Tuesday Trivia #18: The History of Potato Crop Failures

I realized this morning that I used “Tuesday Trivia #12” twice — kind of confusing! Rather than renumber the whole kit’n’caboodle and maybe create more confusion, I simply relabled the second #12 as #12a. And so on we go …

Many people consider the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 to be an unprecendented occurrence, and believe it caught the country’s government by surprise. However, the failure of the potato crop that began in 1945 was no stranger to Ireland’s inhabitants.

Crop failures had plagued Ireland in both the 18th and 19th centuries prior to An Gorta Mor, or The Great Hunger. In the winter of 1739-1740, the potato crop was ruined by frost: close to half a million Irish died from starvation and related diseases (a number that is statistically higher per capita than The Great Famine).

Another crop failure took place in 1782 and 1783, but at that time laws were enacted to keep Irish food in Ireland to feed its populace, so the death rate was not nearly so high.

In 1816, a widespread general crop failure occurred in most of Europe, due to unusual weather conditions (secondary, we now know, to a volcanic eruption in the Indian Ocean). The English Parliament under Sir Robert Peel created a contingency plan to prevent widespread disaster in the case of another potato crop failure.

In 1822 and in the early 1830s, regional crop failures occurred, but were considered unimportant and unrelated. By the mid-century, the British government had essentially adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward Ireland; when the crop failed again in 1845, only small parts of Peel’s contingency plan were put into effect. The Corn Laws, laws that kept the price of English corn artificially high, were repealed; however, the populace had no money with which to buy the corn even at reduced prices.

Ironically, American ships loaded with donated corn arrived in Ireland – after much ado about who had the authority to accept the corn, the American grain was distributed for free, while English corn rotted away in warehouses, waiting for someone with enough money to buy it.

Tuesday Trivia #16: ELLIS ISLAND

Ellis island

Ellis Island Immigration Station

15-year-old Annie Moore arrived from Ireland on January 1, 1892, and became the first person to enter the United States through Ellis Island.

Over 12 million people entered the United States through the Ellis Island immigration center from 1892 to 1954.

Contrary to what you may think, Ellis Island was only one of many ports of entry for ships; others on the east coast included Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore.

Tuesday Trivia #15: The Pony Express


When we think of the Pony Express, this iconic picture of a horse and rider is usually what comes to mind. But there’s a serious flaw in that thinking.

The bag slung over the rider’s shoulder would have flapped in the wind, and could have panicked a horse. The Pony Express “bag” was actually a leather blanket designed to fit over the cantle and horn of a special light-weight saddle. The bag was called a “mochila“, and it looks like this when paired with a saddle:


It lay flat against the horse, held down by the rider’s legs, and had four pouches that the mail was carried in. Another benefit of the mochila was that it made transfer to a fresh horse quick and easy. The mochila was designed by Israel Landis of St Joseph MO.

Other interesting facts & legends:


–  The Pony Express operated for only 19 months in 1860 and 1861, and the original route was from St. Joseph MO to Sacramento CA.
–   It had 184 stations placed 5 to 25 miles apart.
–   35,000 letters were delivered.
–   After the telegraph made its way as far as Salt Lake City in March of 1861, the Pony Express operated from Salt Lake City to Sacramento.


–   Buffalo Bill Cody was a Pony Express Rider.
–   The Pony Express want ad read: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.

Both of these legends might be true, but we have no way to substantiate them.


This is another one of those cowboy songs I learned very early on: I can’t begin to tell you how many verses I’ve heard to it. I’m including only the ones that are most popular, the ones I’ve heard recorded by more than one source. A “dogie”, of course, is a cow.


As I was out walking one morning for pleasure,
I spied a cow-puncher all riding alone;
His hat was throwed back and his spurs was a jingling,
And as he approached he was a-singin’ this song,


Whoopi-ti-yi-yo, git along little dogies,
It’s your misfortune, and none of my own.
Whoopi-ti-yi-yo, git along little dogies,
For you know Wyoming will be your new home.

It’s early in the spring we round up the dogies,
We mark ’em and brand ‘em and bob off their tails;
Round up our horses, load up the chuck-wagon,
Then throw the dogies upon the trail.


Your mother was raised away down in Texas,
Where the jimson weed and sand-burrs grow;
Now we’ll fill you up on prickly pear and cholla
Till you are ready for Idaho.


Notes: Since both my maternal and fraternal grandparents lived two hours away (in opposite directions, no less), and in the days before cars were equipped with anything more than a radio, it was critical for the seven of us children to be happy in the car. One of the tricks my parents had was teaching us these songs, and then letting us make up our own verses as we went along. It was so much fun, I’ve adapted it to my manuscripts, and let my fictional Donovan family do it as well.

Tuesday Trivia #13: Irish Dancing

Ever wonder why Irish dancers keep their hands totally still at their sides when they dance?

