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Effects of the Famine 2: Emigration
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One of the most obvious effects of the famine was emigration. Although the famine itself probably resulted in about 1 million deaths, the resultant emigration caused the population to drop by a further 3 million. About 1 million of these are estimated to have emigrated in the immediate famine period, with the depression that followed continuing the decline until the second half of the 20th century. These migrants largely ended up in North America, with some in Australia and in Britain.

Between 1845 and 1855, 1.5 million people left for good. In 1845, emigration was at the pre-famine rate of 50,000 per year. In 1846 100,000 left. It peaked in 1847, when 250,000 left. Over the next 5 years it averaged 200,000 per year, before the numbers fell off. By 1855, the rate was down to 70,000 per year [6].

Overseas Emigration from Ireland 1821 to 1920 [8kB]
Note: This graph does not include those who emigrated to England, Scotland and Wales. See below.

In the period over the famine decade 1841-1850, 1.3 million people emigrated overseas [1]. Of these, 70% went to the USA, 28% to Canada and 2% to Australia. Most people paid their own fares to make the trip, although perhaps 3% had their fares paid by their Landlords [6]. The cheapest fares were to Canada, around 55 shillings, while a fare to the USA cost between 70 shillings and £5 (100 shillings)[3]. There were two ways one could travel; either in a standard class or steerage. Standard passengers had berths and could walk on the deck. Steerage passengers were crowded together below decks and often could not use the deck. For many emigrants, steerage was the most they could afford.

The picture below shows emigrants waiting on a quayside looking for passage to America. The signs are advertising services to Boston, New York and Quebec. Some were cheated out of the little money they had brought, to pay their fares, by "fast-talking rogues". In many cases, getting passage on a ship seems to have been a matter of waiting for an opportunity rather than booking tickets in advance.

Emigrants leaving Ireland [25kB]

With many of the emigrants suffering from fever, coupled with the cramped and insanitary conditions on board what became known as the "coffin ships", disease was rampant. It is estimated that perhaps as many as 40% of steerage passengers died either en-route or immediately after arrival. Although they were regulated, many of the ships were privately owned, and some captains grossly overcrowded them in order to get more fares. Only the slave ships of the previous century would have had worse conditions. One witness commented on a voyage "This vessel left with 476 passengers, of whom 158 died before arrival, including the Master, mate and nine of the crew... Three days after her arrival there remained of the ship's company only the second mate, one seaman and a boy, able to do duty; all others were dead or ill in hospital [4]".

The picture below shows the conditions in the steerage area of a "coffin ship".

On board a "Coffin Ship" to America [22kB]

Another witness, Stephen de Vere, sailed to America in steerage in 1847; the year that saw the greatest emigrations of the immediate famine period. He wrote afterwards: "Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children of all ages huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart; the fevered patients lying beside the sound, by their agonised ravings disturbing those around. The food is generally ill-selected and seldom sufficiently cooked in consequences of the insufficiency and bad construction of the cooking places. The supply of water, hardly enough for cooking and drinking, does not allow for washing. No moral restraint is attempted; the voice of prayer is never heard; drunkenness, with all its consequent train of ruffianly debasement, is not discouraged because it is found profitable by the captain who traffics in grog [watered-down Rum] [2]".

The authorities in America soon realised how disease-ridden the emigrants were, so they set up quarantine centres which held the emigrants until they were deemed fit to continue. Some settled the new territories of the west which were being colonised at the time, but most stayed in the cities of the east coast where they took some of the poorest jobs. Only over a matter of years did some manage to rise up to prominence. Emigration continued to the USA for almost a century. However, after the First World War, America was much more closed and so overseas emigrants increasingly went to Canada or Australia. Many of the American emigrants brought with them a deep hatred of the government back in the UK, which they blamed for the famine and for their suffering.

Irish settlement in Britain, 1851 [5kB]Of course, Irish emigrants did not all go overseas. Although not as many as went to America, hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrated to Britain. Some went on from Britain to America, but many settled there. Because Ireland and Britain were then part of the same country, no migration figures were recorded on Irish Sea traffic. However, the 1851 census in Britain shows around 400,000 Irish-born living in Britain [5]. The map shows where these emigrants were concentrated. As you can see, most settled in the port regions around Liverpool,   Glasgow and London. Even today, people in Liverpool and Glasgow have a higher-than-average interest in Irish affairs.

At first local officials did what they could to help the mass of fever-ridden and hungry Irish who were disembarking. Soon, however, the famine fever spread to the local residents of the English and Scottish ports and the authorities began to panic. Eventualy, the government passed a law saying that any emigrants who arrived without means for support would be returned to the authorities in Ireland. Nevertheless, as the map shows, many stayed and even today a large proportion of the population of Britain has some connection to Ireland.

The emigration which continued for the next century or more had a profound effect on Ireland's demography. The next section looks at the effects of emigration on the land that was left behind.

> Next > Effects of The Famine 3: Demographics >


[1] Akenson, DH; "The Irish Diaspora", PD Meany Company Inc, Ontario, 1993
[2] Collins, ME; "Ireland Three", The Educational Company, 1972
[3] Edwards, RD; Williams, TD; "The Great Famine; Studies in Irish History 1845-52", Lilliput Press, 1956, Re-released 1997.
[4] Speed, PF; "The Potato Famine and the Irish Emigrants", 1976
[5] Hodge, AM; Rees, R; "Union to Partition: Ireland 1800-1921", Colourpoint Books, www.colourpoint.co.uk, 1995
[6] Ó Gráda, Cormac; "The Great Irish Famine", Cambridge University Press, 1989.

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