The Great Irish Famine (1845-1852) did not initiate Irish immigration to the United States – it institutionalized it. Those who were able left Ireland by the hundreds of thousands and arrived in North American port cities to begin new lives in urban immigrant communities. New Yorkers from poor schoolboys to John Jacob Astor contributed to the 1847 New York Relief Fund for the Irish poor.
The post-famine custom of giving the land to one inheriting son and dowering one daughter meant that many non-inheriting sons and daughters emigrated. Irish emigration was unique in that it was an emigration of siblings with the annual emigration of women frequently outnumbering the men. A second agricultural depression that began in 1879 further stimulated emigration and those conditions encouraged the creation of a mission to serve young Irish women who emigrated alone.
When an Irish girl left her family and home in Ireland, the Catholic Church was her consolation. That the Church established the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls is a measure of its sense of obligation to protect and sustain the young Irish in New York. The Mission was the fulfillment of the folk prayer for immigrants:
Beannaigh mé féin is mo ghaolta ag baile Is an méid díobh atá thar sáile, Le grásta an Spiorad Naomh, bí féin ár bhfaire Is ná lig ar seachrán sinn.
Bless me and my relatives at home and those of them who are overseas; with the grace of the Holy Spirit watch over us and do not let us wander.
Donla uí Bhraonáin, Paidreaacha na Gaeilge
“The sword of famine is less sparing than the bayonet of the soldier.”
Thomas F. Meagher Irish patriot, part of the ‘Young Ireland’ 1848 rebellion and with William Smith O’Brien shipped to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and distinguished American Civil War General