Derry to the New world

Bigger McDonald Collection/Libraries NI
Bigger McDonald Collection/Libraries NI

The story of emigration from Ireland is one of the most fascinating and significant aspects of Irish history of the past three centuries. Irish immigration, furthermore, has played a crucial role in the development of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain.

Genealogist and author Brian Mitchell, of Derry Genealogy Centre, has been involved in local, family and emigration research in the wider Derry area since 1982. As part of the recent ‘Back To Our Past’ exhibition at the RDS, Brian gave the following presentation on ‘Irish Emigration and Irish Passenger Lists’.

The story of emigration from Ireland is one of the most fascinating and significant aspects of Irish history of the past three centuries. Irish immigration, furthermore, has played a crucial role in the development of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain.

The Scotch-Irish

Between 1717 and the War of American Independence, 250,000 Ulster-Scots (ie the descendants of 17th century Scottish settlers in the nine counties of the Province of Ulster), or Scotch-Irish or Scots-Irish as they are known in USA, left Ireland, through the ports of Derry, Belfast, Newry, Larne and Portrush, for the British Colonies in North America. These Ulster-Scots tended to enter America through Philadelphia and they headed for the frontier. It was said of the early settlers in Pennsylvania that the Quakers were better traders, the Germans better farmers and the Ulster-Scots were best at coping with frontier conditions.

Napoleonic Wars

The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 is seen as another significant landmark in the story of Irish emigration. With the depressed conditions following the end of war many small farmers and rural tradesmen, as well as agricultural labourers, saw emigration as the only solution to their declining economic prospects. In the absence of alternative sources of employment, and in a time of rising population, it was clear that subdivision of the family farm among children inevitably led to deteriorating standards of living.

From 1815 to 1845 it is estimated that 1 million Irishmen and women crossed the Atlantic for North America. In this period Canada, not the USA, was the initial destination of these emigrants. It is estimated that 80% of passengers who sailed to North America from Irish ports landed in Canada, though perhaps half that total may have gone on to the United States. Prior to the Famine the cheapest way to get to the US was by way of Canada through St John’s, Newfoundland, Saint John, New Brunswick or Quebec.

The Famine

The Great Famine resulted in unparalleled emigration. Between 1846 and 1851 over a million people left Ireland for North America. There is a tendency to see the Famine as the cause of the Irish Diaspora. In reality heavy emigration from Ireland began well before the Famine and continued well after it. Between 1851 and 1921 some 4.5 million people emigrated from Ireland. The Famine speeded up events that were already in evidence.

In the period 1850 to 1914 the majority of Irish emigrants went to the USA and they were Catholic. Beginning in the late 1820s relatively poor Catholics from the three southern provinces of Ireland (ie Connaught, Munster and Leinster) constituted a major proportion of the movement overseas. Through the 19th century and into the early 20th century some 80% of Irish emigrants headed for the United States, with 10% destined for Britain’s rapidly growing cities and bulk of the remainder destined for Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Alone, among major European countries, women left Ireland in numbers approaching those of males. Between 1800 and 1922 about 4 million females emigrated from Ireland. Most emigrants were under 25 years of age. In any one year less than 20% of emigrants from Ireland were over 30 years old.

Kinship Ties

From its earliest days Irish migration has been a family affair. The Irish either moved with kin or moved to join kin. By the nineteenth century the emigrant trade depended to a large extent on people in North America paying the fare to bring out family and friends. Hence, although the decision to emigrate was influenced by economic and social conditions at home, the locations of family members who had gone before was the major determinant of emigrant destination.

The Big Three Irish Emigration Ports

In telling the story of Irish emigration to North America three ports dominated: Liverpool, Derry and Queenstown (now known as Cobh).

From the 1830s to the 1860s, when sailing ships still ruled the Atlantic, the port of Liverpool emerged as the preferred port of embarkation for Irish emigrants destined for North America. By the Famine the Liverpool-New York route was the main artery of Irish emigration. New York received about 67% of the total number of Irish who emigrated to the US between 1848 and 1851, and in the same period nearly 74% of Irish emigrants departed from Liverpool with Irish ports carrying only 20% of Famine emigrants.

The Age of Steamships

By the mid-1860s sailing ships could no longer compete with the speed, comfort and reliability of the transatlantic passenger steamers. Derry now became the major emigration port for the northern half of Ireland with emigrants being brought to Derry quay by an extensive rail network; while those living in the southern half of Ireland embarked at Queenstown.

Right up to the onset of the Second World War in 1939, the Anchor Line of Glasgow and, until 1914, the Allan Line of Liverpool called at Derry for Irish passenger traffic while the ships of the Cunard Line and White Star Line, operating out of Liverpool, called at Cobh, right up to the 1960s, on their way to the USA and Canada.

Much of the emigrant business that had drifted away to Liverpool was now brought back to Irish ports. Between 1876 and 1899 over 670,000 emigrants joined liners at Queenstown, and by 1884 emigrant departures from Derry exceeded the number that went through the port in the peak famine year of 1847 (ie 12,385). In 1883, 15,217 emigrants boarded 154 steamers calling at Derry, with 10,496 destined for the United States and 4,721 for Canada.