Many sources attribute this custom to the Traveling Dance Masters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For a fee, this Dance Master would teach Irish children jigs, reels and hornpipes. Accompanied by a fiddler and/or piper, the Dance Master taught a very high standard of dance with emphasis on the steps, and had the children hold the rest of their bodies perfectly still.

But legend has it that the practice was common for two hundred years before that, when the advent of enforced Protestantism included the restraint of dancing. So how were Irish parents going to teach their children traditional dances, a central part of their culture? Well, where dancing was prohibited, jumping was not. A dragoon looking through the window of an Irish cottage could not object to children simply jumping up and down, even if it was done rhythmically.

Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye

Today’s song is an Irish ditty that was borrowed by America during the Civil War. I’m posting both versions here, starting with the American one. The Johnny referred to was Johnny Reb.

The original Irish version follows. It’s traditionally sung with a pause before the last line of both the verses and refrain. It is, for me at least, a much more realistic look at the fortunes of war.

When Johnny Comes Marching Home

When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The men will cheer and the boys will shout,
The ladies they will all turn out,
And we’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.

The old church bell will peal with joy Hurrah! Hurrah!
To welcome home our darling boy, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The village lads and lassies say
With roses they will strew the way,
And we’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.

Get ready for the Jubilee, Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give the hero three times three, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The laurel wreath is ready now
To place upon his loyal brow,
And we’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.

Let love and friendship on that day, Hurrah, hurrah!
Their choicest pleasures then display, Hurrah, hurrah!
And let each one perform some part,
To fill with joy the warrior’s heart,
And we’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home!

Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye

When goin’ the road to sweet Athy, haroo, haroo
When goin’ the road to sweet Athy, haroo, haroo
When goin’ the road to sweet Athy,
A stick in me hand and a drop in me eye,
A doleful damsel I heard cry, “Johnny I hardly knew ye!

“With their guns and drums and drums and guns, haroo, haroo
With their guns and drums and drums and guns, haroo, haroo
With their guns and drums and drums and guns,
The enemy nearly slew ye!
Darlin’ dear, ye look so queer, Johnny I hardly knew ye.

“Where are those eyes with which ye smiled, haroo, haroo
Where are those eyes with which ye smiled, haroo, haroo
Where are those eyes with which ye smiled
When my poor heart ye first beguiled?
Why did ye go leave me and the child? Johnny I hardly knew ye!


“Where are those legs with which ye run, haroo, haroo
Where are those legs with which ye run, haroo, haroo
Where are those legs with which ye run
When first ye went to carry a gun?
Indeed yer dancing days are gone, Johnny I hardly knew ye!


“Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg, haroo, haroo
Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg, haroo, haroo
Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg,
Ye’re an eyeless, noseless, chickenless egg
Ye’ll have to be put with a bowl to beg, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!


“I’m happy for to see ye home, haroo, haroo
I’m happy for to see ye home, haroo, haroo
I’m happy for to see ye home,
Back from the isle of Salam,
So low in flesh, so high in bone, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!


Note: the reference to the isle of Salam probably means the battle of Salamanca in 1812, during the Peninsular War, itself a subset of the Napoleonic Wars.

Tuesday Trivia #12a: A Cowboy and his Outfit

“I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy …”

These words from Streets of Laredo are not as transparent as they may seem to be. Our modern interpretation of “outfit” refers basically to the clothes we wear, and can be stretched to include belt, shoes, hat, and (for a woman) handbag.

But would clothes distinguish a cowboy from a farmer? or a rancher? Remember that clothing was in limited supply in the Old West. Many cowboys wore Mr. Levi Strauss’ blue jeans, but striped pants and corduroys were also common and, after the Civil War, so were army twills. Shirts were made of muslin, cambric, flannel and corduroy — sometimes even gingham. And while high-heeled boots would have distinguished cattlemen from farmers, they wouldn’t always distinguish the rancher from his cowhands.

To a cowboy, his “outfit” included not only what he wore, but his saddle & saddlebags, bridle, rope, bedroll, rifle & guns, most of which were always with him. It could include even his horse. In short, it meant all of his personal possessions, and that’s the outfit we’re seeing reference to in the song.

But there’s another definition of outfit in the Old West, loosely meaning comrades-in-arms. Whether it was the cowhands of the Bar-X ranch, or the outlaws of the notorious Hash Knife gang, the “outfit” was defined as a cowboy’s friends and associates. For better or ill, a cowboy carried the reputation not only of himself, but of his outfit as well.

Tuesday Trivia #12: The Irish Gaelic Language

History has shown us over and over again that a society cannot be suppressed if their customs and language are allowed to flourish. It’s a lesson exemplified by the colonies’ treatment of black slaves, and of Elizabeth I’s conquest of Ireland.

