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Ireland in the 19th Century The Great Famine 1845-50 Where Did Irish Emigrants Come From? Reasons for Leaving Ireland
Language, Costume and Music*
The Clanricarde Estate*
Famines and Famine Policy*
Skibbereen and Schull*

Topographical and Historical Map of Ancient Ireland showing the Five kingdoms of the Pentarchy - Meath, Ulster, Connaught, Leinster  and Munster - and the territories possessed by each of the Irish Princes, Lords and Chiefs' This  map shows the location of traditional Irish clan names.
'Topographical and Historical Map of Ancient Ireland showing the Five kingdoms of the Pentarchy - Meath, Ulster, Connaught, Leinster and Munster - and the territories possessed by each of the Irish Princes, Lords and Chiefs' This map shows the location of traditional Irish clan names. W S Trench, Realities of Irish Life (1868) following p. 362
Ireland was one of England's oldest colonial possessions, dating back to the Middle Ages, although the whole island only effectively came under English control in the 17th century. The movement of people and goods between the islands goes back even further.

Irish people have been the largest minority group in England for centuries, crossing backwards and forwards across the seas. Settlers from mainland Britain have also made their homes in Ireland.

The most significant exodus followed the worst of a series of potato crop failures in the 1840s - the Great Famine. It is estimated that more than one million people died, and almost the same again emigrated. For many, the United States of America, Canada or Australia were the most attractive destinations, with England simply a stepping-stone, albeit one that became permanent for some. A further wave of emigration to England also took place between the 1930s and 1960s, and it continued intermittently thereafter.

Ireland's population fell from more than 8 million to just 6.5 million from 1841-51. A century later it was down to 4.3 million. Even today (1998 figures), the population of Ireland is only 5.6 million. What made so many people leave?

*Ireland in the 19th Century*top of page

Ireland in 1840 was a fertile land, largely agricultural, and one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. The Irish language was still widely spoken, especially in the West, but officially discouraged.

Politically, the whole country was then part of the United Kingdom, but it had only been fully absorbed after the Act of Union came into force on 1 January 1801.

The Economy

The Queen's Bridge Belfast in 1897: The North East of Ireland continued to develop  industrially and economically at a faster rate than much of the rest of the country throughout  the 19th century
The Queen's Bridge Belfast in 1897: The North East of Ireland continued to develop industrially and economically at a faster rate than much of the rest of the country throughout the 19th century
* Moving Here catalogue reference (NMM) G2970 B ca1897
After the Union, a common currency was introduced and protective duties on Irish goods were removed, leaving the country more exposed to competition from England, at the time the world's most powerful economy.

Grain prices fell and the cottage-based linen industry suffered from mechanised competition. Most industrial development - shipbuilding, engineering and linen manufacture - was concentrated in the North-East of Ireland.

To help matters, a Board of Works was set up in 1831 to provide loans, grants and expertise to improve the country's infrastructure, and local landowners sitting on Grand Juries could submit proposals for road, harbour and bridge schemes.

All Ireland was mapped in detail, both as a means of imposing control and so that property could be accurately valued. Maps can provide dramatic evidence of the impact of the Famine. *Look at maps of Ireland and the interpretation of Irish history through the study of them.



This Advertisement of 1904 shows an idyllic pastoral scene but for many people the life was both hard and precarious.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) COPY 1/171B f.26
Low as is the condition of the cottier or labourer, whose labour merely pays the rent of his cabin and potato-garden, there is yet a lower class; those who having no certain employment, are obliged to pay a money rent for their wretched cabin, and for the land which they take in con-acre, and whose subsistence depends on the success of their crop.
The Condition and Prospects of Ireland, Jonathan Pim (1848) Agriculture dominated the Irish economy, and most land was held by English or *Anglo-Irish landlords, many of whom lived abroad and were known as 'absentees'.

More than half of the farms in Ireland and more than 60% of those in Connaught were smallholdings of less than ten acres of land. Some land was leased to prosperous farmers who in turn might sub-let parts to *cottiers - labourers who paid their rents by working a fixed number of days for their landlord, or on the 'conacre' system, in which land was rented for the taking of a single crop, most commonly potatoes.

By 1840 it has been estimated that 3 million people depended upon the potato, sometimes supplemented by buttermilk, with an adult male consuming up to 6.3 kg (14 lbs) a day. Stocks normally lasted for about ten and a half months. For the remaining six weeks, oatmeal or herrings might provide a temporary substitute, if available or affordable. This over-reliance on a single commodity meant that an outbreak of potato blight resulted in a widespread and devastating famine.

