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‘The first great exodus’: The story of thousands of post-Famine emigrants who were first to leave

A new visitor centre opened this week in the remote village of Éachléim, Co Mayo, inspired by the manifests of emigrant ships, aiming to bring to life the stories of these people

It was called “the first great exodus”.

In one dramatic story of post-famine Irish emigration, 15 ships left the Mullet peninsula on the Irish northwest coast from March 1883 onwards, filled with thousands of impoverished tenant farmers and agricultural labourers in search of better lives in the United States and Canada.

A new visitor centre opened this week in the remote village of Éachléim, Co Mayo, partly inspired by the manifests of these ships and aiming to bring to life the stories of these people. Minister for Rural and Community Development Heather Humphreys officiated at this week’s launch.

A storyboard at the centre called Solas: Scéalta an Atlantaigh – Stories shaped by the Atlantic – outlines: “Our history is their history and theirs is ours. By remembering the people who left, we welcome back their descendants.”


A unique aspect of the centre is its detailed information about the 15 sailings that left nearby Elly Bay in 1883 and 1884 as part of an assisted emigration programme led by the famous Quaker philanthropist, James Tuke.

“This new centre celebrates the heritage of Blacksod lighthouse to life on the Inishkeas,” said Rosemarie Geraghty, a long-time researcher at the original community-run Ionad Deirbhile centre.

“However, my particular passion was the assisted emigration project led by the Quaker James Tuke and his committee, which helped thousands of impoverished people from this area during 1883 and 1884. These people were forgotten but finding the manifests of the ships on the Allan line has helped to bring their stories alive again.”

Tuke’s assisted emigration scheme culminated in 3,300 people from Erris and Achill, Inishbiggle and Inishglora, west Newport and the Iniskeas, setting sail for the new world.

She cites the genesis of her research as originating with an Irish Times article from March 31st, 1883, which is on display in the visitor centre. It described the first voyage of these ships as “the first great exodus”, with its headline stating “Emigration under the arrears act”.

“I was amazed to discover that 15 steamships had left Elly Bay with these emigrants between 1883 and 1884 – there were 11 sailings in the spring of 1883 and four in 1884,” she said.

“The first ship was the SS Nestorian and on March 30th, 1883, 305 people, often entire families, gathered on Barnagh Island, in Elly Bay and were ferried on to the steamship in small boats. They landed in Boston on April 15th and started new lives there.”

The article, headlined “Departure of the first batch of emigrants”, gives an account of the people who arrived at the departure point, after coming “many weary miles on foot and loaded with their baggage”.

It read: “The first great exodus from the remote western districts of emigrants, assisted by Government grants and supervision, as provided for in the Arrears Acts, took place today at Belmullet, County Mayo, the port of destination being Boston, United States. Over 350 men, women and children departed, and the scene, though wanting in most of the usual display of grief and sorrowful leave-taking, was of a very impressive and significant character.”

The article said that the emigration was “but the first of a series arranged on a vast scale”, conducted and aided by the Government and the private benevolence of the “Tuke Fund”.

“To this fund, it will be recollected, the Duchess of Marlborough recently transferred £3,000, the unexpended surplus of the money subscribed for the relief of the destitute in 1879 and 1889,” the article said.

“The guiding principle of the authorities has been the emigrating of entire families, so as to prevent among other things the pain and possible danger arising from the separation of members of the one family.”

“The inducements of the proposal made proved exceedingly attractive, and the greatest eagerness was shown by hundreds of small tenant farmers, agricultural labourers and others to avail themselves of so favourable an opportunity,” it added.

The Irish Times article said that the emigrants were supplied with supper by the committee of the Tuke Fund and stayed overnight at lodgings.

“Early this morning preparations for the exodus began. Breakfast was supplied by the committee to the emigrants, and before six o’clock the road, five miles in length, extending between Belmullet and Barna, the place of embarkation, was filled with the departing people,” the article added.

It is estimated that some two million people are descended from these 3,300 emigrants.

The fund’s support system provided new clothing for the journey, “landing money” and a stipulation that at least one member of each family could speak English.

Geraghty says that many of the descendants of these emigrants have returned to their ancestral home places in a bid to discover more about their forebears’ emigrations stories.

She says proudly that the development of the new €4 million centre will facilitate this and praises the great work of Comharchumann Forbatha Ionad Deirbhile and its chairman John Gallagher.

Other “scéalta an Atlantaigh” celebrated at the centre include the heritage of Blacksod lighthouse – where the late Maureen Sweeney changed the course of D-Day with her weather report to the Allies during the second World War – to life on the Inishkeas and their abandonment after the so-called Cleggan disaster of October 1927.