Irish immigrants to America, Canada, Britain, Australia and beyond.
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:
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.
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
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.
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
* 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
To North America
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.
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.
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.
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.