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The Spaniards discovered the potato in the Andes Mountains of South America. Sir Walter Raleigh brought the potato to
Europe about 1590 when he presented it to Queen Elizabeth. The potato became important to Ireland because it was highly
nutritious and was generally a reliable crop. It was well-suited to the Irish climate. It could be grown almost anyplace, even in
the mountain area and next to bogs.

Famine was not uncommon in Ireland. Bad weather often contributed to famine and plagues. Famine hit Ireland five times in
the 1700’s. It is estimated that 250,000-400,000 people perished in the famine of 1740-1741.

At the beginning of the 1800’s, at least a dozen varieties of potatoes were grown in parts of Ireland. Even the poor raised oats,
barley and rye along with beans and other green vegetables. The potato soon became the principal source of nutrition for the
vast majority of the poorer classes. It produced more food per acre than wheat and could be used to generate income.
Accompanied by milk, potatoes provided most of the important nutrients for a healthy, nutritious diet.

There were fourteen partial and complete Irish famines between 1816 and 1845. Even though the economy of the early
1800’s was stagnant, the Irish population continued to spiral upwards. Unemployment and destitution were major problems.
There was emigration to England and America, but it had little effect on the fast-growing population.


The levels of landholding in Ireland before the Great Famine were:
1. landlord-the actual owner of the land; he usually resided in England and an agent administered his estate
2. large farmer-held a given amount of land from a landlord for rent; his rent could be raised whenever the landlord or agent
decided to do so; often the large farmer sublet small plots of land to the landless laborers or cottiers
3. small farmer-rented a plot of ground, 4-10 acres in size, from the landlord or his agent
4. landless laborer-rented a piece of land on which to build a cabin and had a small garden for growing potatoes
5. cottier –a laborer for the landlord who would rent a cottage with or without land

Conacre became a common practice. Land was rented for the taking of a single crop. The laborers invested all or most of their
earnings in ground from which to feed their families. These were the lowest in the social order. They relied on seasonal labor
and migrated to the east of the country or England when harvesting or planting work was available there. This work paid for
the rent of the conacre and bought clothes.

Between the landlords and the landless laborers, there could be six tenants, each renting to the one below them. All tenants
held the land at the will of the landlord. When old leases expired, the landlords raised the rent to the improved value of the
farm. Sometimes the tenant had to sell almost everything he owned to meet the increased rent and taxes.


Irish women were subservient to their husbands. The English thought they were treated as slaves. Among the peasant class,
married men dressed better than married women. Their clothes were provided for first.

Peasant women, however, had an equal input into the economy of the household. They cooked, cleaned, reared the children
and had the sole responsibility for the animals and the making of butter. They would dig the potatoes, collect fuel, and then
wash and boil the potatoes. They never had much time for anything else. Production and marketing was the work of the man.

June, July and August were called the “Hungry” or “Meal” months. By then the potatoes from the previous year had all been
eaten and the new crop was still not ready. Oatmeal was then the basic food eaten; turnips and cabbage were also eaten
when available. None of these were considered to be as good as the potato. July was also called “Yellow Month” because
fields were yellow and the faces of the paupers were a greenish yellow from the lack of food.

May hungry July find your haggard full and may the God of plenty watch over us all. Irish Blessing

Landless laborers were hit the hardest during these months. Their wives and children were often forced to beg in other areas
than where they lived. Men never begged. Two and a half to three million people suffered from seasonal hunger and were
wiped out during the Great Famine.

In the years before the Great Famine struck, nearly half of rural families lived in windowless, one room mud cabins. The roof
was made of straw or some sod. For its chimney there would be a hole in the roof or smoke would escape through an open
door. Those who were a little better off had a cabin with a chimney and a window or two. A simple cabin would contain a
father, mother, several children and sometimes even the grandparents. There would be no furniture. The entire family would
sleep on a single bed of straw. If there was a pig inside the dwelling, it was a sign that the family was living in relative comfort.
The unemployed roamed the countryside, begging and sleeping in ditches. Land was scarce. Some families tried to survive on
only half an acre of land.

Between 1800 and 1830, the population of Ireland grew from 5 to 8 million people. The potato played a part in this population
increase. Potatoes yielded far more per acre than any grain crop so laborers could feed their families on small portions of land.
People married early in life and they tended to have large families. Ireland lacked major industrial centers and jobs were
scarce. A share in the family farm and a small stone and mud house was all most people expected. Parents considered
children insurance against starvation in their old age. Farmers subdivided the land among their children and holdings were
gradually reduced to tiny plots. Two-thirds of the Irish population was dependent on agriculture and many of these were
subsistence farmers. 45% farmed less than five acres of land and they were hugely vulnerable to any kind of crop failure.


