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Routes and Fares Disasters at Sea Leaving home Arrival Keeping Count Controls in Wartime
Irish Mail*

This picture of 1851  shows emigrants boarding the steamers
This picture of 1851 shows emigrants boarding the steamers Nimrod and Athlone bound for Liverpool
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) ZPER 34/18
Go seek your fortune darlin' in the land across the sea, for in Paddy's land but poverty you'll find.(Traditional)
Migrants from both countries have been crossing backwards and forwards across the sea between Britain and Ireland for centuries. As one 1950s migrant, Brian Behan, put it: 'For hundreds of years prime cattle and mature men have been Ireland's chief export to England'.

Most of this ebb and flow of movement, often generated by poor economic conditions in Ireland and the hope of better prospects across the water, has gone unrecorded in surviving written records. There have been occasional attempts to carry out surveys or impose controls, especially on groups such as the poor or seasonal harvest workers.

Unlike a voyage to the USA or Australia, crossing the Irish Sea was an easily reversible process, but even the short journey from Dublin to Holyhead could be hazardous.

*Routes and Fares*top of page

Within Ireland, the growth of the railway system brought most people within easy access of the coast, if they could afford the fare. From the 1820s, competition between rival steamship companies promoted cheap travel and regular services on a scale previously unimaginable. From the 1960s, travelling by air became increasingly common, although travellers had to await the cost-cutting competition of the late 1990s for cheap airfares.

In the 19th century, the main routes to Britain were:

  • Ulster and North Connaught via Londonderry and Belfast to Glasgow
  • South Leinster and Munster via Cork to Bristol
  • Connaught and Leinster via Dublin to Parkgate, Liverpool or Holyhead
There are no systematic English port of arrival records for migrants from Ireland, so we have no way of knowing which route most emigrants took.

Great Western Railway publicity poster, 1906
Great Western Railway publicity poster, 1906
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) RAIL 253/293
Migrants did not necessarily sail from the nearest port to their homes. In the early 1850s, Julia Leonard, a widow, walked with her three children the 164 miles from Cork to Dublin because the fares from Dublin to Liverpool were cheaper.

Choice of route was important because it often determined where families subsequently settled. Those arriving in Liverpool via Dublin might be more likely to settle in the north-west. Those arriving in London via Cork might remain in the London area.

The first regular steam-service route, from Belfast to Glasgow in 1818, charged 14 shillings steerage - a couple of week's wages for a labourer. Fares were to fall dramatically to as little as *6d a head.

A new harbour at Fishguard was opened in 1906 and was promoted by the Great Western as the shortest sea crossing, 54 nautical miles, to Ireland via Rosslare. New turbine-powered steamers, such as the St Patrick and the St David, cut journey times to less than three hours.

Fishguard and  Rosslare steamship route: papers; includes traffic and other returns of Irish railway companies  for 1922, 1906-22
Fishguard and Rosslare steamship route: papers; includes traffic and other returns of Irish railway companies for 1922, 1906-22
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) RAIL 253/293
In 1906, the cost of a third-class single between Paddington station in London and Waterford in southern Ireland, which was linked by rail to Rosslare, was 22 shillings, but a single fare in steerage for Rosslare to Fishguard was only 7shillings.

The Princess Maud carried generations of Irish immigrants to England. Frank Horan remembered the ship in a poem of the same name. Listen to the poem, *(LMS)LM/MH/Maud.

Frank Horan (1955)

Darkness was falling as we rode the wintry seas, The lights of Ireland fading to become fond memories. The Maud was creaking, tossing, lashed by wind and rain, And the sea-sickness gripped us, as our stomachs ached with pain. The feeling it was awful as you tried to keep your head, As you rolled about that bloody boat, you wished that you were dead. Murphy in his agony belched and cried and roared, 'Get me absolution quick' says he, 'for I'm jumping overboard'
Throughout the 20th century technology and ships improved, making the crossing safer and faster, but the routes used remain much the same to this day.

Read more about sea crossings between Ireland and England:

Ulysses, the world's largest car ferry at 50,938 tonnes and with 12  decks, was built for Irish Ferries and launched in 2001.
Ulysses, the world's largest car ferry at 50,938 tonnes and with 12 decks, was built for Irish Ferries and launched in 2001. Sailing twice daily between Dublin Port and Holyhead, it can carry 2,000 passengers and 1,342 cars or 240 articulated trucks, with a sailing time of just over three hours. Image courtesy of Irish Ferries.

Travelling by Air

Scheduled air services began in 1936, but travelling this way to England remained expensive. However, by 1985, a million passengers a year were flying between Dublin and London, with a return ticket costing 209.

Competition from low-cost carriers in recent years has radically reduced fares and made air travel generally affordable.

*Disasters at Sea*top of page

Today, we take for granted an easy crossing of the Irish Sea in a modern hydrofoil or passenger ship equipped with stabilizers and a comfortable interior of restaurants, bars, games rooms and shops.

In the 19th century, voyages could be risky and conditions were often extremely unpleasant; for those travelling as deck passengers, the conditions were sometimes inferior to those provided for cattle. Some passengers died from exposure if conditions were rough.

