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Irish Emigration

Irish immigrants to America, Canada, Britain, Australia and beyond.

Irish Emigration


1868artwork-IrishEmigration.
Irish emigration is a huge subject – historically, socially and genealogically. This is borne out by the fact that some 70million people around the world claim Irish descent. In the USA alone, there are thought to be about seven times more Irish-Americans than the current population of the island of Ireland.

There are two groups of genealogy researchers to whom Irish emigration is of interest:

  • Those whose direct ancestors emigrated from Ireland and who wish to research their origins in Ireland.
  • Those who already know their origins in Ireland and wish to research ancestors and/or extended family who left Irish shores

To both groups, I must first make clear that my experience is with Irish records, not British, North or South American or Australian genealogy records. As such, it is beyond my knowledge to explain how to conduct genealogy research outside Ireland.

What you will find on this section of the site will still be helpful to your Irish genealogy research, however. It includes useful background on the how and why of Irish emigration, advice on locating and using passenger lists, an overview of the Irish immigrant experience in some countries, and a list of websites where you might start your research abroad.

Full menu at the bottom of the page.

If you are of Irish descent but do not live in Ireland, you need to work your family history back generation by generation until you 'find' your Irish immigrant ancestor. You then need to learn everything possible about that ancestor's life in his/her new home and to pinpoint their exact place of origin.

This genealogical research must be done in your own country before turning to Irish records. If you haven't yet begun this process, you will find these two pages particularly useful: Start Digging for your Irish Roots and Irish Ancestry: the hunt for the townland.

No centralised records of Irish emigration exist in Ireland or Britain.

Where passenger lists were created, they were kept by the port of arrival, not departure. Then, as now, the authorities were more concerned with those who were entering their country than those departing it.


Irish Emigration - A brief history


Irish emigration – the 17th & 18th century

The earliest waves of Irish emigration date to the second half of the 17th century and the aftermath of the Cromwellian era. Most were Catholics. While significant numbers went voluntarily to settle in the West Indies, even more were transported there as slaves. The alternative route, which attracted many from counties Waterford and Wexford, was to Newfoundland.

Plaque commemorating emigration from Waterford to Newfoundland.
To the typical Irish Catholic of the 17th and 18th century, the very notion of emigration went against the old Celtic traditions of extended family and clan relationships. To leave your family, and your homeland, was considered an unbearable exile. For this reason, an ambition to find a better life overseas did not trouble the majority of Ireland's population, no matter the poverty they currently lived in or the oppression they suffered as a result of their faith.

In any case, where would they go? Catholic immigration to North America was forbidden by law until after the War of Independence. And since most lived on the poverty line (at best), how could they afford to pay for their passage? For most Catholic Irish famiiies, emigration was simply not on the agenda. Those that found the means and chose to sever ties with the old country usually sailed from Cork or Kinsale and small
settlements evolved in Virgina and Maryland.

In the northern counties of Ulster, however, a different attitude held sway with a sizeable proportion of people.

Presbyterians, most of whom had Scottish ancestry, had also suffered discrimination in Ireland but they were not inhibited to the same degree by 'ancestral' connection with the soil. They sincerely believed they would find tolerance, freedom and happiness in North America.

They were also, to varying extents, more economically independent than their Catholic neighbours. Many were artisans, shopkeepers, or young professionals, and some worked in the Irish linen trade. These early waves of Irish emigration were often in response to economic peaks and troughs.

Up to 1720, when New England was the destination of choice for most, the flow was steady but numbers were not large. Numbers rose at the end of that decade and then dropped again.

A famine in the early 1740s saw renewed interest in Atlantic passage, and Irish emigration never really subsided afterwards. In 1771-1773, more than 100 ships left the Ulster ports of Newry, Derry, Belfast, Portrush and Larne, carrying some 32,000 Irish immigrants to America. Meanwhile, a similar number set sail from Dublin, Cork and Waterford alone. Some of these would certainly have been Catholics. By 1790, the USA's Irish immigrant population numbered 447,000 and two-thirds originated from Ulster.

Back in Ireland, the population had grown from only 2.3 million at mid-century to as much as 5 million by 1800. The vast majority lived in poverty.


Irish emigration – the 19th century

Summary: At least 8 million men, women and children emigrated from Ireland between 1801 and 1921. That number is equal to the total population of the island in the fourth decade of the 19th century. The high rate of Irish emigration was unequalled in any other country and reflects both the overseas demand for immigrant labour and the appalling lack of employment and prospects for the average Irish person.

1850 ship loaded with Irish emigrants.
19th-century emigration from Ireland is usually broken down into three distinct phases:

  • 1815-1845, when 1 million left;
  • 1846-1855, when 2.5 million left; and
  • 1856-1914 when 4 million departed.

These figures are considered underestimates because it is difficult to ascertain the numbers who settled permanently in mainland Britain. Ireland was still a part of Britain, so travel to or from the mainland was not subject to any scrutiny.

About 80% of Irish immigrants who left their homes in this period were aged between 18 and 30 years old.