Potatoes produced more calories per acre than any other crop that would grow in northern Europe. To increase their harvest,
farmers came to rely heavily on one potato variety, the Aran Banner, also known as the Lumper. It was one of the worst
tasting and least nutritious varieties, but it was very fertile. It had a higher per acre yield than other varieties. Potatoes from a
single acre of land could support a family of six. Storage was easy, but this potato was very susceptible to blight. For about
three million people potatoes were their only source of food. They rarely ate anything else. A man would eat 7-15 pounds of
potatoes each day. The children would take a big potato to school for their teacher. In County Mayo, the potato was the only
food eaten by 90% of the population.

When the potato was boiled, the pot was turned into a basket outside the door to let the water drain off. Then the basket
would be put in the middle of the floor and all would sit around it to eat. On a three-legged stool nearby would be a bowl of
saltwater or just salt. The potatoes were dipped in the bowl before being eaten. This was called “dip at the stool.” A noggin
of buttermilk or skim milk would complete the meal. People would let one thumbnail grow long because, without knives, that
was the best way to peel the potato. Several different dishes were made using the potato such as Boxty Bread and Champ.


The government didn’t do much for the poor until inquiries were held in the 1830’s. The British report determined that public
workhouses, rather than charity, would be the best solution. With the passage of the Poor law Amendment Act of 1834, the
Poor Law Guardians had to provide accommodations for paupers in workhouses. The workhouse policy was extended to
Ireland along with free primary education and subsidized emigration to Britain or the United States.

Workhouses were buildings designed for the poorest in society. These people could no longer afford to live outside of them.
Discipline, hard work, separation from family members and dull food were the trademarks of a workhouse. 130 long, gray
stone workhouses were built in Ireland between 1830 and 1843. Before the famine, they were usually run at 40% capacity.
Those who entered the workhouses were genuinely needy and in reality had no other option.

The buildings were prison-like structures built to accommodate 600-1,000 people. Too many people were crammed into a
small space. Thirty-two men would live in a dormitory 20 feet long. When a workhouse needed more space, beds would be
set up in the attic for the children.

High walls surrounded each workhouse so inmates could not see the world around them. Windows were six feet from the
floor. The windowsills sloped downward so they could not be used as seats or shelves. Open turf fires, one in each room, had
to be extinguished by 8:30pm.

The workhouse had stone floors, unplastered walls and bare rafter ceilings. The steep and narrow stairways were made of
stone and were not suited for the old, weak or frail. If these people were housed on the upper floors, they became virtual
prisoners and never left the floor.

A whole family had to enter the workhouse in order to qualify for relief. Each inmate worked for room and board. They did
not get paid.

When people entered the workhouse their clothes were removed, washed and stored. Each person was searched, washed and
given a haircut. Each woman received a shapeless, waistless dress that reached to her ankles. This was usually made of a
striped convict-like material. She also received a shapeless shift, long stockings (bright yellow in some workhouses) and knee-
length drawers. She also received a polebonnet.

Each man was given a striped shirt and ill-fitting trousers that he adjusted by tying a piece of string around the knees. He was
also given a thick vest, woolen drawers and socks, a neckerchief in winter and a coarse jacket. Children were dressed like the
adults. All wore hob-nailed boots except the children under two years of age. They had no socks or shoes.

Inmates were divided into seven categories and these seven groups were kept totally separated at all times, even during
leisure time. Married couples, no matter their age, were kept apart at all costs so they could not breed. This rule was relaxed
in later years.

Basic furniture consisted of a cheap wooden bed with a flock-filled sack mattress. Two or three blankets were provided. There
were no sheets or pillows. There were also wooden stools or benches and tables; these had no arms or backrests. None were
upholstered. The only decorations on the walls were the workhouse rules. There were no newspapers, books, toys or games.
If the inmates were not working they simply sat and did nothing.

A bell rang for each different activity of the day. The first bell rang at 5am. There were prayers followed by breakfast from
6am-7am. Meals were eaten in silence. Meals consisted largely of potatoes, bread and milk. Often the quality and quantity of
meals meant that workhouse inmates were on a slow starvation diet. Sometimes the only way to get food was to fight for it.
Work time was from 7am to noon. Dinner was from noon to 1pm and this was followed by another five hours of work.
Prayers took place between 6pm and 7pm. Supper was served from 7pm to 8pm and the inmates went to bed by 8pm.

