During the 1500s, Ireland was torn apart by constant warfare between the country’s rulers and the Irish inhabitants. As a result of this conflict, the farmers had a hard time growing enough food to feed themselves. In 1600, the potato was introduced to the Irish.
By the 1800s, the potato was so important in Ireland that some of the poorer parts of the country relied entirely on the potato for food. By 1840, the country’s population had swelled from less than three million in the early 1500’s to a staggering eight million people, thanks to the potato.
Then in September 1845, the biggest fear hit Ireland and suddenly became reality. The disease attacked the potatoes and about half of the crops were destroyed. Many of the potatoes were found to have gone black and their leaves had withered. This strange disease turned potatoes into soggy and unedible mess. This was known as the 'potato blight' and it caused a famine in Ireland.
Modern statisticians estimate that between 500,000 and 1,100,000 people died. In addition, approximately one million Irish immigrated, mostly for America and Canada. Of those who left, many died on board the boats they were travelling in because the conditions were so crowded and dirty. For this reason, the ships that carried Irish immigrants became known as “coffin ships”.
Many Irish emigrants leaving for USA left through Liverpool and it became concentrated in the few square miles of the Liverpool waterfront. The vast majority of immigrants were linked by characteristics that identified them as all the same in the eyes of the people of Liverpool. Rags, diseases, and the ravages of hunger were among the signs attached to them.
Though life in Ireland was cruel, immigrating to America was not a joyful event either. It was referred to as the “American Wake” for these people knew they would never see Ireland again. Those who pursued this path did so only because they knew their future in Ireland would only be more poverty and so, America became their dream.