Reading #1
Home Up




Mother lived thru [sic] the famine in Ireland and saw many die of starvation. She always knew the value of food and the worth of a dollar, and what it cost, to produce real value. She solved so many financial problems, that she seemed equal to any task. She enjoyed good health and developed from a pale City girl to a robust woman.

(Rev. Bulger, 1939, 11)

The question some might ask is, "What does the story of one Catholic priest's family have to do with American history?" My response is that our American history is, effectively, a compilation of everyone's family stories. Father Bulger's eloquent account of his mother's migratory experience provides an illustration of the American immigrant spirit. When millions of Irish famine survivors migrated to America , they brought with them a vitality and strength of purpose which they applied to life in their new home. And, I contend that much of America 's wealth was built from the sweat and toil of Irish immigrants.

Why study Irish famine immigration? Through examination of individual family's migration stories, we begin to understand their experiences. The Irish not only migrated to America in search of the American Dream but, more importantly, left their native lands because of intolerable conditions. Whether because of something as intangible as political or economic freedom or as immediate as starvation, Irish famine migration is an example of coerced migration. From these experiences, we can draw conclusions about the enormous history of Irish famine migration to America .

This report is an examination of coerced Irish migration to Iowa as seen through the lives of the Mullin-Reagan family. Resulting from my investigation of immigration and westward expansion in Iowa , I contend that this family's experience can be viewed as a microcosm of the Iowa immigrant experience. Therefore, their history is one version of Iowa history.

I must credit two key individuals with accumulating a majority of the personal data used in this unit. John Martin Mullin of Comanche, Iowa, began recording genealogical information on the Mullin-Maloney and Reagan-Cunningham families in 1995, accumulating original documents and writing to church officials in Ireland. Thomas Edward Mullin of Davenport , Iowa , introduced me to his family's history, providing me with a wealth of oral history and sources which I have attempted to follow during my investigations.

My research efforts have resulted in accumulating some previously unknown facts, adjusting a few erroneous dates, and compiling the family histories into one volume. The information provided here has been obtained from oral history, birth, marriage, immigration, naturalization, and death records. And the rest is conjecture.

Causes of Irish Migration to America

The Irish have always been a migrant people. During the period of the Great Migrations, the ethnic majority of Ireland , the Scots, began their migrations from their homeland on the north shore of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe , originating in a region known as Scythia . Legend has it that leaders of the Milesians traveled as far south as Egypt , encountering the Israelites c. 1300 BCE. Later, a large contingent of Milesians migrated by boat across the Mediterranean Sea to Spain . After a few generations, the Milesians moved north across Gaul and settled in Brittany , establishing a Celtic Breton homeland (D'Alton, 1999). Evidence of Celtic migration originating in the area of Greece comes from Celtic use of Greek writing during the Roman conquest of Gaul c. 52 BCE (History, 2000). Eventually, they crossed the English Channel in their round leather boats, arriving on the Emerald Isle c.1000-500 BCE (D'Alton).

Having found a home on the Western Fringe of Europe, the Irish multiplied. Subsequent generations went out from Ireland to populate Scotland after the withdrawal of the Roman Legions c. 410 BCE and are reputed to have explored the Atlantic and even the Americas , setting the stage for future Nordic exploration (McGhee, 1996).

In 1169 the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland began. Unlike the inhabitants of Britain , the Irish never completely succumb to the invaders. Lands outside of the Norman holdings came to be known as "Beyond the Pale." Throughout the ensuing centuries, the rulers of England continued to attempt to subdue Ireland , even settling "Planter" colonies of Protestants in predominantly Catholic areas, most notably in Ulster . As Irish culture, industry, and society became subjugated to Britain , Ireland effectively became an English colony (Urban, 1999).

As in the American Colonies, Ireland was locked into the Mercantile System. Raw materials were shipped to England where value-added manufacturing was applied. These goods were then sent to the colonies for purchase, eliminating competition and ensuring markets for English manufacturing. The most pronounced effect was strangling potential Irish industries, dooming the populace to toiling in the fields.

By the 19th Century, Ireland was populated by two classes of people–land owners and tenant farmers. Even though most Irish were trapped into a life of menial labor, some itinerant workers migrated to England , the Continent, and even America in search of work. Returning with monies to support their families, these migrants established migrant streams which the Famine Irish would soon follow.

Reasons for migration in relatively recent history can be grouped into four categories all of which involve factors which "push" people out of their homelands and "pull" people to a destination. Circular migration is a migration pattern to a destination and eventual return to the native land which incorporates both push and pull factors. Chain migration the process of following previous migration streams. Of note, many Irish sought America as their destination because of reports from previous migrants. Coerced migration is the term for involuntary push factors–famine, slave trade. The question was not whether to go but where to go, if there even was a choice. Career migration involves migrants choosing to leave in order to make a better life.

Starvation and death can be cited as ultimate "push" factors. As the Irish had a previous history of migration, surviving the Great Famine and the future of up to one-fourth of the Irish would depend on their ability to survive famine, leave Ireland by whatever means available, and reestablish their Irish identity in new lands.