Oakum picking was the work of the old. Oakum was old rope that was tarred or knotted. Inmates had to unravel 3 pounds of
rope daily-inch by inch. The resulting material was then sold to shipbuilders who added tar and used it to seal the lining of
wooden boats. Stonebreaking resulted in material for road making. Four or more men at a time would rotate heavy
millstones grinding corn by walking round and round on a treadmill. Bone crushing, sack-making and wood chopping were
other jobs for all able-bodied men. The able-bodied women scrubbed floors, polished brass, scrubbed tabletops and would
knit or spin. There was no work, except the necessary household work and cooking, on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas

There were no spirits or tobacco. Bad language, waste, idleness and disobedience were punished by confinement and less
food. The workhouses were developed so that people would really only use them as a last resort.

A large number of children ended up in the workhouses. Parents could barely keep themselves alive. They would put their
children in the workhouses, emigrate, establish themselves in a new country, and then arrange passage to the new country for
their children.

Anyone could leave the workhouse after giving three hours notice. The clothes they wore to the workhouse would be
returned to them. If a man left, his whole family had to leave with him. Short-term releases were given to paupers going out
to seek work. About 20% of the people who entered a workhouse remained there for more than five years. These were
mainly the elderly, chronically sick and the mentally ill paupers.

If someone died in the workhouse, their next of kin would be notified. Their family members could make funeral
arrangements on their own or arrange burial through the workhouse system. If burial was through the workhouse, the
cheapest coffin was used, burial was in an unmarked grave, and several coffins might be placed in a single grave. If no family
member claimed the body, it was donated for medical research and training.

Conditions in workhouses were much better by the time they were abolished in 1930.


In January of 1839, the “Big Wind” caused destruction all over Ireland. In 1841, nearly 80% of the population was employed in
agriculture and much of this rural population lived in abject poverty. 60% of the population in Kerry and Mayo lived in the
worst type of housing. Literacy rates were low: Kilkenny-29%, Cork-27%, Mayo-23%, Roscommon-20%, Galway-15% and Kerry-

By 1845, more than half of the Irish population was completely or largely dependent on the potato for food and money. In
1845, the Irish planted over two million acres of potatoes. The main crop in 1845 was planted during April and May and was
not ready for harvest until October. There were no early potatoes. This meant people were eating oatmeal from June to
October, if they could afford it.

Farmers tried to help the poor around them. One Protestant farmer in Roscommon was known for his acts of kindness to the
Catholics and Protestant poor alike. In May of 1845, 200 men marched to his farm and tilled three acres of his potatoes to
thank him.


On September 11, 1845 a strange disease was seen attacking the potato crop in some areas. The potatoes turned black and
rotted. The leaves withered. In Kilkenny about one-third of the crop was affected; in other parts of the country up to one half
of the crop was affected. This was a new blight to Ireland. Phytophthora infestans was an air-born fungus that turned both
planted and stored potatoes into inedible rot.

The same blight had destroyed crops in the eastern part of the United States in 1842. The fungus probably accidentally arrived
in Ireland from Canada and America. Trade ships spread it to England and then to Ireland. It struck the southeast first at
Waterford and Wexford. A slight climate variation brought the warm and wet weather in which the blight thrived. Potatoes
could not be stored longer than nine months so there were none to fall back on.

When the potato blight struck in 1845 mass starvation was inevitable. Families who relied on the potato to keep them alive
were left with nothing. Even those who grew grain or barley had to decide whether to sell the food in order to pay the rent or
eat the food and be evicted.

The blight did not destroy all of the crop and most people had enough to make it through the winter. Potato crop failures
were not unusual in Ireland so the partial potato crop failure was not yet of much concern. Government relief measures and
local charities helped. Meal and Indian corn was imported from America. At the time there was plenty of wheat, meat and
dairy in Ireland but the poor people did not have the money to buy it.

The winter of 1845 was mild but the spring of 1846 was wet. That spring the farmers planted more potatoes than usual to
insure there would not be another failure like the previous year. Unfortunately, they planted any potatoes they still had on
hand. Although the potatoes seemed sound, some harbored dormant strains of the fungus. When it rained, the blight began
even earlier than in 1845. In mid-June there was a heat wave and by early August the blight had spread to a point that 90% or
more of the Irish potato crop was destroyed, especially in the west. There were abundant crops of grain not affected by the
blight, but these were sold and not consumed to pay the rent to the landlord. The laborers were forced to starve.

As the death toll mounted, the countryside was seized with panic and despair. There were mass gatherings throughout the
country. Thousands marched into the towns seeking relief. Starving people pawned or sold everything they owned including
their tools. The next planting season some would have no tools for planting, others would have no land to plant, and others
would have nothing to plant.

Bishop Loras from Dubuque, IA visited Ireland. He was moved to write a letter to the London Tablet. He mentioned seeing
families of beggars everywhere. He could not understand how there could be such extreme poverty in a country where there
were also people living in great opulence.

The new Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, decided there should be no interference with the food trade and the importation of
Indian meal was discontinued.


