By Martin Gleeson
In the colonial period in the 17th century, the laws in Massachusetts were based on British poor law and they ensured that beggars were expelled from the colony. When large numbers of famine-stricken Irish migrants began to arrive in Massachusetts in the 1840s, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigration “Know Nothing Party” got into power and took control of the legislature. This party added to the poor laws and granted the authorities power to deport foreigners residing in public alms houses. They were deported to Ireland, Europe and Canada.
Over a thirty-year period from 1840, about 50,000 people were forced out of Massachusetts. Scholars tell us that a large number of those were Irish. The deportation laws were administered very harshly. Officially, no American citizens could be deported but poor-law officials were successful in expelling many US citizens of Irish descent. Irish men and women who had spent up to 40 years living in Massachusetts were removed. Some locals believed this deportation was a good thing as they viewed Irish paupers as ‘leeches upon our taxpayers’.
Back then Liverpool was the major port for transatlantic shipping. Thus, many poor Irish people were transported from the USA first to Liverpool. But they were not allowed to remain there. Here, the authorities quickly transferred them back to Ireland.
Back to Ireland
There was no welcome for those emigrants who arrived back in their home country. Government officials regarded the returning Irish as burdens on the Poor Law relief. Many insisted that these Irish people should not have returned at all. Having been expelled from the USA and then Britain, these poor people found themselves without land or employment and were socially isolated in their own country. They were dumped on the streets without being given money, food or clothes. Many entered the workhouses where typhoid fever was raging. Others became street beggars.
Of course, the United States were a godsend for up to two million Irish emigrants who arrived there with nothing but hope in their hearts. By reason of hard work, over the years most of them thrived and became successful.
Yes, this great country said: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” However, we must not forget that some of those huddled masses who had survived the voyage to the USA on coffin ships, were sent back to Ireland while the Potato Famine was still rampant.