The United States has been built largely by immigrants, from the first steps of those in Jamestown and Plymouth Rock to those who come here still today. Each of these people leave something behind, and come full of hopes and dreams. Immigrants from Ireland were some of the first to come to America, yet the majority of Irish came after the Great Potato Famine began in the 1840s, which devastated the island. During just a few short years, around one million people died from starvation, and a million more people left for America. Today there are tens of millions of people of Irish descent in America alone. And though many of the stories of those folk that came here out of poverty, starvation, and desperation have been lost and the names of their ancestors have been forgotten, many of those descendants have heard that they are Irish. And there is no time like the month of March and St. Patrick’s Day for those people, and all people for that matter, to remember the bravery of the Irish immigrants. They are a part of our history, they helped build our country, they are in fact a large part of our heritage, and we ought to remember them. Knowing our heritage, remembering our ancestors’ struggles, helps us understand who we are, who we come from, and it also helps us have compassion and empathy on those who are undergoing similar struggles today.
And so if we do not in fact have the luck of any family stories passed down to us, I have compiled a small list of children’s books that help tell the story of the Irish who left their homeland for a new one, those people often leaving behind sorrow with hopes for new opportunities. Let’s read their stories and remember those brave folk of Ireland so long ago.
The first thing that stands out about this book are its absolutely beautiful illustrations, by Emily Arnold McCully, which depict the pastoral village life of old Ireland. Katie lives with her grandparents after her mother has died and her father has left for America. She struggles, and she is just plain sick of potatoes, the main part of their diet, and so during a dinner prayer one day she prays that the potatoes will go away. But not long after that the Potato Famine hits, and Katie believes it’s all her fault. Tragedy strikes Ireland and people are sick and starving. Finally Katie is sent to America to be with her father. The book does not shy away from the intense struggle of the times, it shows the desperation of the famine time, and what Katie had to go through in order to arrive in America. The illustrations are beautiful indeed, but haunting, and full of emotion and heart. This is a wonderful story for children to understand the plight of the Irish immigrant during the Famine, and would be a great read-aloud or for independent reading for a child in upper elementary.
Fiona’s Lace shows a whimsical side of the people of Ireland – the heart for storytelling and tradition. It begins with a father telling his daughters the story of how he courted their mother, and though they’ve heard it time and time again, they love it every time. But hard times fall on their home, and they are forced to leave Ireland and come to work as indentured servants in Chicago. Fiona, the author’s great-great grandmother, has a talent for making fine Irish lace, and it is her lace that saves them, in more ways than one. This is yet another beautiful story of a family that came to America from Ireland, seeking hope and the promise of a new life. This would be a wonderful read-aloud to your children or in a classroom setting. I love it especially as it’s based on a true story, a family story and tradition that has been passed down through generations. Patricia Polacco has created her own “storybook ancestor”!
This book is unique because it follows the story of an immigrant as it is passed down through generations of his descendants. It begins with a little Irish boy named Fergus who is forced to leave Ireland with his family because of the Potato Famine. But before he leaves, he takes a branch from his favorite blackthorn tree and as he sails to America, he carves it into a shillelagh, an special kind of walking stick. The story follows Fergus as he grows up and eventually passes the shillelagh to his son, telling him to take it as a memory of Ireland. The shillelagh is passed down through many generations, and on every St. Patrick’s Day, the story of Fergus, their ancestor, is told in the family. Until one descendant puts it in a closet and forgets about it. But then one day, years later, his daughter, finds it, and asks about it. Her father had been too busy to think about telling the family story, and he tells her to go to her grandfather. Grandpa remembers, and tells the story. His words speak volumes about the importance of passing on family stories: “A good story never has to end as long as someone remembers to keep telling it.” This book, beautifully illustrated, reminds us of the importance of just that, sharing our family history with the next generation. This is a great book to curl up with your kids and read together, and then while you’re at it, share some of your own family stories.
This picture book is set to the lyrics of the 1940s American folk song, Dear Old Donegal, which depicts an idealized version of the Irish immigrant experience and life in Ireland. It tells the tale of a poor boy who sailed from Ireland to New York and made a fortune, and then returns back to his home in Donegal later to see his family to a grand welcome. The song was popularized by Bing Crosby, so look it up and sing along with your wee ones.
This book is for older independent readers, and is a part of the Dear America series, fictionalized diaries of girls during different times in American history. It gives an intricate look into the experience of the Irish during the Potato Famine and those who left out of desperation. It follows Mary in her diary from the village of Skibbereen in County Cork in 1847, across the ocean, to the port of Boston, and eventually to Lowell, Massachusetts where she becomes a mill girl, one among many Irish to work in the Lowell mills. The book is written in Mary’s voice in Irish dialect and tells a real and raw story of the Potato Famine, the difficult journey across the Atlantic, and the Lowell mills. The book is beautifully written, and if your kids want a true to life story of the Irish immigrant experience in America, this is the one for them. Just like each Dear America book, it also has a historical note at the end for further study.
These books range from happy to sad, to idealized to authentic, as diverse as the immigration experience of millions of Irish to America. Every story is different, and every story is worth telling.
Do you have an immigration story in your family history? Share it with your kids. Write it down together, pass it on, lest we forget our ancestors' struggles and triumphs, the stories of their lives.
In the words of the grandfather in The St. Patrick’s Day Shillelagh, “A good story never has to end as long as someone remembers to keep telling it.”
Let’s keep telling the stories!