Finally by September of 1846 the government stepped in with the Public Works scheme. Local relief communities were
appointed for most parishes. They were to encourage agricultural improvements and provide local employment. This
consisted mainly of canal building and road works. Often the roads built led to nowhere. Men were paid 8-10 pennies a day,
while women and children got 6 pennies. Wages paid were no match for the increased price of food. Payment was made at
the end of the week and often the workers died of starvation before they could be paid. Some unscrupulous overseers favored
relatives in granting employment, often at the expense of the most needy. In County Mayo, for example, 400,000 people
applied for 13,000 jobs. By December of 1846, nearly half a million people were employed on the public work projects.

The government thought that merchants would provide food for the needy. They did not. By December of 1846, people were
starving to death in the rural potato-growing areas of Ireland. They headed for the towns. At first townspeople were generous
to the people. When famine fever began to strike, their hospitality gave way to fear. Private charity was responsible for
keeping hundreds of thousands of people alive in the winter of 1846-1847. The only free food distributed was through
voluntary groups who established food kitchens. Death was common from starvation, exposure or disease such as typhus and
dysentery. The charities also supplied clothes because many people had pawned their winter clothes to buy food.

Landlords were split. Some refused to help and evicted hundreds of thousands of peasants from their estates. On one day
alone in 1847, 700 people were evicted from one estate. Some landlords did not live in Ireland and were not aware of the
severity of the famine. They continued to make valuable cash through the export of grain, wool and flax. Many thought the
Irish were over-exaggerating the situation until they saw the conditions for themselves. Other landlords bankrupted
themselves trying to help their tenants. Many tens of thousands of people died that winter.

Skibereen in County Cork was one of the areas hardest hit. Between 1845 and 1849, 80% of the population died. Of the 500
houses in Skibereen, none were free from death and fever. Sometimes people would dig out the inside of their house and wait
inside the hole for death. It was their hope that others would cover them with earth or push their house over them. The fear
of a large number of people was that they would be left for wild animals or birds to devour. Some coffins were made with
false bottoms and were used just to give some consolation to those who survived. Often people were buried where they died-
in fields or on the side of the road.

One man was crawling home from his job with the Road Works when he collapsed and died from hunger and exhaustion only a
few yards from his home. Bodies could be seen decomposing in pig lots. Dogs were even digging up corpses and eating them.
The papers were filled with stories like this. Originally the stories started talking mainly of the common people who were
dying. Later the stories talked of those who had been well off and were dying of disease.

By the spring of 1847, the government finally realized that its policies had failed and changed its policy for providing outdoor
relief. The plan that had employed three-quarters of a million people over the winter was replaced by a version of the original
scheme of food distribution. Food depots were set up to provide cooked food, mostly soup, to the destitute population and at
a low price to others. The food was not of particularly good nutritional quality and there was not much of it. Before these
kitchens could be set up, many people had already died. By July of 1847, 3 million people were provided for daily by the soup
kitchens. In some cases the soup was so watery that doctors advised people not to eat it. In some areas, people were turned
away simply because they looked healthy and some did not get their full ration.

The Poor Law Extension Act put the responsibility for the destitute on to the landlords by increasing the Poor Rate. The rate
was linked to the number of poorer tenants on their land. This money was used to support the workhouses. As the poor rate
increased, landlords were determined to remove destitute tenants from their land. Along with this, the Quarter Acre clause in
June of 1847 said that anyone occupying more than a quarter acre of land had to give it up to enter a workhouse. Thousands
died from starvation rather than give up the little bit of land they had. Others emigrated.

Emigration prior to the famine usually involved the better-off peasants. Emigration during the famine was of the poorest
people in Ireland. 3-4% had their passage paid by the government or the landlord. Charities paid for some. Before the famine,
50,000 emigrated each year. In 1846, 100,000 people alone left for America. Emigration peaked when 250,000 people left in

In the summer of 1847 there was no blight. Tragically, however, so many people had been on the Public Works schemes and
not on their farms that too few potatoes had been planted that spring. In County Mayo, for example, not even 100 acres of
potatoes had been planted. The people had chosen to eat the seed potatoes. Relief measures had to be extended into the
winter of 1847-1848 to make up the food deficit.

In August the soup kitchens were closed and hundreds of thousands of poor people again headed to the cities for relief.
Epidemics came with them.

The Irish Poor Law Commission was established. The government returned to the workhouse to provide all relief, both indoor
and outdoor. This was accompanied by widespread unrest and violence. 16,000 extra troops were sent to Ireland and
troubled areas were put under martial law.

Black ’47 saw the advent of fevers such as typhus spreading through the weakened population. Workhouses were crammed
with fever patients.

