Emigration in the 17th and 18th Centuries

The traditional view of emigration in Presbyterian Ulster differed greatly from the image prevalent among the great mass of the population, the Gaelic Catholics. In the popular mythology of the Scots-Irish, the New World offered an almost biblical deliverance from religious intolerance and economic oppression, whereas to Catholics emigration meant exile. In the phrase used by the Irish monastic missionaries of the early middle ages, emigration was a "white martyrdom", second in suffering only to death itself. Allied to this overwhelmingly negative view of emigration, related, no doubt, to the traditional importance of extended kin-relationships in Gaelic life and strengthened by the enforced departure of the Gaelic aristocracy in the seventeenth century, were the practical barriers.

Until 1780, Catholic immigration was officially forbidden in the Americas, and even if they possessed the inclination and the ingenuity to get to America, few Catholic Irish had the means. Nonetheless, some Catholic emigration did take place. As a result of the trade between the American colonies and such southern ports as Cork and Kinsale, Catholic Irish managed to settle in the new colonies, particularly in Virginia and Maryland, where such names as "New Ireland" and "New Munster" appear.

The most substantial Irish connection at this period, however, was with the West Indies. In the seventeenth century, in the aftermath of the Cromwellian wars, substantial numbers of the most destitute were shipped as slaves to "the Barbadoes", and relatively large numbers of voluntary emigrants are also recorded in Jamaica, the Leeward Islands, and Monserrat, as well as Barbados. As the slave-based economy of these areas grew, however, opportunities for poor white settlers diminished, and during the 1700s most of the Irish Catholics moved from the West Indies to the mainland colonies. Another route for emigrants at this period was to Newfoundland, which maintained strong ties with Waterford and Wexford.

In 1776, three to five thousand were reported to be leaving annually from these areas on Newfoundland ships, and by 1784 seven-eighths of the population of St John's, Newfoundland, were Irish-born.

But compared to the exodus from Ulster, however, Catholic emigration before the nineteenth century was relatively insignificant. Even after 1780, when the new egalitarian republic of the United States might have been expected to attract large numbers, migration was very low. In part, this was due to new practical problems: the series of wars lasting right up to the final defeat of Napoleon in 1814 severely disrupted shipping, and made the journey across the Atlantic dangerous and difficult. There is no doubt, though, that relative prosperity at home, combined with the continuing view of emigration as a last resort, were the principal brakes on potential emigration.