Famine Emigration

The effect of the Great Famine on emigration was immediate and dramatic. Between 1845 and 1855, almost 1.5 million people embarked for the United States; 340,000 sailed for British North America; around 300,000 settled in the cities of Great Britain, and about 70,000 went to Australia. In all, more than 2.1 million people left Ireland in these eleven years, over a quarter of the pre-Famine population, and greater than the combined total of all those who had left in the previous two-and-a-half centuries. Together with the huge Famine death-rate among children, the result was the disappearance of almost an entire generation: less than one in three of those born in the early 1830s died in Ireland of old age.

To some extent the enormous wave of Famine emigration followed earlier patterns. Those districts which were poor but not utterly destitute - east Connacht, south Ulster and the Leinster midlands - contributed the greatest numbers. Areas like west Cork and south Londonderry, densely populated with the poorest subsistence farmers, suffered appalling death rates, while east Cork and north Londonderry, relatively more prosperous, lost huge numbers through emigration. Only north Connacht experienced simultaneously high rates of death and emigration.

Nevertheless, there were significant differences with earlier migrations. Whereas only 60% of those arriving at New York were classed as "labourers" in 1836, by 1851-1855 the proportion had risen to between 79 and 90%. More than ever before, these people needed financial assistance to pay for the crossing, and this generally came from relatives. A family would combine their money, or borrow, to send one son or cousin to the U.S., he would then send back money to bring out another member of the family, and in this way, little by little, entire families, or even communities, would manage to get away. A huge amount of money poured into Ireland from America, particularly in the early 1850s, to be used to finance the departure of further emigrants.

A change also came about in the prevailing attitudes to emigration. Where previously there had been at least some measure of choice in the decision to leave, and pain at the breaking of communal ties, the dominant note now was desperation, panic even. Most earlier emigrants had been sensitive to reports of hard times in the U.S. and difficulties in the journey; now the exodus continued to grow even in the face of the most discouraging reports from abroad and the savage hardships of a mid-winter Atlantic crossing.

As one group pleaded, "all we want is to get out of Ireland, we must be better anywhere than here". Despair was the driving force in a panic-stricken scramble for survival.

Desperation was reflected also in the changing routes for emigration. Previously, passengers had embarked at the major ports in Ireland, or from Liverpool. Now emigrant ships left from small, little-used ports such as Westport, Kinsale and Killala. Some idea of the conditions endured by the people on board such ships can be gleaned from the story of one, the Elizabeth and Sarah, which left Killala in May 1847. The vessel was eighty-three years old, built in 1763, and carried 276 passengers, 121 more than the legal limit. For all of these people there were only thirty-six berths. During the voyage, no food was given to the passengers, who had to rely on whatever they had managed to bring aboard, and a maximum of only two pints of water per person a day. When she arrived off Quebec after a journey of forty-one days, all the water on board was unfit to drink, eighteen people, including the master of the ship, had died of fever and the remainder were starving.

In some respects, considering the condition of the ship, those who survived were lucky: on some of the "coffin ships" the death rates were 30% and more. For those attempting to use the Liverpool route, as well as overcrowding, starvation and disease, the dangers included unscrupulous middlemen and landlords, thieves, conmen, and the extortionate tactics of ships' agents and owners.

Still, with the only alternative a slow death at home, hundreds of thousands faced and overcame these horrifying obstacles.