In September of 1847, Reverend Phew described the conditions around Shrule. He said 300-400 people would come into town
every Friday seeking admission to the workhouse or outdoor relief. They would stand all day in the wet and cold and get no

The cries of the hungry and those dying did not stop. Parish priests would have their homes surrounded daily by the poor
looking for work or for food. They did all they could to try and feed their suffering people. Daily the priests would go on
horseback 4-7 miles from their homes and listen to the confessions of the thousands preparing for their inevitable deaths.
Often the priest would have to pause from hearing confessions to give the last rites. Oftentimes it was only the priests who
would go close to the bodies. Convents everywhere provided meals for the starving people, especially breakfast for the

During the famine, Ireland was still producing plenty of food. Six ships loaded with grain and meat would leave the country for
every ship that entered the country with relief supplies. The starving people resorted to eating nettles, berries, roots, wildlife
animals, horses, dogs and cats in order to survive. Newspapers were filled with stories about the starving people. During this
period, four people in Ireland died every minute of starvation alone.

There was a relapse in 1848 and 1849 causing a second period of famine. Disease was spreading and, in the end, killed more
people than starvation. The worst period of disease was in 1849 when cholera struck. Those affected the most were the
young and the very old. The counties hit the hardest were Drogheda, Galway, Belfast, Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny and Cork.
During 1849 alone the workhouses throughout Ireland gave relief to almost one million people.

In 1850 the harvest was better and after that the blight never struck on the same scale again.

In the years after the famine, scientists discovered that the blight was caused by a fungus and they managed to isolate it. It
was not until 1882 that they discovered a cure-a solution of copper sulphate sprayed before the fungus had gained root. At
the time of the famine there was nothing the farmers could have done to save their crop.


Before 1846, leaving Ireland was regarded as a dreadful fate. After the second successive crop failure, it was the only escape
from death. Before 1846, it would be individuals who left Ireland. The Great Famine saw whole families leaving Ireland. First
it was the poorest cottiers who left, then the small landholders left, and then even those who were better off left.
In the years following the Great Famine one quarter of all arable land in Ireland changed hands. By 1851, it is estimated that
one million Irish had died and another million had emigrated.

Although the Passenger Act of 1847 granted each emigrant 10 cubic feet of space and food and water, unscrupulous captains
often did not obey the rule. The sub-standard vessels carried too many people in the hopes of making a quick profit. Many
people died on the long voyage to England, Australia and America. This was due to overcrowding, lack of food and unsanitary
conditions. Many people brought their disease with them on the ships and these ships were rightly called “coffin ships.” 40%
of the people who boarded the “coffin ships” would die either enroute or immediately after arrival. The most common killer
was typhus. It especially affected people who were weakened by a bad diet. In 1847, for example, about 7,000 people from
Ireland died on the way to America and another 10,000 died in quarantine areas after their arrival. Landlords were also known
to provide passage on ships that later sank under mysterious conditions.

One in every nine died in the Great Potato Famine. The greatest number of deaths occurred in counties Mayo & Sligo. These
were followed by deaths in Leitrim, Cavan, Roscommon and Galway. Clare & Cork have the next highest mortality rates. The
least number of deaths were found in Dublin, Kildare, Carlow, Wexford, Down, Louth and Londonderry.

Between 1848 and 1864, 13 million pounds were sent to Ireland by emigrants to America to allow their relatives to travel out
as well. Relatives eagerly awaited the “American letter” that brought them money or many times even a ticket to America.
“Doing fine like an American letter” became an Irish proverb.

After the Great Famine the mud huts disappeared. The areas most affected were in the west where the Irish language and the
old traditions flourished before the famine. The cooperative villages were destroyed along with the old customs and light-
heartedness. There was a treeless landscape in many parts of Ireland.

The landless labor class and small tenant farmers were devastated. By 1861, two-fifths of Irish land was held in farms of 100
acres or more. The livestock export trade was expanded and an urban professional and merchant class emerged.

Those who had farms no longer divided the land among their descendants. Now the land went to the oldest son. This meant
that other members of the family had no means of livelihood and they could not marry, married later in life, or they were
forced to emigrate. County Roscommon lost the most people to famine and emigration-32%. Counties Longford, Mayo,
Monaghan and Sligo each lost 29% of their population. Cork lost 24%, Kerry 19% and Kilkenny 22%. The animosity between
the landlords and tenants increased because of the callous behavior of many of the landlords during the famine.

English is now the common language of Ireland. 98% of the population is now literate and only 10% of the population lives
below the poverty line. 8% of the population is engaged in farming, 29% in industry and 64% in services.



The first settlers to Iowa came from the eastern states. Very few were immigrants. Some settled in Iowa only a short time as
they made their way west to other territories and states.

