In 1845, a blight struck the Irish potato crop causing it to fail. Since this was the primary food source for millions of subjugated Irish people, by the time the Irish Potato Famine subsided in 1850, the population of Ireland had decreased by 25 percent. In modern terms that is the equivalent of 80 million Americans vanishing between 2011 and 2016.

That missing quarter of the population is divided almost equally between those who died and those who sought a better life elsewhere, mostly in North America. This required boarding overcrowded sailing ships and crossing the Atlantic — a journey with a mortality rate higher than a slave ship of the same era.

By 1850 things in New York had reached critical mass — there were 50,000 Irish prostitutes in the streets, slums that were already decrepit and overcrowded before the potato famine, were now giant petri dishes of disease (both the biological and spiritual kind). The Irish in New York were living up to every anti-Irish, anti-Catholic notion any self-satisfied American nativist could ever conjure.

 There were very few organized groups that wanted anything other than the Irish problem to be gone and there was literally no social safety net nor government involvement in people’s lives other than the involvement that came on the other end of a Billy club.

This was the world Archbishop John Hughes — Dagger John — had to deal with, and it was a world he almost single-handedly altered for the better. Though he was very vocal about the external root cause of a lot of what was wrong with the Irish — mainly centuries of abuse, degradation and oppression at the hands of the British Empire — he was also acutely aware that the only way out for the Irish was to reconnect on a spiritual plain.

To Archbishop Hughes, New York was missionary territory and so he began building “outposts” in places like the Five Points and other heavily Irish saturated areas of the city. He populated these outposts with parish priests and orders of nuns who built schools, formed associations and turned the tide.

Basically, Dagger John Hughes, in his combative and not so politically correct way, was telling the Irish that yes, they had a lot to feel depressed and defeated about, but they were all, through their baptisms, meant for greater things. He saw dignity where others saw only ruin, he demanded elevation in a community that had become accustomed to taking the lowest road and when that avenue was not available, digging an even lower path to travel.

The Sisters of Mercy began running schools and scooping the more than 60,000 Irish children off New York streets and into New York Catholic schools, where they were taught and catechized … or else. These nuns, along with the assistance of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, went into prisons and poor houses — yes, there really were poor houses, which were tantamount to human warehouses for the despaired — and turned the nativist argument that the Irish immigrant was not suitable for civilized American society on its head.

Dagger John reinvigorated the Irish via dedication to the Blessed Mother and the Holy Family as models of behavior. Women were to be respected, men were to be respectful and Irish families began to form and re-form.

Irish girls were placed in refined homes as maids and domestics and the population of those euphemistically called “nymphs of the street” began to shrink. With the help of Dagger John, the few Irish economic success stories were “encouraged” to do for their countrymen in the form of financial institutions and associations that gave the Irish an economical path out of the Five Points.

Like Moses, Dagger John Hughes did not live to cross the Hudson into the promised land of Irish respectability. In fact, he died thinking he had been an abject failure when, during the Civil War, one of the darkest days in Irish American history took place and showed that special Irish talent for embracing disaster — the 1863 New York Draft Riots.

The Irish, outraged that poor Irish boys who couldn’t buy their way out of the United States Army, were the ones doing most of the dying on Civil War battlefields, exploded in three days of rage that left more than 1,000 people dead.  It was a black day for the Irish who attacked the nativists, African Americans and of course each other.

Dagger John, who by now was a lion in winter, quelled the riots, chastising its leaders for oppressing others when they themselves experienced the same. Saddened by this grim turn of events, Archbishop John Hughes passed away in 1864 fully believing he had been a failure in his attempt to save the Irish.

Of course the opposite was true. Because of Dagger John Hughes’ heroic spiritual and practical resurrection battle plan, by the turn of the 19th century 75 percent of New York police officers were Irish, and the criminal class went from 60 percent Irish in the 1850s to under 10 percent. When the century turned, the Irish were doctors, lawyers, politicians (OK, so they still had flaws) and the Catholic school system and Catholic hospital system dominated, for the good, the New York landscape.

So as the “Irish” month of March comes to a close and Easter resonates, lift a glass and a prayer to Dagger John Hughes — a great Irishman and a great priest.

Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.