New York and the Famine

By Peter Duffy

On this St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland is peaceful and prosperous. The animosities of the past will have little bearing on the great parade that travels up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The so-called Celtic Tiger, with its cubs more interested in the strength of the euro than the durability of sectarian differences, appears to have entered a new era in its history.

Perhaps then, on this day of all days, the Irish Catholics of New York should do something that would’ve been unthinkable even a few years ago: raise a toast to the Protestants.

I am referring to the Protestants of New York City and their actions during the winter of 1847, an unjustly forgotten episode in the Irish history of this city.

In late 1846 and early 1847, word began to reach the Manhattan docks that Ireland’s potato crop, vital for the survival of millions of Irish, had failed for the second time — initiating a food crisis unprecedented in that nation’s history. Among those stunned by the onset of famine was the city’s WASP establishment, which had been far from friendly to the rising numbers of Irish Catholics who had arrived here over the previous decades. The current antipathy toward illegal immigrants from Mexico pales in comparison to the vicious, nativist sentiment targeting the Irish during the 1830s and 1840s.

Yet on Monday evening, Feb. 15, 1847, a large crowd gathered at the Broadway Tabernacle, a Congregationalist church on Worth Street. They were there “for the purpose of affording relief of the Irish people,” according to an account in the Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register, an Irish Catholic newspaper published in New York.

John A. King, a former state assemblyman and future governor, called the meeting to order and nominated a slate of presiding officers that represented the cream of New York society. Included were shippers, merchants, clergymen and bankers, esteemed figures with names like Astor, Livingston and Havemeyer. A former state assemblyman and senator named Myndert Van Schaick, a member of one of New York’s oldest Dutch families, was nominated as president.

Van Schaick then addressed the crowd, “one of the largest assemblages” ever congregated at the Tabernacle, according to the newspaper. “The extent of the calamity that has befallen the Irish is not yet known,” he said. “It may be truly said that a whole nation is in danger of starvation.” He invited the public to donate to the new organization’s relief fund.

After a number of resolutions were passed — one noted that differences in “customs” or “creed” do not “absolve us from the duties of common brotherhood” — the pulpit was opened to speakers. Rev. Jonathan Wainwright of St. John’s Episcopal Chapel, a future bishop, read several passages from foreign newspapers describing the sufferings in Skibbereen, County Cork, which had become infamous for the plight of its poor. He insisted that he did not attend the meeting to “speak of modes of faith,” but to urge his fellow citizens to “share our loaf” and “contribute liberally from our ample store.”

Charles King, a merchant, attorney and newspaper editor who would later become president of Columbia University, asked the audience “to come forward . . . without distinction of sect or party to aid in the cause of suffering humanity.” Even a few shillings, he said, “would save thousands and thousands of famishing poor.”

As subsequent editions of the Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register show, the response was impressive. Within a month, the local famine relief committee reported that it had collected $68,061.49, the equivalent of more than $1.5 million in today’s money. New Yorkers of all backgrounds contributed to the fund — everyone from John Jacob Astor ($500) to “a few poor Christians in Brooklyn” ($10), from the Benevolent Society of Operative Masons ($400) to the Elm Street Synagogue ($200). But considering Ireland’s scarred history, the Protestant response is perhaps most noteworthy.

It appears that every minister in town sought donations from the pulpit. The list of churches that gave is impressive: Norfolk Street Methodist, the Reformed Dutch Church at the corner of Greene and Houston, the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue, Trinity Episcopal, the Second Wesleyan Chapel on Mulberry Street, Duane Street Presbyterian, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church on Christopher Street, Mercer Street Presbyterian, Grace Church, and on and on.

Like many other areas of the country and world, the relief donations in New York dried up as the Irish crisis dragged on for another three years, exacerbated by further crop failures as well as disastrous British relief policies. But this doesn’t absolve New York’s Irish from recognizing the generosity shown to them by a historical enemy. If nothing else, perhaps someone can name a pub after relief committee president Van Schaick. Call it Myndert’s.

Mr. Duffy’s new book, “The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland” (HarperCollins, 2007), is set during the Great Irish Famine.