It began with a blight of the potato crop. Landlords evicted hundreds of thousands of peasants. Irish emigrants scattered all
over the world. The largest years for Irish emigration to America were from 1841 to 1860 when 1,694,898 Irish came. 70
million people around the world claim to be of Irish descent. We are some of them.

Immigrants landing in New York were not greeted with the land of promise they had heard about. They were at the mercy of
the people on the docks. They were sold tickets to wrong destinations, cheated while changing money, and talked into settling
down in rundown boarding houses. There was no indoor plumbing and outhouses were overrun with rats and sewage. In
1857, for example, two thirds of all deaths in New York were children under the age of 5-and most of these were Irish children.
There was major discrimination against the Irish. “No Irish Need Apply” for jobs and “No Irish in this establishment” signs were

Bishop Loras of Dubuque wanted to attract Irish immigrants to Dubuque. He wrote letters to dozens of Eastern newspapers.
The eastern bishops were more than ready to help the Irish immigrants overcome the obstacles they faced in their new home.
Eastern Catholic newspapers proclaimed Iowa “the Garden of America.” Paul Gillen was a traveling agent for the Boston Pilot
newspaper. A letter from him in the paper described Iowa in glowing terms. His letter advised Catholics to leave the worn-out
eastern farms and crowded cities for Iowa. The Irish came to Iowa and found cheap land. Wooded areas sold for $4-$8 an
acre. This made frontier life acceptable. The great influx of Irish to Dubuque began about 1853.

The Cistercian monks at Mount Melleray Abbey in Waterford, Ireland rented a farm 20 miles from the Abbey in County
Tipperary to supply grain and vegetables for their community. During the famine, they daily came closer to destitution as they
fed larger and larger starving mobs. During the height of the famine they were feeding 400-700 people a day. Abbot Dom
Bruno Fitzpatrick thought America might be a good home for some of his monks. Several sites were checked out but none
were found to be suitable.

In 1849, Bishop Mathias Loras was traveling in Europe. Two of his nephews were Cistercians. On October 7, 1849 he was on
his way to France and stopped at the Abbey of Mount Melleray. Some of the monks had relatives living in the Dubuque area
and Loras had heard of the Abbot’s unsuccessful search for a monastery site in America. By this time he had been Bishop of
Dubuque for eleven years and only had seven priests serving the entire diocese. He offered the Abbot a tract of 520 acres
twelve miles southwest of Dubuque. The Abbott wrote to his representatives in America and told them to check out the
proposed site. Brother Ambrose was sent to check out the Dubuque site and wrote a glowing letter back to Melleray Abbey.
The offer of Bishop Loras was accepted. Abbot Bruno, Father James O’Gorman and four brothers arrived in Dubuque on
July 16, 1849. Construction of the monastery began, more land was purchased and additional monks left Ireland for Iowa.
Many of the Irish who sold their farms to the monks then went to work for the monks. The monastery was consecrated and
occupied on Christmas Day 1849.

In April of 1857, Trappist monk Clement Smyth became the second Bishop of Dubuque. In May of 1859, the Vicariate Apostolic
of the Nebraska Territory was established. It was placed under the care of Bishop James O’Gorman, the Trappist monk who
founded New Melleray Abbey. The Bishop chose Omaha, NE as the See city. His vicariate was bounded on the east by the
Missouri River, on the west by the Rocky Mountains, northward to the British line and to the southern boundary of Kansas.
This was 300,000 square miles of land with 5,000 Catholics and only 3 priests. This area was about 18 times bigger than all of
Ireland. Bishop Smyth asked Bishop O’Gorman to take care of the spiritual needs of the Catholics in the western part of Iowa.
He gave bishop O’Gorman full faculties and jurisdiction. This sharing continued until the death of Bishop Smyth in 1865.


The monks made many improvements to New Melleray. The monk responsible for the material growth and prosperity of New
Melleray was Brother Mary Bernard Murphy. He was a good and pious monk with a colorful personality and wonderful
business ability. He was housekeeper, business manager and bursar at the monastery. He enjoyed the complete confidence
and trust of the Abbot who preferred to spend his day in prayer rather than running the Abbey. The Prior, Father McCaffrey
and Brother Murphy directed the Abbey.

In the early 1860’s, Brother Murphy won a name for the Abbey as a cattle and Durham oxen ranch. 75,000 men from Iowa
alone served in the Civil War. It took a lot to provide food for all those serving in the war. During the Civil War the prices of
stocks and grains and other products boomed benefitting the Abbey. They bought hogs and cattle from neighboring farmers.
They were fattened on the Abbey grounds and sold at the Ryan packing company in Galena, IL-a three-day journey. Over the
years Brother Murphy bought a few small farms and rented others. Many acres of land were purchased from men in the area
going to Canada to escape the Civil War. Most of the land purchased was in Dubuque County and most was used for grazing.
Various brothers were stationed at the farms to care for the herds. Brother Murphy did much to make the New Melleray
Abbey successful during and immediately after the Civil war. In the heyday of the Abbey (1860’s-1870’s) Brother Murphy
possessed the respect and admiration of business leaders and bankers from Omaha, NE to Chicago, IL. The profitable work of
Brother Murphy was almost entirely responsible for the building of the limestone Abbey.


