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William McGinnis and the Great Irish Famine

The amazing thing about genealogy is learning that your ancestors were involved with or affected by historical events we've learned about. I was both intrigued and saddened to learn that my 3rd great-grandfather, William McGinnis, left his home in The Emerald Isle most likely to avoid starvation during the Great Famine of Ireland, also known as The Potato Famine.

William was born around 1829 and according to his entry on the 1855 New York State Census, he had come to America from Ireland about 1850, when he would have been about 21 or 22 years old. His ship record has yet to be found and there are several immigrants by the same name, which could cause confusion, but he was counted on the census taken on August 3, 1850, so we know he arrived late 1849 or in the first half of 1850. Based on the 1850 census, I suspect he may have traveled with a woman named Susan McGinnis, who was two years his elder, probably a sister.

The "Great Hunger", as it is sometimes called, caused the death of over a million people in Ireland and was the reason an estimated two million more fled the tormented country in the years that immediately followed. The famine started in 1845, the year the country's staple crop, potatoes, first failed. If the crops had failed for only one year, the impact wouldn't have been so devastating, but the crops failed five years in a row. The third year, "Black '47", was the pinnacle of the deaths and suffering. William survived that dreadful year but the famine didn't officially end until 1852 and Irish immigrants continued to flee from their ancestral home in an effort to avoid starvation or seek a better life.

The potato crop failed in many European countries at the same time. France, Belgium, Germany, Scotland, Flanders, and the United Kingdom all suffered food shortages in those years, but the impact was most severe in Ireland. Ireland lost nearly 25% of it's population as a result of the famine, but the crop failure was not the only cause. New laws and policies regarding trade and property were major contributing factors.

During the Napoleonic Wars, when trade with France seized, Ireland was inundated with work supplying England with food for their growing industrial workforce. However, when the war ended in 1815, trade with France was restored leaving many of the Irish out of jobs. Then, a law was enacted which required land to be divided equally among all of a landowner's children when they died, instead of the eldest as was the tradition for many years. This division of land caused major problems. Some sold their inherited lands to Englishmen who hired landlords to manage their properties. The landlords then often subdivided the properties even further, finding it more profitable to use the land to farm crops and cattle, commodities that were in high demand in England. For common people who did not own land, they were left with no choice but to rent small parcels of land that were inadequate for their farming needs. Additionally, the rents were so high that many had to share their homes with others in order to be able to afford it. Still, most people relied on farming for income and when the blight hit their potato crops, they couldn't pay their rents, leading to eviction and homelessness. The English aristocrats were largely unsympathetic to the plight of the Irish, believing it was God's judgement on a country that was 80% Catholic.

Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse. - Proverbs 28:27

People were suffering and dying, not only from starvation, but also from malnutrition which left them vulnerable to disease. With no money to escape, many offered themselves as indentured servants to anyone who would pay for their passage away from their famished homeland. Perhaps this is how William McGinnis made his get away.

There are many valuable lessons to be learned from Ireland's tragedy. Let us never forget those who suffered so greatly during the Great Famine of Ireland, and by the grace of God, may it never be repeated.

Shown here is the Famine Memorial in Dublin. Use the interactive view to have a look around!

Variations of McGinnis include Guinness, McGuinness, McGinness, and at least a dozen other variations.

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