The crowded ship had once been a slave ship, but now it transported the Irish from their Emerald Isle. Aboard that ship, a gaunt and weary man looked beyond the sea ... remembering his home.

Once a land of song and joy, it was now held captive by English landowners who had overtaken the farms and pressed the Irish into servitude. Nourished only with rotting potatoes, the Irish people became victims of famine and disease as English ships set sail for England loaded with goods that should have been used by the starving Irish.

This occurred not only from 1845 to 1852, the well-known date of the Great Famine, but also in earlier years when crops failed. The population dropped by 20 percent to 25 percent during that period. About 1 million people died and a million more emigrated.

Tales of a better life, free land and freedom to openly practice their Catholic religion spurred many of the Irish to seek passage on what would later be termed the "coffin ships." Thousands would die aboard those ships bound for the United States, Canada or Australia.

Those who had foreseen the future left for America or Canada long before the major potato famine. My 56-year-old great-great-grandfather Thomas, wife Mary, one daughter, their three grown sons and a 16-year-old son obtained passage to Canada because it was less expensive.

They crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Ireland, sailed down what is now the St. Lawrence Seaway to Montreal, Quebec, and eventually settled in St. Columban about 60 miles northwest of Montreal.

Free land could be obtained in St. Columban with the Canadian government initially supplying the immigrants with tools for farming and for daily household needs. Food raised in their gardens and fuel from the adjacent wooded areas attempted to provide for their basic needs, but the soil, rocky and poor, produced only enough crops to barely sustain them.

An old Irish proverb, "If God sends you down a stony path, may he give you strong shoes," surely applied to these Irish immigrants as they attempted to forge a livelihood from the unrelenting soil.

The family and others once again moved onward. Leaving the Canadian soil that had given them respite, they journeyed into the United States. Being farmers, they sought and found farm land in Jackson County, Iowa, west of the Mississippi River.

Farming when available was a better option than life in the larger cities where signs such as "Irish need not apply" appeared on shop doorposts. Undeterred, the Irish went on seeking jobs and the education that would open doors to the promise they had dreamed of across the sea.

Today, March 17, St. Patrick's Day is celebrated throughout the world. This day commemorates not only the patron saint of Ireland, but also the steadfastness and the hard work of the Irish who settled in America. It is said that "This is the day when everyone wants to be Irish and celebrate in the wearing of the green."

There is an old Irish blessing for all of us who are descended from immigrants to our great country America:

May God give you...

For every storm, a rainbow,

For every tear, a smile,

For every care, a promise,

And a blessing in each trial.

For every problem life sends,

A faithful friend to share,

For every sigh, a sweet song,

And an answer for each prayer.

Beannachtam na Feile Padraig!

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Ruth Moriarity is a member of the Generations Advisory Group.