After the Civil War the New Melleray herds were so large that the monastery lands couldn’t produce enough feed for them.
Around 1869 Brother Murphy proposed that Bishop O’Gorman of the Nebraska diocese start a Trappist monastery in
Nebraska. He would help the bishop start this if the Bishop could get him some good grazing land in southwest Iowa. Since
the Bishop had jurisdiction over southwestern Iowa, he and his priests were familiar with the area. The first land for the
Murphy Ranch was purchased in July of 1869 in Section 22 of White Cloud Township in Mills County. From some published
articles the Brothers owned at various times about 1,000 acres of land close to the Nishnabotna River. Land was purchased
for $35 an acre. Several Brothers looked after the herds. Brothers Murphy and Barnaby lived at the ranch themselves for a
year. The Sisters of Charity in Omaha, NE had 500 acres of wild and unfenced prairie land adjoining the Murphy ranch. The
Brothers herded large droves of cattle on their land. The cattle were then taken to Omaha, NE to be fed by the distillery there,
and when fat, they were shipped to Chicago, IL. Several Irish families around New Melleray Abbey moved to western Iowa to
help the Brothers with the ranch. John McGinnis was foreman of the ranch. John & James Laughlin and others by the name of
Murphy, O’Connor, Foley, Powers and McCarty were recruited by Brother Murphy to help at the ranch in the early 1870’s.

Brother Murphy was so successful that he began to speculate on the Chicago Board of Trade. In the spring of 1877, the Abbot
and Prior became uneasy over the financial conditions of the Abbey. The Abbey was $170,000 in debt. This was due to heavy
interest on outstanding obligations and a constant and persistent loss in the selling of livestock since 1873. Winter feeding of
cattle in Iowa required hay and corn. Kansas, Texas and Colorado had become more populated and the cattle there could be
matured on grass. The increased cattle from these areas heading to eastern markets was greater than the demand and it
ruined all profit chances for Iowa livestock raisers.

Brother Murphy lost the Murphy Ranch. Work on the Abbey came to a standstill. Eventually faithful from all over the country
and Mexico helped the monks avoid bankruptcy. It is said Brother Murphy died of a broken heart.


On June 1, 1833 Iowa was opened for settlement. It became a territory in 1838; as early as that year Irishmen were entering
western Iowa. The first known settler in Fremont County was a bachelor named Flanagan. When western Iowa was opened
for settlement in 1845, many of the first settlers in the Dubuque area headed west.

The majority of settlers were shocked when they discovered that only the extreme eastern portion of Iowa had timber they
could use to build their homes, barns and fences. They were used to a plentiful supply of wood in the east. The majority of
Iowa was prairie with trees only near rivers and streams. Often one could travel 60 miles before seeing another tree.

A large number of emigrants headed daily towards the setting sun. These settlers went by horseback, prairie schooner or
covered wagon. There were no roads or bridges across the rivers. They followed the Indian trails. They could only travel
about 15-25 miles on a good day. Many in the family would walk behind the wagon driving any livestock they had with them.

The early settlers lived in their wagons until building a “dugout” or “soddie.” The long, tough grasses of the prairie had a tight
root system. The settler would use oxen and a sod cutter to cut narrow 4” thick 2-3 foot wide strips of sod. The settler would
then use the axe to cut these strips into 2 or 3 foot squares. These squares were stacked to form the walls of a sod house. If
the settler was in a hurry, he would carve out space in a hill for part of the house. The “dug out’ then only needed a front wall
and a roof. The roof was made of interlacing twigs, thick branches and hay. This was then covered with a layer of sod. These
homes were inexpensive, quick to build, and well-insulated. These proved to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Half an acre of prairie sod would make a 16x29’ house.

These houses also had disadvantages. The sod was infested with bugs, mice and snakes. The roof would leak and often
collapse during rainy weather. When the weather was dry, dirt and grass would fall into the house like rain. Some of the
settlers would sew flour sacks together and use them to cover the ceiling in hopes of keeping the dirt and grass from falling
inside. The sod houses were furnished with whatever few possessions the family had brought with them in the wagon.

The earliest settlers had to brave loneliness, the fear of prairie fires, blizzards and various diseases. Ague (malaria) was
common and was probably spread by the mosquito. The settler considered it a step up to go from a dug out to a soddie and
finally to a frame house. It took about 30 years to populate Iowa from east to west.

