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.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Abraham Lincoln and The Great Hunger

Abraham Lincoln, 1846
while a member of the US Congress
Photo from Library of Congress,
and Wikimedia

By Adrian McGrath

The Great Hunger (or as it is called in Irish "An Gorta Mor") killed more than 1,000,000 Irish people and drove another 1,000,000 away from Ireland as emigrants. It began in 1845 with a blight on the potato crop -- the main, if not only, source of food for most Irish. When the potatoes rotted away, the people starved to death or died of related diseases. (See more on this at my story on Coffins Ships.)

There was plenty of other food in British-occupied Ireland then -- fruits, vegetables, grains, seafood, dairy products, and even beef. But this was all controlled by the British who, in most cases, refused to share this food supply with the starving Irish. Indeed, shipments of Irish food were sent under guard by police or British soldiers to England or sold overseas for profit. Meanwhile, the Irish starved to death.

Starving Irish in Skibbereen, Ireland
James Mahoney, Illustrated London News, 1847
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

This deliberate starvation was the result of centuries of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic discriminatory laws, ethnic prejudice, and a warped excessive belief in an economic philosophy called laissez faire, which completely overlooked how an economic system should operate in times of crisis. It was tantamount to genocide.

The British government did intervene at some point, inadequately; and some aid did come from overseas from humanitarians. Notable examples of people who sent money or materiel to help the starving Irish were the Quakers religious organization, the Choctaw Native American Indians, and the Sultan of Turkey.

The Quakers in Ireland set up giant cauldrons -- called Famine Pots -- and made soup kitchens. Many Quakers even became ill themselves or died from illnesses during their charity work.

The Sultan of Turkey had an Irish medical doctor on his staff
who encouraged the sultan to help the starving Irish. Consequently, the Sultan sent a message to the Queen of England, Victoria, offering 10,000 Pounds to help in famine relief. The English queen allowed the sultan to donate only 1,000 Pounds, however. Why? Because she donated only 2,000 Pounds herself, and the British queen wanted no one to donate more than she did.

The Choctaws, a Native American Indian tribe who themselves had been subjected to discrimination, decimation, and abuse donated money gathered from their poverty-stricken people and sent it to aid the Irish. (In the infamous Trail of Tears some years earlier the Choctaws had been forced from their homeland along with other Indian tribes and marched to Oklahoma. Many died along the way.)

Choctaw Indians in Louisiana, 1847
from Wikimedia Commons based on a painting
in the New Orleans Museum of Art
"Louisiana Indians Walking Along a Bayou"
Public Domain

But a professor from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, Cristine Kinealy, made a fairly recent, stunning discovery of another donor to the cause of Irish famine relief. The donor was none-other-than Abraham Lincoln.

In the late 1840s, Abraham Lincoln was not a well-known figure. He was just a former rail-splitter and farmer turned country-lawyer. Within about 15 years, however, he would become president of the United States and one of the most famous men in American history.

Professor Kinealy has studied the Irish Great Hunger for many years and has done extensive research. She came across a list of donors in her research and found that a relatively young Abraham Lincoln donated $10, which today would be about $500. Remember, at this time Lincoln was himself an unknown and relatively poor.

Lincoln donated the money in 1847, known as Black 47 in Ireland because the death toll was highest then. Lincoln had just become a
member of the US House of Representatives.

The professor was quoted as saying Abraham Lincoln had an affinity towards the Irish and could recite by heart Robert Emmet's speech from the dock. (This was a famous speech by an Irish rebel who was captured and put on trial by the British. Here is a video of Liam Clancy reciting Robert Emmet's famous speech. )

Additionally, Abraham Lincoln had as a favorite poem "The Lament of the Irish Emigrant" by Lady Dufferin, the professor was quoted as saying (See Helen Salina, aka Lady Dufferin). The words of the poem were turned into a popular song.

 (See the article  "Historian Discovers Abraham Lincoln Donated to Ireland during Great Famine" from, September 28, 2012. For more on "Lament of the Irish Emigrant" see here.)

Abraham Lincoln is known as perhaps America's greatest president (along with George Washington). Lincoln preserved the Union during the worst time in American history when brother fought brother, and he ended slavery in the United States.

President Abraham Lincoln, 1863
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Originally by Alexander Gardner

But now there is one more reason to admire this great man. He looked beyond his own self and his own land and saw human suffering overseas and tried to stop it.

Sources and further reading: Story about the Turkish Sultan donating, see this  ; story about the Choctaws donating, see this ;
Stories about Lincoln donating see this, and this , and this . And see this from The Irish Post

Artwork: Skibbereen, here.,_1847.JPG; Lincoln, here; Choctaws, here ; President Lincoln, here.

To see more about "Lament of the Irish Emigrant" see here.

See the Robert Emmet speech here

For more information about Professor Christine Kinealy, see

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Sir, I will share this with the New York Irish community.