Irish emigrants in America and the money they sent home

From the archive: The Great Depression didn’t stop diaspora posting parcels to their families

December 29th, 1932Opens in new window ]

Ninety years ago, the Irish diaspora in America was dealing with a harsh economic landscape. Nevertheless, reports from The Irish Times throughout the 1930s illustrate how emigrants were helping their families in Ireland by sending money home.

Under the headline Money from America, the reporter wrote: “A remarkable feature of the Christmas mails to Ballina was that, notwithstanding the serious extent of unemployment in the United States, money orders from America to the amount of £1,564 were cashed at Ballina Post Office, or £154 more than last year. In addition to this amount, American money orders of a total value of over £2,000 were cashed by shop-keepers and the local banks. Those payments do not include payments made by the offices subordinate to Ballina. The letters dealt with totalled 180,000.”

In 1932, the US (and indeed, much of the rest of the world) was in the midst of the Great Depression. That July, the Dow bottomed out at its lowest ebb ever at that time. During the Depression, unemployment in America rose to 25 per cent.

Christmas mail

Two years previously, The Irish Times noted: “One of the largest consignments of Christmas mails to reach the West at one time was landed at Galway on the 19th of December from the North German Lloyd liner Berlin, which convened 1,000 bags of mails from New York and Boston for the Free State.”


The reason the west of Ireland featured so frequently in these reports was due to the large number of emigrants originating from there. “A large portion of this huge mail was for Connaught,” the report said, “and included letters from Irish exiles in America containing Christmas money orders for their relatives at home.”

On December 21st, 1932, another report about money from America focused on Galway. “American money order advices for the County Galway received up to the present number 7,200, and average £4 2s. each, or a total of £29,520. The first heavy mail was dispatched to England this morning, when 12 bags of parcels were despatched.” That report also detailed emigrants lucky enough to return home for Christmas, “The SS Duchess of Atholl, which left Saint John, NB, on December 15th, for Greenock, Belfast, and Liverpool, is due to arrive at Belfast on Friday. Besides a large number of passengers homeward bound for the Christmas holidays, there will be close on 300 bags of Christmas mail from all parts of Canada to be landed at Belfast.”

In the newspaper on St Stephen’s Day in 1933, a news brief headlined Christmas Money From America reported: “It is computed that £199,000 has been sent from the United States to the Free State in the form of money orders this Christmas.” The falloff from the previous year was huge, perhaps showing how the Great Depression was impacting the earnings of Irish emigrants, “Last year the corresponding figure was £346,000”. Three years later, on December 21st, 1936, the first of the “American Christmas mails” had arrived at Loughrea: “Money orders amounting to some hundreds of pounds were received for the town and district.”

‘Loads of sultanas’

By 1944, parcels coming from America to Connemara were impacted by the war. “Last week’s American mail brought loads of sultanas to almost every postal district in Connemara,” a report on December 23rd read. “The war has brought a revival of the ‘American parcels’ and never were they more numerous or more full of luxuries than this Christmas. Only a half pound of tea is permitted in each parcel from the USA, but this has been circumvented by sending a parcel to each member of the same family.”

By the 1950s, the popularity of savings clubs were occupying how Dubliners budgeted around Christmastime. “Operation Withdrawal reached it’s climax yesterday when cashiers in banks and Post Office savings banks faced long queues all day,” a report on December 20th, 1952, read: “This mass-withdrawal of money for Christmas spending takes place usually on the weekend before Christmas. A very substantial part of it is by unofficial savings clubs, popularly known as ‘diddley clubs’, which form a very important part of the average Dubliner’s economy. They have been a feature of industrial cities in England for over half a century, but did not become really popular in Dublin until recently.”