Edward Miller was the first settler in Monroe township (section 24). He came in 1852. Enoch Thompson and family settled on
adjoining land in 1854. Records indicate Enoch lived on the land for 44 years before selling the land to Con Ryan.

Michael and Mary Ann Mahoney were the first Catholic’s in the area. They arrived in the spring of 1869. An area history said
they sold their land to the monks at New Melleray Abbey. Thomas and Mary Gilmore were the next Catholic’s to settle in the
area. They lived in a dugout.

The early settlers wrote letters to their families and friends both in Ireland and around the Dubuque area urging them to join
them in the promising new land. We assume the Mahoney’s and Gilmore’s came to this area as a result of Brother Murphy
and his ranch only a few miles northwest of where they settled.


Samuel W. Kesler obtained the Imogene landsite from the US Government by Certificate of Entry in 1858 for $100.
On May 1, 1860 he received a United States Patent from the US Government for the same land. On January 28, 1864 he and
his wife sold the land to John Miller for $400.

The Homestead Act of January 1, 1863 opened the vacant lands of America’s public domain to agricultural settlement. After
the Civil War, ex-soldiers from both armies headed west. Anyone who had not been a rebel could claim a quarter section (160
acres). If they improved it with a dwelling and crops and lived on the claim for five years, it was theirs free and clear. More
than a million farmers received title to 248,000,000 acres of land. Many Irish farmers moved to western Iowa.

By the 1870’s, farms and small towns were found across the entire state. During the Civil War the main crop in Iowa had been
wheat. After the war this changed to corn.

On December 1, 1874, John Miller sold his land to Edgar & Mary Elizabeth Kammerer Faust for $1,120. The couple moved to
this area in 1875 from Zwingle and settled on 320 acres of still virgin prairie. 1875 was also the year that many families who
belonged to the German Reformed Church at Zwingle moved to this area during the “western exodus.” Some of their last
names were Bussard, Kammerer, Faust, Eastman, Allshouse and Resh. For some unknown reason, the Germans and the Irish
moved west together across Iowa. In 1875, a large contingent of Irish in the Zwingle area also moved to the area that would
one day be called Imogene.

By 1879, the once prosperous Trappist ranch at White Cloud was bankrupt. Many of those who had come to work on the
ranch had already purchased farms in this area and had encouraged others from the Dubuque area and from Ireland to come
here to settle. The area reminded them of Ireland so they dubbed it “Little Ireland.”

The government encouraged the railroads to lay track where few people lived in order to help settle the vast country.
Railroads were given land in checkerboard fashion in all or a large part of every township. Railroads printed brochures and had
them distributed in the east and in Europe. They offered to sell their land at a cheap price, gave the buyers a long time to pay
for the land, and noted that there were no heavy taxes in these areas.

In July of 1879, ads went out for 500 men to work on building the railroad between Council Bluffs and Missouri. Many Irishmen
answered the ad-some perhaps needed work after losing their jobs at the Murphy Ranch. The last rail was laid on
October 11, 1879. After the railroad was completed, many of the men decided to settle here.

Faust sold half of his land to the Western Improvement Company of Iowa on October 15, 1879 for $4,000. Railroad towns
were started every few miles to help support the railroad. On November 6, 1879 Captain Anderson obtained the papers for a
new railroad town. The area known as Little Ireland officially became Imogene in honor of his daughter.

Things changed for the better all across the country after the coming of the trans-continental railroads. Previously people
traveled by covered wagon and were at the mercy of the weather. Now they could travel any time of the year all across the
country. Some small towns even had six passenger trains daily. The grain and livestock raised by farmers could easily be
shipped to far off markets. Settlers could get lumber and shingles. Within a few years after the coming of the railroad, wind
and rain erased most of the dugouts and soddies.

By 1895, 43 families had moved to the Imogene area from Dubuque County, 44 families from Jackson County and 52 families
from Jones County.

The Wabash railroad was an important part of Imogene life well into the last quarter of the twentieth century. Many people
boarded the train at the Imogene Wabash Depot and headed to Omaha or Shenandoah to visit or shop; others boarded the
train for their honeymoons. Long ago the Wabash slogans “Follow the Flag,” “Serving the Heart of America,” and “The Banner
Route” were an integral part of Imogene life. The Wabash was unique in that it operated out of St. Louis as both an eastern
and a western railroad. It merged into the Norfolk and Western in 1964. The way once used by Native Americans, then used
by the Mormon pioneers and Civil war military units became the way of the railroad. The 63 miles of Wabash rails between
Council Bluffs and Blanchard have now been replaced by a bicycle trail called the Wabash Trace.