be the meat from lamb, sheep, or even goats (especially in olden days). Mutton, the meat from older sheep, was most often used; it was tough and cheap but flavorful and was cooked slowly. In the United States, the easiest meat to get, and the type most popular would be, of course, none of the above. It would instead be beef.

Can anything else go in it? Yes. All recipes evolve over time, although some people might argue that if the recipe changes too much from the original -- whatever that might be -- then the dish becomes not a mere variant but something entirely new.

Whatever …

The main thing is that Irish Stew was and is a basic, healthy, and inexpensive meal originally eaten by Irish peasants and usually has three ingredients -- meat, potatoes, and vegetables, usually just onions ... and water to make a gravy.

It is interesting to note that before the 1500s the Irish would not have added potatoes. Why not? Because the potato came originally from South America, and it would not have arrived in Ireland until explorers brought it back from the New World to Europe. Eventually, the potato became the most important staple of Irish food. And like almost everything in Ireland, for centuries, the potato was a political as well as an agricultural subject. In fact, the Irish Potato Famine (Great Hunger) was not really about food; it was about politics. But that is another story, for another day.

The Irish Food Board called “Bord Bia” gives its own recipe for Irish Stew. ( See Bord Bia.) The Irish Food Board is the Irish government’s agency which supports the Irish food industry and its agricultural products worldwide. Its recipe includes the neck or shoulder of lamb, onions, carrots, and potatoes. Those are some of the traditional elements -- meat, root vegetables, and potatoes. Then it adds other items such as other vegetables -- leeks, turnips, cabbage, and parsley.  Plus spices like thyme and bayleaf.

Sometimes we might find recipes that add beer or barley to the stew. Sometimes we might find recipes that have a thin broth only for the liquidy stew and other times a thicker gravy, usually by adding flour or a brown gravy mix. In fact, there are many ways to make Irish stew.
Ingredients for Irish Stew,
carrots, onion, red potatoes, beef,
sea salt, black pepper, parsley
(Photo by Adrian McGrath)

Here is a basic plan I used and have included a few photos. I will not give a precise recipe because I think people should create the stew the way they like it by experimenting with it. Add what you like and in the proportions you think are best. You will probably find the “Irish Stew” that’s right for you and your family.

I use the main four ingredients -- meat, potatoes, onions, carrots. Spices are sea salt, black pepper, and dried parsley, and just a bit of brown sugar. The meat I use is a pound of beef cut into cubes. Just ask your butcher for beef stew meat. I also add a can of beef broth and a packet of dry brown gravy mix.
Irish Stew in a pot
(Photo by Adrian McGrath)

I cook it on top of the stove -- which is the traditional Irish way since in ancient Ireland people would use a cauldron on a fireplace and not an oven. So, a pot on top of the stove simulates a cauldron on an open fire. You can add a pinch or two of brown sugar just to add a little sweetness. Just put it all together (you can brown your meat first if you want); and cook it low and slow until the meat is tender and the vegetables are done.

Irish Stew can be made from leftovers as well -- using whatever meat, vegetables, and potatoes you have on hand. (This is similar to the famous Creole Gumbo of New Orleans which can be made from leftover meat or seafood, Creole vegetables, but using rice instead of potatoes plus a roux -- flour and oil sauted as a thickener.)

The result will be a great meal for your and your family or friends and a brief adventure into Irish history.

Sources and further reading: Irish Food Board, Bord Bia, recipe for Irish Stew at ; An article on different types of Irish stew from the Chicago Tribune, “Dueling Stews” by Judy Hevrdejs at ; Wikipedia’s aticle on “Irish Stew” at ; All of the photos in this article are by Adrian McGrath.