When the legend becomes fact print the legend – Part II – coming to America

In his obituary, published in 1939, we were told that, Born in Wexford, Ireland, Feb. 2, 1853, Capt. Young took to the sea at an early age. When Chile and Peru were at war in the 1860’s, England sold the famous man-of-war UNION to Chile. Capt. Young Joined the crew that was to take the vessel to a Chilean port, and after his service in that connection was finished, he came to Galveston.

Like a historian assigned to find an act of true heroism or extraordinary virtue in the past of a serving politician we have looked in vain to confirm this story. Nothing seemed to fit – during the first war he was too young and during the later wars he was already in Galveston. We could find no record of Great Britain giving, or more likely selling, some old rotten hulled warship to Chile. Mind you, the British were close to the Chileans, in order to insure their supply of nitrates needed for gunpowder which was a principal ingredient of their brand of imperialism.

British ship of the line like HMS Union launched 1811

Finally we did a review of Royal Navy History for ships that have been named HMS Union and found the following list:

  •     HMS Union was a fifth rate of unknown origin, possibly a hired vessel. She was burnt in 1693 to avoid being captured by the French.
  •     HMS Union was a 90-gun second-rate, previously named HMS Albemarle. She was renamed HMS Union in 1709, was rebuilt in 1726 and broken up in 1749.
  •     HMS Union was a 90-gun second-rate launched in 1756. She was converted into a hospital ship in 1799 and  renamed  Sussex in 1802. She was broken up in 1816.
  •     HMS Union was a 3-gun gunvessel purchased in 1794 and listed until 1798.
  •     HMS Union was a cutter in service in 1806 and broken up in 1810.
  •     HMS Union was a 98-gun second-rate launched in 1811 and broken up in 1833.
  •     HMS Union was a 3-gun schooner purchased in 1823 and wrecked in 1828.
  •     HMS Union was a U class submarine launched in 1940 and sunk in 1941.

Nothing even comes close which led us to conclude we were dealing with part of the legend so we decided to ascertain the facts. The irony is that the ship that comes closest is the 1811 launched 98 gun vessel that was a “Boyne” class ship of the line, a class named after the infamous Battle of the Boyne  which was fought in 1690 between two claimants to the throne – the Catholic King James and the protestant William of Orange – across the River Boyne near Drogheda on the east coast of Ireland. The battle, won by William, ultimately helped ensure the continuation of protestant subjugation of Ireland that had begun in earnest under Cromwell. The most startling thing to us is that the legend is not nearly as interesting as the facts – mind you the facts may not have carried the same social cachet as the legend – but they are far closer to the fabric of American life and tell us a good deal more about the man.

Major Denis Mahon

Before we go into the particulars of how John Young came to America we need to examine why he came to America. The great hunger of the Irish Potato Famine lasted from 1845 until 1852 and resulted in over 1,000,000 deaths from starvation and malnutrition and over 1,000,000 refugees many of whom emigrated to America – a loss to Ireland of about 25% of her native population. But 1852 is an arbitrary and grossly inadequate date to set as an end for “the bad times” since even though the blight that had been the biological cause of the crop failure lifted the political conditions – the English exploitation of the Irish – did not end until they were expelled from the Southern 32 counties in 1922 and continues until this day in Europe’s last captive nation, the six counties in the north of Ireland.

To get a picture of how the English landlords who controlled the farmlands of Ireland, having turned them into pastures from British beef rather than allowing them to be used for native subsistence, we can look at the story of Denis Mahon of County Roscommon [the home of Maurice Coffey]. Being one of those wise philanthropists who in a time of famine would vote for nothing but a supply of toothpicks he had removed many of his 12,000 tenants by offering some passage to America aboard disease-ridden “coffin ships,” giving others a pittance to leave peaceably, and sending the sheriff to evict the rest. His efforts were rewarded when he was shot dead one night as his carriage traveled through his property, which was filled with thousands of starving tenants, on a country road four miles from his home. His murder was greeted with widespread jubilation among the poor and dispossessed and within hours celebratory bonfires were lighted on neighboring hills but his killing did not halt the evictions, and eventually over 11,000 tenants were removed from the estate.

Scene from a hold of a "coffin ship", rotten old sailing hulls that took 40 days to 3 months to reach North America, and lost an average of 20% of their passengers to typhus and other diseases.

