"The Herald of Relief from America"

February 28, 1880

Thomas Nast

"The <I>Herald</I> of Relief from America"

Charity, Disaster Relief; Charity, Fundraising; Ireland; Journalists/Journalism; Public Health; Symbols, Ireland; Symbols, Irish Harp; Women, Symbolic;

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This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts American relief arriving for those suffering from the Irish famine of 1879-1880.

In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, Ireland's population doubled to 8,000,000, as the potato became the colony's staple crop.  Between 1845 and 1852, a devastating potato blight and the resultant famine in Ireland were responsible for the deaths of 1,000,000 and the emigration of 1,500,000 to the United States, Canada, and other areas of the British Empire; in all, over a quarter of the population was directly affected by the potato famine.  

There were subsequent food shortages and famines over the years, but the potato famine in 1879-1880 was especially severe.  Blight caused failure of most of the potato crop, cheap prices on American corn drove down the market price of the limited harvestable potatoes, and evictions of tenant farmers (as in other famine years) were common.  Until the turn of the century, the vast majority of Irish farm land (97% in 1870) was owned by men who rented the land to tenant farmers, not by those who cultivated the land themselves.  Land ownership was also concentrated in the hands of a few; in 1870, only 750 families owned 50% of the land in Ireland.  

In 1879, Michael Davitt, a Fenian (militant Irish nationalist), formed the Irish National Land League, with Charles Stewart Parnell, a member of Parliament and a constitutional nationalist, as its president.  The Land League organized agitation throughout Ireland for an end to evictions and a radical change in the land system to allow tenants to become landowners.  To enforce uniform compliance with their goals, the Land League convinced people to shun those tenants, land agents, and landlords who failed to cooperate.  This tactic was first used against Charles Boycott, a land agent, and became known as "boycotting."  Mounting tensions culminated in the Land War of 1879-1882.  The election in 1880 of William Gladstone as prime minister ushered in a change in Britain's Irish policy.  In 1881, Parliament enacted the Land Act, which guaranteed fair rents and made it possible for tenants to buy the land they farmed.  

American newspapers gave significant coverage to the Irish Famine of 1879-1880.  James Redpath, a journalist for the New York Tribune, contributed vivid, moving reports of the misery in Ireland, urging Americans to contribute to Irish relief funds.  The Irish Famine was a major story in Harper's Weekly in the early months of 1880, with lengthy illustrated articles explaining the history and circumstances of landownership and famine in Ireland.  The journal expressed confidence in American generosity:  "America is not slow to respond to a call for bread."  The primary coordinator in the United States for famine relief was the New York Herald, celebrated in this cartoon as "The Herald of Relief from America."  The newspaper collected over $200,000 by late February 1880.  On March 27, 1880, the U.S. Department of Navy dispatched the U.S.S. Constellation to Ireland with over 3300 barrel of foodstuffs, plus articles of clothing.

In this cartoon, the feminine symbol of Ireland (foreground) and the Irish people (background) wave white handkerchiefs of distress, signaling American ships transporting the Herald's relief collection to Eire's rocky shore.  In the right-foreground, an emaciated Irish family huddles together, as the emblematic Irish Harp has toppled over to the ground.  In the right-background, the spirit of death hovers in the sky over the Irish people.

Robert C. Kennedy

"The <I>Herald</I> of Relief from America"
July 14, 2024

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