One of the first things Elizabeth did was to order was the elimination of the Gaelic language. Since their native tongue was forbidden, parents and priests would teach the children surreptitiously; the lessons could not be written down for fear of discovery. Consequently, words came to be spelled phonetically with only small, isolated populations passing down the original written word. Irish Gaelic  survived in these remote nooks of the island, and gained a resurgence after the Independence.

Since the common spelling through the late 19th century was phonetical, you will most often see that spelling in Irish songs of the time. For example, the term “a ghra” (meaning sweetheart) would have been pronounced and spelled “arrah”. For historical accuracy, I use the phonetical spelling in my manuscripts as well.

Tuesday Trivia #11: The Hedgerow Schools of Ireland

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Irish Catholic children attended school to learn English and arithmetic. In densely populated areas, school might be held in an abandoned barn or building, but in the country, the children literally sat in front of the hedgerows that separated one small croft from another.

There were few, if any, textbooks. Some would have rudimentary pieces of slate and chalk to pass around, but many children had to memorize their lessons. Their teachers were usually priests who would often offer lessons in Catholicism as well. But teaching the Catechism was considered treason, and getting caught meant punishment — anything up to and including death.

So on a sunny summer afternoon, it was not unusual to see a priest walking up and down on the edge of a field for an hour or so, his hands waving, his mouth working, extolling the tenets of Catholicism to children who were hidden from sight.

In the 1830s, the English overlords came to realize that an illiterate Irish population was of little value, and some standardization of school lessons began. It was not until the 1860s, though, that actual schoolhouses became a prominent feature of Irish villages.

St Patrick & the Slave Trade

Read any biography of Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, and you’ll find that he was born in the late 4th century somewhere on the island of Britain. Patrick was kidnapped while still in his teens, and sold as a slave in Ireland. Some histories place the blame on Irish pirates, while others blame the Romans who had conquered the island centuries earlier. Whoever was responsible, for six years Patrick was a slave, and then he escaped back to Britain.

Twelve years after his escape, having studied at a monastery and being ordained, Patrick returned to the Emerald Isle as a bishop and missionary. After twenty years, he left behind an organized church under the authority of the See of Armagh, and an island that was nearly completely converted to Catholicism.

Little did Patrick know that, over a thousand years later, those conversions would be the justification for a new era of slavery.

By the sixteenth century, Ireland had long been under the control of England. When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1533 and established the Church of England, he dissolved and destroyed the monasteries throughout Great Britain. And where previous kings had taken the title of Lord of Ireland, Henry declared himself their King. But his influence was largely confined to an area surrounding Dublin and Drogheda, known as The Pale.

It was Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, who extended English authority throughout the Emerald Isle. At that time, any practice of the Catholic religion was considered both heresy and felony, and hundreds of Irish Catholics were hung or imprisoned every year thereafter.

Holding all those Irish Catholics prisoner became a costly affair for the Crown. And there was another problem — lack of labor in the British possessions in the New World. Killing two birds with one stone, in 1625 King James II of England officially ordered Irish political prisoners to be sold as slaves in the new world. From 1641 to 1652, 300,000 Irish men, women and children were sold as slaves. And that was just the beginning.

Irish slaves were “transported” on British slave ships to the British West Indies and the Colonies. They were packed in as closely as possible, because either the ship owner or the prisoners themselves had to pay for the voyage. Thousands died from lack of food and air, communicable diseases, and scurvy. Historical records show that in at least one case, live slaves were thrown overboard when food stores got low. It’s interesting to note that British ships would not sail at night, so the number of casualties increased accordingly, with some estimates going as high as 1 in every 3 passengers.

Many historians estimate, at the time of the American Revolution, up to one-half of the non-native population of the new United States of America were Irish slaves. English records reveal that, for over a hundred years, at least 1,000 “convicts” were sent each year to the American colonies, and about half went to Virginia, to work or be sold there. Yet in 1786, Thomas Jefferson wrote that Irish slaves:

“were not sufficient in number to merit enumeration as one class out of three which peopled America. It was at a late period of their history that the practice began. I have no book by me which enables me to point out the date of its commencement. But I do not think the whole number sent would amount to 2000 & being principally men eaten up with disease, they married seldom & propagated little. I do not suppose that themselves & their descendants are at present 4000, which is little more than one thousandth part of the whole inhabitants.”

Following in the trail of Jefferson’s paradox, US history books usually refer to the Irish slaves as “indentured servants”, meaning that the period of servitude was limited to the time required to pay off their debts. In truth, many of the Irish were sentenced to 7 – 20 years of slavery. But how do you convince your owner that your freedom has been earned when the sentencing body is 3,000 miles and two months of travel away?

Most of the Irish slaves died before they were ever freed.

After the American Revolution, the colonies no longer accepted “indentured servants” from Ireland; so began a new era of transportation to Australia that lasted until 1839.

My acknowledgement and thanks to the following resources:
The Daily Kos
Irish Genealogy toolkit

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