The great flood of emigration which was permanently to alter the character of Ireland began in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Although many other factors contributed to it, the fundamental cause was population growth. At the start of the eighteenth century, the most reliable estimates put the total population of the country at around two million. By 1754, this had risen to only 2.3 million, (a tiny rate of growth by contemporary standards,) due to poverty, disease and Ulster emigration. By 1800, the number was between 4,500,000 and 5,000,000; in the 1821 census it was recorded as 6,800,000; by 1841 it was 8,100,000. This increase was largely concentrated in the period from about 1780 to 1830, and overwhelmingly affected the poorest labouring classes. What caused such rapid growth is still a matter of controversy, but at least some of the reasons are clear: traditionally, the marriage age was relatively low, which led to very large families; and the subdivision of holdings, enforced by the Penal Laws, permitted increasing numbers to marry and stay on the land, albeit at the cost of increasingly poorer standards of living.
It seems clear as well that the relative prosperity brought about by rising prices during the period of the Napoleonic wars, from 1790 to 1814, encouraged early marriage, lowered infant mortality and made it possible for more people to exist off smaller holdings. At any rate, the stark fact is that over seventy or so years, the population of the country almost quadrupled. Since the vast majority were already living in the most abject poverty even before this increase, a disaster was clearly in the making.
In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, from 1814, came an immediate and dramatic economic slump: prices fell dramatically, major industries collapsed, investment and growth stagnated, and unemployment and destitution became widespread. The depression lasted for almost two decades, and was accompanied by a series of natural catastrophes. In 1816-1818, bad weather destroyed grain and potato crops, and smallpox and typhus killed over 50,000 people.
The potato failed again in Munster in 1821, and people starved to death in Cork and Clare. After further crop failures in 1825-30, famine was averted only by the import of large amounts of Indian meal from America, and in 1832 "stark famine" struck Munster and south Leinster. Throughout the early 1830s, cholera repeatedly ravaged the poorest classes, and, in the decade as a whole, the potato crop failed on a local level in eight out of the ten years. 1838 saw a savage winter, and "on the night of the big wind", snow buried on the cottages and cattle froze to death in the fields. Finally, in 1840-1844, the potato crops partly failed three more times. Small wonder that the Irish should feel God had abandoned them. "There is a Distruction Approaching to Ireland", wrote one emigrant, "their time is nerely at an end".
From 1814, the shipping lanes to North America, which had been closed by the war, were re-opened, and mass emigration re-started. In 1815-16 alone, over 20,000 crossed from Ireland to North America. At first, the pattern was very similar to the earlier migrations; about two-thirds of those leaving in the years 1815-1819 were from Ulster, and many were people in the class above the very poorest - artisans, shopkeepers, "strong" farmers, professionals, more often than not travelling in family groups.
This was largely because British legislation discriminated against United States shipping, and thus kept the cost of passage prohibitively high. For the same reason, most of these emigrants went to British North America, rather than the U.S., travelling in returning Canadian timber ships. The vast majority pushed on from Canada to the United States, where there were family or community links, although increasing numbers now began to stay in the rapidly expanding colony, often encouraged by government grants of land.
Over the course of the next two decades, as economic depression and natural disasters took their toll, the character of emigration began to change. Despite the continuing high fares, more and more of those leaving were from the labouring classes, the poorest, who somehow managed prices for the passage ranging from £4 to £10 per person. Similarly, the religious make-up of those leaving was altering. More and more Catholics were now leaving, some assisted by such schemes as that briefly implemented by the British government in 1823-25, which provided free passage and land grants to over 2,500 Catholic smallholders, primarily from the Mallow and Fermoy districts of north Cork. The biggest single spur to such emigration, however, came in 1827, when the government repealed all restrictions on emigration; between 1828 and 1837 almost 400,000 Irish people left for North America. Up to 1832, about half of the emigrants still came from Ulster, but after that date the three southern provinces contributed the majority, and from now on, although a steady stream of Northern Protestants continued to emigrate, encouraged by the established Scots-Irish community, their proportion of total emigration was in continuous decline.
Up to the 1830s, the favoured route for the emigrants was still to Canada, and from there to the United States. The majority of departures were from Irish ports, with Belfast, Londonderry and Dublin now the most important. However, over the 1830s, as trade increased between Liverpool and the U.S., the cost of the the direct journey dropped, and increasing numbers crossed to Liverpool and from there made their way to New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
For the very poorest, Britain became the final destination; those who could not afford even the lower fares across the Atlantic paid the few pence for deck passage across the Irish Sea. Conditions on such crossings were appalling. Deck passengers had a lower priority than baggage or livestock, and up to 2000 people could be crowded onto an open deck in all weather, clinging to each other to avoid being washed overboard.
In 1830-35, 200,000 Irish people made such crossings, and by 1841 over 400,000 lived permanently in Britain, mostly in the largest cities, Glasgow, London, Manchester, and Liverpool itself.
Between 1838 and 1844, the patterns were set which would make possible the massive Famine and post-Famine departures; large numbers of southern Catholic Irish left from all areas of the country, establishing both an example for the future and a community of sorts which could absorb new arrivals, and the Liverpool-New York route had become routine and relatively cheap. Although Ulster emigration continued, more emigrants now took ship at Cork than at Belfast, and large numbers also left from such ports as Limerick and Sligo.
Many of those disembarking at Canadian and American ports are described as desperately poor, but in fact, even at this stage, the majority of those leaving did not come from the very poorest classes. Even in the 1840s, officials and landlords continued to complain that those who were going were the "better sort". As one Protestant clergyman put it, "the young, the enterprising and the industrious leave us, while the old, the idle and indolent portions, the dregs, stay with us."
The old attitudes to emigration changed slowly in the years leading up to the Famine. At first, the old, negative view persisted. In the years after the end of the Napoleonic wars, according to a Dublin newspaper, "the native Irish" still held "a vehement and, in many instances, an absurd attachment to the soil on which they were born." This traditional hostility to emigration was strongest in those areas of the country where the old Gaelic traditions survived, on the Western coast and in remote, mountainous regions, densely populated and suffering the greatest poverty.
For these people, emigration was still banishment, still the greatest evil next to death. Even here, however, as the deprivations of the 1820s and 1830s deepened, some emigration occurred, although the great exodus from these areas did not come until the 1880s. In other, more anglicized districts of the country, emigrants' letters often painted an unrealistically bright picture of the life which awaited their friends and relatives across the Atlantic and, as more and more people left, the prospect of uprooting and moving became less unknown and threatening. Even for those who thought of emigration as escape from economic and social oppression, however, there were severe cultural, social and even psychological problems; the rupture with the still powerfully influential traditions of extended community and family remained extremely painful for all who left.