Language, religion and culture

Nineteenth-century Ireland had what Thomas Flanagan has called 'a rich, contradictory and thick-textured culture woven from many strands, *Gaelic and English, native and planter, catholic and protestant', which some contemporary novelists treated as picturesque. Some romanticized peasant life and depicted the Irish as if they were all natural wits; others depicted them as vindictive and murderous.

Travellers' accounts, mainly by English and American tourists, provide an interesting variety of perspectives on Irish life. Some were sympathetic, others patronising, even contemptuous in their emphasis on squalor.

Observations on the 'idle nature' of the Irish would now be regarded by many as racist. Thackeray's Irish Sketch Book (1842) spoke of 'the potato people... sitting by the way side here; one never sees this general repose in England - a sort of ragged lazy contentment'.

English was the official language of government and the law, and soon dominated daily life. By 1851, only 23% of the population spoke Irish; and by 1891, the figure had fallen to less than 15%.

Popular Catholic culture played an important part in people's lives and, in rural areas, was sometimes associated with pre-Christian rituals and magic. Belief in fairies, ghosts, witchcraft and healing magic may have been widespread in the west of Ireland into the 20th century but it was already dying out.

Regular formal attendance at the service of the mass was not always possible. Anti-Catholic legislation had only been repealed in 1829 and the Catholic church did not have enough priests or churches to minister to the rural population. Services were held irregularly in farmhouses and cottages.

Government and the Act of Union

The Act of Union was a measure forced through Ireland's Parliament in 1800, after the 1798 Irish Rebellion exposed England's vulnerability to French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars by the Irish 'back-door'. England's wartime economy, cut off from European markets, was also increasingly dependant on grain imports from Ireland - the 'bread-basket of England' in the words of one 19th-century traveller.

From the first, it was not a union of equals. After Ireland's Parliament was dissolved, she was allowed to send 100 MPs to the Westminster Parliament - less than a sixth of the whole House of Commons, although Ireland's population was nearly 40% of that of the United Kingdom. Even after the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832, only one in 20 of Ireland's population had the right to vote, compared to one in five in England. Many Irish people, both in Ireland and England, continued to oppose the union and demand its repeal.

From London, the government launched enquiries into Ireland's economic, social and educational systems, resulting in huge numbers of parliamentary papers and a detailed mapping of the country. The general opinion in official circles was that Irish society needed to be restructured, and her economy modernised. These records are vital source materials for historical researchers - the maps alone reveal the disappearance of entire communities.

In February 2003 a new website, *www.eppi.ac.uk was launched which gives a searchable index of all parliamentary papers relating to Ireland. Within two years it is hoped that it will also contain digitized copies of the papers themselves.

Living Conditions

Illustrated London News vividly shows the misery caused by famine and eviction in this issue of  January 1850.
The Illustrated London News vividly shows the misery caused by famine and eviction in this issue of January 1850.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) ZPER 34/16
Numerous Government enquiries in the 19th century, published as parliamentary papers, investigated economic and social conditions in Ireland. The Parliamentary Select Committee, which was set up in 1830 to investigate poverty in Ireland, examined social conditions, housing, diet and marriage customs.

In 1836, the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Irish Poor concluded that 2,385,000 Irish people lived in such poverty as to need some kind of organised welfare scheme, and that for 100,000, permanent support was essential. Poor law unions, funded by local rate-payers, were established to provide this, but they could not cope with the 1.5 million people seeking assistance during the Famine crisis. Life was still a bitter struggle for some in the 1930s.

click here to listen*
Oral history extract: interview with Farrell Gallagher about his early life on Achill Island in the 1930s and 1940s, describing subsistence agriculture, the appearance of the houses, absentee fathers working in England and so on.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (LMS) LTNMG 2002/265/1
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The miserable huts of the peasantry, seen by the feeble light which comes through the doorway and smoke-hole (to talk about chimneys would be an insult to architecture) give one the idea, not so much that the pigs have got into the parlour but that the family have migrated to the sty. An unpaved clay floor below, a roof of straw and weeds, dank, soaked and rotting overhead, miserable bed in the corner, an iron pot over a peat fire, are the principal items of the property. Before the door is a sink, black and filthy for the refuse...
Others were more sympathetic. Mrs Asenath Nicholson's Ireland's Welcome to the Stranger (1847) is the account of a 50-year-old American from New York who travelled through Ireland between 1844 and 1845, often staying with the poor. Some were outraged by what they saw during the years of the famine. S G Osborne's Gleanings from the West of Ireland (1850) describes evictions from Ennis to Castlebar, recording in detail inquests on people who died of starvation, such as William Moore of Kilfidane, Clare, in February 1849, and called for land reform.

