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Aid To 1847 Ireland Was First US Humanitarian Effort, Author Says

A memorial in Ireland for the victims of the Doolough Tragedy, an event during the Irish Potato Famine.
Sludge G
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/sludgeulper
A memorial in Ireland for the victims of the Doolough Tragedy, an event during the Irish Potato Famine.

Americans have come to expect the opportunity to provide donations and other assistance when natural disasters strike. But the humanitarian concept was entirely new during what came to be known as the Irish Potato Famine. 

Boston author Stephen Puleo said that while writing another book, he learned about the mission the USS Jamestown performed, at center of his latest book, "Voyage of Mercy."

Steven Puleo, author: I had really no idea about the voyage, and I think even more importantly than that, no idea about what came after the voyage, and that is this enormous groundswell of charitable giving by the American people.

The original story of the Jamestown, which is kind of the first ship that makes its way to Ireland, was wonderful. But then what came behind it, I thought was extraordinary. And I thought it needed a little bit more research. And lo and behold, the more research I did, I think the more extraordinary the story became.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: When the Irish were suffering from famine, they encountered bitterness from their neighbors and trade partners, the British. But Americans — the people of Massachusetts — rallied and collected donated money, goods and food to ship to Ireland in 1847. What were some of the obstacles to completing this humanitarian effort?

It comes together very fast. Ireland is suffering from this terrible famine in the fall of 1846, and the United States really gets word of how bad things are in late January of 1847, when the first ships arrive from Europe — the weather allows them to arrive into Boston.

And so they move very, very quickly. "They" being the United States government and the people of the United States. So there's an effort by President Polk to organize a committee that would help regions around the country to give to Ireland. Boston has a big regional meeting in February. And, you know, a very emotional kind of meeting. And it's at that meeting that Robert Bennett Forbes has the idea to see if a warship can be recommissioned and turned into a ship of mercy. And so that's when that process begins.

So it actually happens quite quickly, between February and when the Jamestown departs, on March 28. And that includes farmland in Connecticut and farmland up in Vermont and in western Massachusetts... food making its way to Boston to be loaded onto the Jamestown.

So in terms of the Jamestown voyage, there's very little opposition. It's kind of this remarkable, almost unanimity, both by the congressmen from Massachusetts to the people of Massachusetts, and the rest of New England.

Robert Bennett Forbes and his wife are both buried in Massachusetts with what you describe as fairly simple inscriptions on their gravestones. What is that that missing epitaph from Robert Bennett Forbes's grave?

One of the things that Robert Bennett Forbes wished was on his grave was the simple inscription, "He tried to do his duty." Forbes was very duty-bound throughout his entire life. He was a swashbuckler. He was an adventurer, for sure. He sailed all over the world. He ended up visiting five continents at a time when most people didn't leave their home towns. But he was also quite committed to family, quite committed to his business.

And that is not on his gravestone. No reason why. There's no documentation that suggests why. But I don't think anybody in his family would have disagreed with that inscription.

The legacy of the 1847 mission yielded many humanitarian efforts since. One of the international missions actually had a lot of participation out here in western Massachusetts. And that was from Chicopee schoolchildren about 100 years after that first mission to Ireland.

So I think one of the things that this extraordinary American mission to Ireland does is kind of set the model, this public-private partnership model, that America has engaged in to make these kinds of contributions. And America does this several times since 1847. And one of the times they do it is during the Berlin airlift, when the Soviets have surrounded Berlin and blocked Berlin. And the Americans organized this airlift and deliver, you know, four billion pounds of food and supplies to the people of Berlin.

And kind of the iconic piece of that was that children engaged in collecting candy and taking handkerchiefs and making these candy parachutes that some of the pilots used and they became known as the candy bombers. Chicopee students were very responsible for collecting and sorting and preparing thousands of pounds of candy for these pilots to deliver.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.