The immediate reaction by the Anglo-Irish and their English masters was to blame the local Catholic priest for having incited the poor to murder one of their betters. Although false and discredited in Ireland this was picked up by the nativist press, especially in the northeast, where too many refugees that were too poor and too different were arriving too quickly. Not only were the Irish a people separated by a common language, they were Catholic in an America where anti-Papist diatribes were the stuff of bestsellers and standing-room-only lectures.  Where as recently as the night of August 11, 1834 by a mob of protestant men, after battering down the front door, destroyed icons, smashed pianos, hurled the library into a bonfire, ransacked the possessions of both sisters and students, and finally burned the  Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts to the ground. Not satisfied with this orgy of vandalism, they returned the following night and tore the lovely gardens up by the roots.  The arsonists’ ringleader, a bricklayer named John Buzzell, became a folk hero, Catholics – and especially Pius IX – were denounced from the protestant pulpit as “the ally of tyranny, the opponent of material prosperity, the foe of thrift, the enemy of the railroad, the caucus, and the school,” and at the apogee of their power Millard Fillmore was president – with the support of their Know Nothing Party. It has been suggested that the abolitionist had no need for slaves because they had the Irish.

The Charlestown Ursuline Convent in Boston burned by a protestant mob in 1834.

Fortunately, or not – dependent upon your point of view, Pius IX would remain on the throne of Peter until 1878, throughout the great waves of the Irish coming to America, and even though the Irish were no more slaves to Rome than Lutherans are to Wittenberg they still suffered from the prejudices of protestant America. Their condition in the northeast would gradually improve in tandem with their ascendency into political power. Many, however, would get here as best they could and head west with the great movement of people only too happy to leave the yankees to freeze in the dark while they sought opportunity through the hard work of civilizing a wilderness so immense to the south and west. John Young was among these.

Three masted clipper stem ship like the COLUMBIA.

Under the heading of historical coincidence John Young came to America on a ship built by the same firm, Alexander Stephen & Sons, that had built the CSS Shenandoah although he came over on a vessel built for the Anchor Line in 1866 named the COLUMBIA. She was a 1,698 gross ton ship, length 283.3 feet long with a beam 33.6 feet, clipper stem, one funnel, three masts (rigged for sail), iron construction, single screw and a speed of 10 knots. Launched on the 9th of October 1866, she sailed from Glasgow on her maiden voyage to New York on 27th of October 1866 and would remain in that service until 1872. During her life with Anchor Line she would see regular service to ports as far away as Calcutta but she was finally sold to the Italian company, Italo-Brittanico on the 26th of January 1894, renamed FRANCESCO CRISPI and in August 1898 was wrecked.

Although these were passenger ships they were in no way to be confused with today’s cruise ships. A vessel of this size might have accommodation for up to fifty first class passengers who would be crammed into a deck cabin in conditions that would make flying coach on Continental luxurious by comparison. These were the lucky ones who could at least get some air on the deck – weather permitting.  The rest would be crammed below decks in steerage in common holds with makeshift bunks built out of discarded dunnage. To give you an idea of the “cuisine” we quote from a letter advising of an increase in fares, “Passages to America this spring will be higher than former years in consequence of the extreme rates of Bread stuffs. The law regulating all passenger vessels requires there should be 70 pounds of bread on board for each adult passenger, to meet the issue of 1 pound per day to each, and half quantity to children.” Safety was not totally forgotten however since there were regulations stating that, ” When ships go full (as now), to the United States ports, they can only carry 2 souls for every 5 Tons of the ships register burden, therefore children if numerous are a heavy drawback [since they went for half fare].” This would mean that the COLUMBIA could carry about 700 passengers total and for purposes of comparison a modern cruise ship carrying 700 passengers displaces about 50,000 deadweight tons, is just over 700 feet long and is almost 95 feet wide.

New York Wards and assemby districts in the 1870's

On the 3rd of May in the year of our Lord 1869 John Young arrived at the port of New York. The passenger list shows him as being aged 17 and a carpenter by trade and having arrived from Ireland via Glasgow. Apparently coming to America can age you because in the 1870 census we find him 20 years old and  living in Ward 21, District 10 of New York City in the household of 73-year-old Irish immigrant John Cain and his 58-year-old wife Margaret, also from Ireland, with six other young men. John Cain was a mason, the eldest of the boarders was a laborer, there was a plumber from Canada, a bartender from New York and two carpenters and another laborer all from Ireland. Although all except the laborers held skilled positions the two columns Can Not Read and Can Not Write were checked for almost every one of the 40 entries on the page. No wonder he headed south at his first opportunity.


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