Brian Mitchell’s new book recalls history of emigration from Foyle

This sculpture, by Derry-born artist Eamon O'Doherty, depicts Derry's emigration story. It is located along the riverside walkway at Sainsbury's.
This sculpture, by Derry-born artist Eamon O'Doherty, depicts Derry's emigration story. It is located along the riverside walkway at Sainsbury's.

Derry’s key role in the story of emigration from Ireland is a tale worth telling - and now, thanks to local historian Brian Mitchell, it’s one that you enjoy in a new book.

‘Derry-Londonderry: Gateway To A New World’ recounts the fascinating history of emigration from the Foyle by sail and steam.

Brian, who has been researching different facets of history in Derry since the early 1980s, says the city’s story of emigration is one that can be told with “authenticity.”

Derry, he recounts, was a major Irish emigration port throughout all significant phases of resettlement.

This includes the 18th century outflow of Ulster-Scots to colonial America; pre-Famine; Famine and post-Famine emigration to North American and further afield; and cross-channel migration to Britain via Glasgow and Liverpool.

Prior to the coming of the railways and, in particular, during the age of sailing ships from 1680 to 1860, Derry was the port of departure for the people of Derry, Donegal and Tyrone.

Indeed, from 1861 to 1939 - the age of the steamship and the train - migrants from Ulster, north Connacht and north Leinster all left Ireland through Derry.

Brian reveals that the journey for some nine million of the ‘Irish Diaspora’ - now living in Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - started in Derry. It was in Derry that the story of their new life began.

For example, their ancestor may have boarded a sailing ship at Shipquay Place, or stopped at the Gweedore Bar on Waterloo Place on their way from west Donegal to Glasgow on the ‘Scotch Boat’ or, perhaps, arrived in Derry by rail, took lodgings in Bridge Street and, then, headed down the River Foyle, on a tender, to connect with a trans-Atlantic liner at Moville.

According to Brian, Derry port had an ideal location.

“Owing to her westerly situation, Derry was seen as being halfway between London and the American colonies,” he writes. “A Derry ship ‘is no sooner out of the river but she is immediately in the open sea and has but one course.”

“Derry was, therefore, well placed to benefit from the emigration of Ulster people to North America.”

Sickness and shipwreck, he says, were two hazards faced by emigrants on board sailing ships departing Derry in the early 1830s.

The ‘John Stamp’ arrived in Philadelphia from Derry in June 1832 and Philip Duffy, a railway contractor, hired 57 men from this ship to construct “mile 59”, or ‘Duffy’s Cut’, through the Malvern Valley - a stretch of railway between Philadelphia and Columbia. All these men died, probably from cholera, in ‘Dead Horse Hollow’, Chester County, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1832.

The ‘Exmouth’ departed Derry on April 25, 1847, for Quebec with 208 emigrants and it was wrecked off Islay (Scotland) with only three survivors (who were crew members). Passengers on the ‘Exmouth’ were named in the ‘Londonderry Journal’ on May 12, 1847, and a memorial was erected to them on Islay in 2000.

Brian also reveals the Gweedore Bar’s enduring links with Derry’s emigration story.

James and Margaret Sweeney owned the bar at Waterloo Street from 1912 and they catered for seasonal migrants to Scotland from their home parish of Gweedore in north west Donegal.

James Sweeney also loaned money to these migrants on their outward journey to Glasgow for fare, lodgings and drink, and, on their return through Derry, they would pay him back from their wages earned in Scotland.

James Sweeney kept a record of this borrowing in the back of a large accounts ledger. These records begin in 1915 and end in 1945 and, over this 30 year period, James recorded 1,555 entries in his ledger known as ‘The Gweedore Book’.

The book contains the names of many islanders from off the west coast of Donegal - from Gola, Owey, Inishsirrer, Cruit and Arranmore.

Many left in the late autumn, early winter, coinciding with the end of the fishing season. On Arranmore, there was a long tradition of ‘tattie hoking’ and squads of men, women and children would leave every year for Scotland.

Brian recalls that a Derry-Glasgow passenger service, by sea, continued until September 1966 when Burns and Laird transferred their last remaining passenger steamer on this route, the ‘Lairds Loch’, to the Dublin-Glasgow service.

Another fascinating item from Brian’s book is the story of the local man who lost his life in the sinking of the ‘Titanic’ in 1912.

Neal McNamee, originally from Donegal, worked in the Derry branch of world-famous tea company, Liptons, which was located at Bishop Street.

Neal boarded the ill-fated liner in Southampton; he was moving to New York with his new wife, Eileen (formerly O’Leary) to work for Liptons.

Brian’s new book is available to buy from Easons, Shipquay Books and DVCB. Price £3.