The Irish Government has designated 2013 the year of ‘The Gathering’ which aims to encourage the diaspora – those people, 70 million in number, with ancestral links to Ireland – to make a trip to the homeland. The start of the journey for some nine-million of these Irish descendants was the port of Derry. In this feature, Brian Mitchell, local genealogist and regular ‘Journal’ contributor, elaborates on this unique strand of local history...
From the early 1700s to the onset of the Second World War in 1939, when the last transatlantic steamer sailed from the port, Derry was one of the principal emigration ports in Ireland.
Derry possessed an ideal situation. She stood at the head of a virtually land-locked Lough Foyle, sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds by the Inishowen peninsula, thus making it, in the age of sail, a harbour of refuge, accessible and safe in all weathers.
Owing to her westerly situation Derry was seen as being halfway between London and the American colonies; 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, able to benefit from the widespread emigration of Ulster people to North America from the early 1700s. Thirty percent of Ulster Scots, around 75,000 people, emigrated though Derry port to North America prior to 1776 and the American declaration of Independence.
Derry’s importance as an emigration port increased throughout the 19th century. It was a profitable trade. Merchants in Derry soon became ship-owners as opposed to agents for American and British companies.
An outward cargo of emigrants, a homeward cargo of timber, grain or flaxseed, together with two voyages per year, one in spring and one in the autumn, ensured a sizeable profit. By 1833 seven merchants in the city owned fifteen vessels, all engaged in the North American trade.
Prior to the 1860s, and the establishment of a railway network in Ireland, the port of Derry served as the emigration port for counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone. Saint John, New Brunswick and Quebec in Canada, and New York and Philadelphia in USA were the destination ports for these emigrants.
By the 1870s sailing ships could no longer compete with the speed, comfort and reliability of the transatlantic passenger steamers.
In 1873 the Minnehaha, the flag ship of William McCorkell & Co. which was known in New York as “the green yacht from Derry”, made the last transatlantic passenger voyage by a Derry-owned ship.
From 1861 right through to 1939 liners anchored at Moville in the deeper waters of Lough Foyle, some 18 miles downstream from Derry.
Emigrants were now carried from Derry quay in paddle tenders to connect with the ocean-going liners of the Anchor Line and Anchor-Donaldson Line of Glasgow and of the Allan Line and Dominion Line of Liverpool.
Derry now became the major emigration port for the northern half of Ireland with emigrants being brought to Derry quay by rail. Indeed, by the turn of the 20th century, the railway companies in Ireland were offering cheap rail tickets to those intending emigrants, embarking at Derry, who boarded trains at railway stations north of Sligo on the west coast and Dublin on the east coast.
In effect, it was assumed that if you lived north of this line you emigrated from Derry, and if you lived in the southern half of Ireland you embarked at Queenstown (now Cobh). In 1883, 15,000 people left through Derry for Canada and the USA.
Today, with the relocation of Derry’s port 4 miles downstream to Lisahally, it needs an active imagination to recreate the scenes – of dock-hands loading and unloading ships and of emigrants awaiting embarkation – formerly associated with this once-thriving emigration port.