Vessels were sometimes wrecked. In 1849, all the crew and passengers were lost when the Royal Adelaide , sailing from Cork to London, went down off Margate Sands.

There were no proper controls on the numbers of passengers travelling on a particular ship, and ticket agents simply sold as many tickets as they could. This led to dangerous overcrowding, especially when weather conditions were bad and deck passengers needed shelter. Seventy two passengers, travelling from Sligo to Liverpool on the Londonderry , suffocated to death in December 1848.

Subsequently, legislation limited passenger numbers but conditions for steerage passengers remained grim. Patrick Gallagher's My Story. By Paddy the Cope (London 1939) describes travelling by sea from Ireland in steerage with the cattle in the late-19th century, when he was working as a seasonal harvester.

*Leaving home*top of page

The timetable for  boat train crossings of the Irish Sea in the summer of 1955
The timetable for boat train crossings of the Irish Sea in the summer of 1955
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) RAIL 910/1
Migrants left their native land with mixed feelings - anticipation, sorrow, cynicism - which they may have later recorded in song, verse or just words; here are a few of them. Not all chose to stay in England - Patrick Kavanagh and JB Keane soon returned to Ireland.
JB Keane (1952)

As we left Dun Laoghaire there was drunkenness. The younger men were drunk - not violently so but tragically so, as I was, to forget the dreadful loneliness of having to leave home... For us, as it was then, it was the brink of hell...
JB Keane Self-Portrait (1964)

But then, no young man or woman is sorry to go. The only ones I ever saw weeping were those left behind. I walked up the gang-plank, quite elated at the though of pastures new. ... I tried to feel sad that I was leaving my haunts behind, but I didn't, and then I felt ashamed because I didn't. Then I got fed up feeling ashamed and wished to Christ that the bloody boat would push off and let me get to hell out of here.
Brian Behan With Breast Expanded (1964)

Frank Horan The Princess Maud

*Arrival*top of page

Unless they had relatives waiting for them, most Irish travellers had to fend for themselves when they arrived in England. There was no equivalent to organisations such as the Poor Jews' Temporary Shelter, whose representatives met emigrant ships arriving in London in the late-19th and early 20th centuries.

Those in transit for overseas destinations were particularly vulnerable. The 15 July 1850 edition of The Morning Chronicle reported how:

...as soon as a party of emigrants arrive in Liverpool they are beset by a tribe of people, both male and female, who are known by the name of 'mancatcher' and 'runner'. The business of these people is, in common parlance, to 'fleece' the emigrant and draw from his pocket, by fair means or foul, as much of his cash as he can be persuaded, inveigled, or bullied into parting with.
After a rough crossing, Irish deck passengers often arrived in state of exhaustion. At times of concern about the spread of infectious disease, such as in Liverpool in the mid-1840s, they might have been subjected to medical examination or quarantine.

Twentieth century travellers often had their luggage checked by a Customs official. Donall MacAmlaigh's An Irish Navvy. The Diary of an Exile (1964) recalls the instance of a fellow passenger from the early 1950s. The official insisted on opening his battered suitcase, only to find that its sole content was a worn pair of wellington boots.

Interviewed in the magazine Magill in 1988, Father Ned Quinn, parish priest of Kilburn in North London, an area of heavy Irish settlement, recalled:

In the 1950s the Legion of Mary would meet Irish people at Euston station as they came off the boat train at three in the morning...They used to have a stall in the station with jobs and accommodation advertised. The Legion would have contacts with local landladies, contractors in the building industry, foremen and factories and so on. But that's no longer the case, there's now very little help or advice for the young people coming over.

*Keeping Count*top of page

Comprehensive and accurate statistics of Irish people migrating to England in the 19th century do not exist. Often they were regarded simply as internal migrants.

According to David Fitzpatrick:

Enumerators at Irish ports counted about 131,000 'permanent emigrants' to England between 1876 and 1910, together with 90,000 to Scotland. The true number was far greater, partly because the two elderly enumerators at the port of Dublin made no attempt to count emigrants taking ferries to Britain.
A travel survey, conducted in 1962/3, included as a Moving Here source, recorded 2,022,097 arrivals from Ireland and 2,032,430 departures to Ireland in one year. Of these, 62% travelled by sea and 38% by air. They included 389,000 Irish men and 197,000 Irish women coming to Britain to find work.

*Controls in Wartime*top of page

Police Certificate of  Identity form, 1918
Police Certificate of Identity form, 1918
Temporary permit control systems were imposed towards the end of the First World War and during the Second World War. Controls were first imposed in May 1918 'to prevent the return to this country [Ireland] of persons who have been deported there from and ordered to reside in the United Kingdom...to prevent the escape to this country of fugitives from military service and to prevent the passage of Socialist or other dangerous agitators', and were lifted in November 1918.

Controls were also imposed in September 1939. Later, further labour-control regulations were imposed on Irish workers in Great Britain, including registration with the police. Some of these controls, known as 'landing conditions', remained after the Second World War.

To find out more, look at this file:

Creators: Aidan Lawes

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