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The Irish in Mining
A starving Irish family from Carraroe, County Galway, during the famine.
Source: National Library of Ireland

Life in Ireland was not easy for Irish Catholic peasants in the mid-1800s. The tidal wave of immigration to America began with a blight of the Irish potato crop in 1840 which left the farmlands covered with black rot. Food prices soared as crops across Europe failed. Poor Irish farmers watched helplessly as their food stores rotted in the cellars, taking their only hope of paying rent to their British and Protestant landlords and then even their own source of food. Consumption of rotten produce sickened entire communities, and villages staggered under twin waves of cholera and typhus. Fatal victims were left unburied as priests sacrificed coffin money to buy food for the living.

Unable to find redress in the courts, these poor Irishmen took refuge in secret societies that could fight for change under a cloak of anonymity. During the 1840s, a new group known as the "Molly Maguires" became well known in both the northern and southern counties of Ireland for its efforts to fight the oppression of the tithe collector. When immigrants from these areas later arrived in America, they carried with them the memory of this earlier struggle.

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