As the figures above suggest, Irish emigration levels up to 1847 did not materially reduce the population of Ireland. But in that year, the first after the pototo harvest had failed so spectacularly, the exodus really began. According to figures collated 15 years later, some 215,444 persons emigrated to North America and other British Colonies in that one year alone. This doubled the previous year's figures for Irish emigration.

Between 1841 and March 1851, North America was the most popular destination while some 300,000 went to Australia. Irish emigration direct to New Zealand did not get underway until later. An estimated average of 2,000 people emigrated there between 1871 and 1920.


Irish Emigration 1851-1860

Provinces/
counties
Number of Emigrants who left Ireland from 1 May 1851 to 31 December 1860 See
Note A
below
Number of Emigrants Totals
1851-52* 1853 1854 1855 1856 1857 1858 1859 1860 Males Females Total
LEINSTER
Carlow 4,078 1,743 1,593 743 642 629 435 376 400 5,308 5,331 10,639
15.63
Dublin 7,210 2,486 2,332 1,963 2,043 1,436 2,052 2,708 2,966 12,844 12,352 25,196
6.22
Kildare 4,495 2,206 1,625 797 563 734 517 651 589 6,430 5,747 12,177
12.72
Kilkenny 11,412 6,394 4,438 2,756 2,037 2,098 1,315 1,514 1,784 17,037 16,711 33,748
21.26
King's 8,178 3,499 2,747 1,341 1,017> 1,049 873 938 1,225 10,334 10,533 20,867
18.62
Longford 5,985 2,338 1,657 629 718 941 524 758 884 7,165 7,269 14,434
17.53
Louth 5,871 3,265 2,192 1,175 1,005 1,083 590 763 960 8,093 8,811 16,904
15.70
Meath 9,077 4,227 2,901 1,310 1,196 1,385 803 1,009 1,225 11,460 11,673 23,133
16.44
Queen's 8,165 3,492 2,661 1,016 1,003 836 509 947 1,101 9,926 9,804 19,730
17.67
Westmeath 7,156 3,062 2,198 1,039 1,195 970 688 923 1,155 9,491 8,895 18,386
16.50
Wexford 10,004 5,282 3,987 1,808 1,442 1,726 1,086 750 879 13,819 13,145 26,964
14.97
Wicklow 3,928 2,599 1,268 873 419 595 769 504 198 5,808 5,345 11,153
11.27
Total 85,559 40,593 29,599 15,450 13,280 13,482 10,161 11,841 13,366 117,715 115,616 233,331
13.95
MUNSTER
Clare 18,291 8,280 7,410 3,387 2,621 3,034 2,254 1,921 2,485 23,065 26,618 49,683
23.39
Cork 36,089 21,576 18,944 13,943 15,756 14,359 7,263 7,586 10,906 72,432 73,990 146,422
22.55
Kerry 17,625 10,448 7,283 4,164 4,364 4,348 1,586 1,877 2,788 26,438 28,045 54,483
22.87
Limerick 21,842 10,081 8,798 3,702 4,048 3,498 2,653 2,840 4,178 29,263 32,377 61,640
23.51
Tipperary 28,503 14,130 11,391 5,573 4,560 5,170 2,890 3,423 4,579 39,513 40,706 80,219
24.19
Waterford 9,419 6,527 5,848 3,277 3,156 3,318 1,857 2,068 2,492 20,807 17,155 37,962
23.14
Total 131,769 71,042 59,674 34,046 34,505 33,727 18,503 19,715 27,428 211,518 218,891 430,409
23.17
ULSTER
Antrim 8,120 5,316 4,425 6,178 7,967 9,514 9,757 15,375 8,877 41,272 34,257 75,529
21.44
Armagh 5,405 3,194 2,914 3,385 3,156 3,093 2,695 2,987 2,228 15,856 13,201 29,057
14.82
Cavan 11,500 5,782 4,149 2,462 2,507 3,110 1,574 2,332 2,724 17,756 18,384 36,140
20.76
Donegal 12,137 5,746 4,672 3,882 3,314 2,283 1,840 2,293 1,774 20,465 17,476 37,941
14.87
Down 5,971 4,622 4,250 5,155 4,897 6,129 5,633 6,760 3,818 28,132 19,103 47,235
14.37
Fermanagh 4,991 2,212 2,056 1,619 1,449 1,615 844 951 1,420 8,889 8,268 17,157
14.78
Londonderry 6,418 3,489 2,953 2,984 2,660 2,438 2,267 2,338 1,964 14,838 12,673 27,511
14.33
Monaghan 7,759 3,980 2,892 2,020 2,238 2,192 1,586 1,979 1,871 13,786 12,731 26,517
18.70
Tyrone 9,146 5,543 3,902 3,922 3,634 3,799 2,983 3,135 3,114 20,724 18,454 39,178
15.32
Total 71,447 39,884 32,213 31,607 31,822 34,173 29,179 38,150 27,790 181,718 154,547 336,265
16.71
CONNAUGHT
Galway 18,006 8,867 7,578 3,158 2,516 3,241 2,163 2,468 2,356 24,615 25,738 50,353
15.65
Leitrim 5,051 2,122 1,791 1,190 1,365 1,414 788 1,235 1,472 8,593 7,835 16,428
14.68
Mayo 11,627 4,208 3,229 2,140 1,444 1,695 1,222 1,559 1,756 14,275 14,605 28,880
10.52
Roscommon 10,439 4,151 3,616 1,625 1,746 1,550 985 1,557 1,654 13,781 13,542 27,323
15.75
Sligo 4,176 1,962 1,612 1,161 881 1,154 602 645 934 6,267 6,860 13,127
10.21
Total 49,299 21,310 17,826 9,274 7,952 9,054 5,760 7,464 8,172 67,531 68,580 136,111
13.48
Not stated 4,308 319 1,243 1,537 3,222 4,645 734 3,429 7,865 15,900 11,402 27,302
TOTAL 342,382 173,148 140,555 91,914 90,781 95,081 64,337 80,599 84,621 594,382 569,036 1.163m
17.75

