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Receiving Erin’s Children: Philadelphia, Liverpool, and the Irish Famine Migration, 1845-1855

Author(s):Gallman, F. Matthew
Reviewer(s):Cohn, Raymond L.

Published by EH.NET (August 2000)

F. Matthew Gallman, Receiving Erin’s Children: Philadelphia, Liverpool, and

the Irish Famine Migration, 1845-1855. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North

Carolina Press, 2000. xii + 306 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8078-4845-X; $55

(cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2534-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Raymond L. Cohn, Department of Economics, Illinois State


Gallman (currently the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at

Gettysburg College) examines the responses of Liverpool and Philadelphia to new

and intensified urban problems that resulted from Irish immigration during the

period of the famine. For each city, he considers the responses of the public

and the Catholic Church, and explores how the migrants affected health,

sanitation, and crime. Thus, this book is a study in comparative urban history,

where the developments in the two cities are examined during a period in which

“new urban problems were magnified by the thousands of poor Irish Catholic

immigrants” (p. 14).

Gallman’s argument is that the responses in each city were determined by a

number of similar influences, but that the specific response in a particular

case also depended on three aspects of “national distinctiveness.” First,

government was structured differently in the two cities, with the central

government in Britain traditionally playing a larger role. Decisions in

Liverpool were frequently affected by Parliamentary actions whereas Congress

never influenced Philadelphia’s responses. Second, Americans tended to be more

committed to voluntarism and solved many of the problems caused by the influx

of migrants without resorting to government, even at the local level. Third,

the two cities faced different options concerning what to do with the migrants

and different economic abilities in helping them. Liverpool was often stuck

with many of the migrants, particularly the poorest ones. Philadelphia was able

to employ many of the migrants and could try to send the remainder out to the

frontier. In addition, Philadelphians seemed more able economically to provide

assistance to the migrants.

Gallman’s approach is analytical though he does not use economic theory or

provide numerical estimates. The six substantive chapters possess the same

general framework. Gallman discusses developments in each city before the

famine migration, examines developments in each city during the migration, and

draws conclusions concerning how the famine migration affected the situation.

The book is especially well grounded in original sources. Gallman has spent a

large amount of time going through contemporary newspapers and urban reports

along with the more recent literature.

Chapter 2 examines the public response to the migrants. In both cities, the

influx of poor migrants put a strain on public services in the face of public

pressure to keep taxes low and maintain economic stability. Gallman finds

Philadelphia helped the migrants more through voluntarism than did Liverpool.

In chapter 3, Gallman examines the issue of poor relief. In Liverpool,

non-government assistance was sparse, a situation in stark contrast to

Philadelphia where many private organizations greatly expanded their services.

Chapter 4 on medical care and chapter 5 on environmental reform examine the

issue of health. During the famine migration, a cholera epidemic occurred,

though it affected Philadelphia much less than Liverpool. In both cities, sick

immigrants were seen as a public charge. In Liverpool many were forced into

medical wards in public workhouses or almshouses, whereas Philadelphia’s

hospitals expanded their services and philanthropic organizations increased

their assistance. In both cities, efforts were made to limit the entry of the

afflicted, to quarantine them, and to clean up wastes and “nuisances.”

Chapter 6 on religion and chapter 7 on crime and policing examine the

repercussions of the famine migration. Even before the migration, religion was

an issue in schooling in both cities because the Protestant Bible was

traditionally taught. The famine migrants thus arrived in a heated situation in

both cities, though the main effect of their entry seems to have been that the

Catholic Church expanded its efforts to build parochial schools and churches.

The response was greater in Philadelphia, which is viewed as evidence of

greater American ability to respond. As to crime and policing in each city, the

entry of the famine migrants contributed to street violence and increased

arrest rates for minor crimes but did not have major effects on either the

level of serious crime or the development of the police forces. Overall,

Gallman argues that “the immigrants were adjusting to, rather than recasting,

the established patterns of the host culture” (p. 210).

The major criticism I have concerning Gallman’s book is his choice of cities to

compare. Though Gallman claims that Philadelphia and Liverpool were

sufficiently similar in terms of size, population growth, importance of the

Irish, and migration trends that the cities make an appropriate comparison on

which to draw conclusions concerning urban decision making, I am not convinced

this is the case. Most of the Irish viewed Liverpool as a city through which

they traveled on their way to the United States or elsewhere, rather than as a

final destination. The port that served the corresponding function in the

United States at the time of the famine was New York, not Philadelphia. Thus, a

much larger number of Irish arrived in Liverpool than in Philadelphia (so

potential effects were larger, such as with the amount of funds needed for poor

relief and the extent of the disease outbreaks) and a larger percentage of the

Irish arriving in Philadelphia were presumably planning to stay. The two cities

therefore experienced substantially different numbers of Irish immigrants who

were in different situations. Thus, it is possible that voluntarism would not

have taken on the same level of importance in Philadelphia that it did if the

city had been inundated with the much larger number of migrants who went

through Liverpool. While it is obvious that no set of cities would ever provide

a perfect comparison, and though it might not have changed his conclusions, I

believe Gallman would have better served comparing Liverpool and New York.

Criticisms aside, Gallman’s book is an important work in urban history. In

connection with his other work, he continues to provide support for the

argument that national and local history matters in affecting how a city reacts

to exogenous events.

Raymond Cohn primarily studies immigration to the United States during the

nineteenth century. He is the author of “Nativism and the End of the Mass

Migrations of the 1840s and 1850s,” which appeared in the June 2000 issue of

Journal of Economic History.

Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century