* Figures for 1851-52 include the last nine months of the year 1851 and the entire year of 1852.
Note A: Figures show the percentage of the 1851 population who left Ireland.

Source: Thom's Almanac and Official Directory, 1862




More about Irish emigration


To North America


To Britain




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The American Wake

The mixed emotions surrounding the departure of an Irish emigrant were difficult for both the emigrant and his/her family and friends to contain.

On the one hand was the possibility of a better life – a healthier , more prosperous and fulfilling life than Ireland could offer.

On the other was the deep sorrow of knowing that, in all likelihood, the emigrant would never see the homeland, or these family and friends, again.

Very few Irish immigrants to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand ever returned to their homelands.

So the use of the term 'Wake' was symbolic; just as the dead did not return, nor would the emigrant. The loss was permanent.

Row of ropes on a replica 19th-century ship.

The American Wake was the party held on the night before departure. A typical Irish party, it involved food, drink, music, singing, dancing, and storytelling -- often tales about the emigrant when caught in some mischief or in doing some kindness.

The practice was not dissimilar to the Wake held after a death except that, instead of accompanying the dearly departed to the churchyard, friends and relatives would accompany the emigrant on at least the first stages of their journey to the port. There the final farewells would be said.

During the Famine, the wake was toned down, if not held at all.




The Age of the Steamer

The first steamer to cross the Atlantic was probably the Canadian ship SS Royal William which made the voyage from Quebec to London in twenty five days in 1833. At a time when a typical crossing in a traditional sailing ships took five to eight weeks, this was a huge development but it was to be more than two decades before steamers started to play any significant part in the story of Irish emigration.

One of the co-owners of the SS Royal William was Samuel Cunard who subsequently founded the eponyomous company in 1840 having won the contract to provide a fortnightly mail service between Liverpool and Halifax, Boston and Quebec.

The Britannia made its maiden voyage from Liverpool to Halifax and Boston on 4 July 1840, reportedly with a cow onboard to provide fresh milk to passengers. This ship completed its voyage in just 14 days and such was its success that Cunard had a fleet of 12 ships within a decade.

Cunard poster advertising Atlantic crossings.

The numbers of passengers carried across the ocean in steamers at this time was tiny, however. These early steamers were principally cargo or mail boats.

It wasn't until the mid-1850s and 1860s that some comforts – electric lighting, more deck space etc – were added for passengers.

By 1863, some 45% if Irish immigrants arrived in North America on steamships. By 1866, this had increased to 81% and within another four years nearly all Irish emigration to Canada and the USA was made on steamers.



The Social Consequences of mass Irish emigration

Because the phenomenon of mass Irish emigration was largely prompted by the terrible catastrophe of the Great Hunger (the 'famine' of the late 1840s), the consequences of one cannot be separated from the other.

Having been removed from their small strips of land through failure to pay rent, starvation hit the landless and the poorest hardest, as you would expect. Smallholders (ie those with small farms of just a few acres) also sold up to a large landowner or accepted their offer of passage to North America. Within a few years, the numbers of farms of less than five acres had been at least halved in number.

The reality of the famine saw acceptance that farming methods had to change; such dependence on one crop - the potato - could not be repeated, so more livestock farms were created.

Ivy-clad ruin, Slyguff, Co Carlow.

The countryside of Ireland is still littered with abandoned houses.

Another major change was a shift to single inheritance. Previously, land was typically divided equally between all surviving children as soon as they married and started their own families. Over the generations, too many plots of land had shrunk to barely more than cabbage or potato patches that even in good years could hardly sustain a small family. This, too, had contributed to the circumstances that made the 1840s famine so devastating.

Two strong trends emerged with the move to single inheritance. Firstly, marriage took place later. The son (and it was nearly always a son) who was to inherit would not bring a wife into the family home until his parents were elderly or had died.

The second consequence of single inheritance was more Irish emigration. While a second or third son or daughter might marry into another family or enter the church, the remaining children had no future security or stake in their home. For most of these children, emigration was the only option.

So, in the second half of the 19th century, Irish emigration typically saw the unskilled, single and young -- the 15- to 24-year-olds -- set sail. Nearly as many women as men left.






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