Landowners and Tenants

Some observers blamed Ireland's economic woes on the absentee landlords. Many were undoubtedly neglectful and parasitic, but others invested in the improvement of their estates.

Forging Pikes - a recent scene in  Ireland
'Forging Pikes - a recent scene in Ireland' Illustrated London News, 5 August 1848.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) ZPER 34/13
The late 1870s and early 1880s was a period of international agricultural depression when many tenants experienced difficulty in paying rents that had been fixed in more prosperous times. After a series of bad harvests, prices for crops and cattle plummeted. In October 1879, the Irish National Land League was set up, not only to campaign for rent reductions but also "to facilitate the obtaining of the ownership of the soil by the occupiers". On many Irish estates, landlords granted reductions or other concessions. Pressure might be brought to bear on landlords by ostracising those who would not co-operate. The application of this strategy in the autumn of 1880 to Captain Boycott, a land agent in County Mayo for an absentee landlord, gave a new word to the English language. Boycott refused to lower his rents, his tenants were ejected, and so he and his family became the target for a regime of ostracising that included the refusal of their farmworkers to harvest crops and the withdrawal of services by local tradesmen. Captain Boycott returned to England.

Some areas saw violent 'outrages', from hayrick burning and maiming farm stock to brutal assault and murder. This became known as the Land War. Landlords reacted by forming their own Property Defence Association and bringing in "emergencymen" as their enforcers. The British government's reaction seemed to alternate between conciliation and coercion. On one hand, a temporary Prevention of Crimes Act in 1882 reinforced policing powers and allowed for trial without jury. On the other, a Land Commission was established in 1881 to adjudicate fair rents, ban the eviction of those who paid and allow tenants to sell their interest in a property. The Arrears Act of 1882 wrote off the debts of tenants of lands worth under 30 a year who had contracted substantial arrears, confining their liability to a year's rent, with government paying half the balance and landlords losing the remainder. Three years later, a Land Purchase Act allowed tenants to purchase their holdings with a government loan that would be repaid at less than the annual rent and more legislation followed, eventually providing for compulsory purchase.

Soldiers were sent in to the Irish countryside to reinforce the police and new laws were made to allow for the detention of suspects without trial. When unrest flared up again in 1886-87, the 1887 Crimes Act introduced trial without jury for land-related offences. There were violent confrontations, including one at Mitchelstown, Cork, in September 1887, when police fired on a threatening crowd - three people died and others were injured.

Nowhere was there so long-running a battle between landlord and tenant as on the Clanricarde estates in county Galway which covered nearly 60,000 acres. The Clanricardes were one of the oldest Anglo-Irish families in Ireland. William FitzAdelm, whose family became known as De Burgh, had been granted much of Connaught in 1179. Over the following centuries, they became a powerful family dynasty.

Hugh George de Burgh Canning (1832-1916), the fifteenth Earl and second Marquis of Clanricarde, was the most notorious absentee landlord in late nineteenth-century Ireland and a bitter opponent of the 1882 Arrears Act. His callous indifference to the plight of his tenants resulted eventually in the compulsory purchase of his estates and speeded the pace of land reform that was to break the power of the Irish landowners. Read more on The Clanricarde Estate*.

*The Great Famine 1845-50*top of page

Cross section of a diseased potato from the Pictorial Times
Cross section of a diseased potato from the Pictorial Times
A million a decade! Calmly and cold, The units are read by our statesmen sage; Little they think of a Nation old, Fading away from History's page; Outcast weeds by a desolate sea Fallen leaves of humanity
The Exodus, Lady Wilde, 1864

Food riot in Dungarvan Pictorial Times 10 October 1846
Food riot in Dungarvan Pictorial Times, 10 October 1846
* Moving Here catalogue reference (BL) 025PICT18461010
Between one and one-and-a-half million people died of famine, fever, disease and exposure during the Great Famine of 1845-50, with at least another million emigrating. Precise figures are hard to pin down, but the Irish census statistics of 1851 showed a fall in population from 8,175,000 in 1841 to 6,552,000.

Debate is ongoing as to whether so many deaths were avoidable. Some commentators have accused government and landowners of a policy of deliberate genocide; of cynical exploitation of an event that might allow an 'over-populated' rural economy to be re-modelled; of administrative incompetence in failing to supply food as a priority. Others maintain that the sheer scale of the disaster would have taken any administration by surprise, and that the starvation was due to a lack of imagination and inefficiency on the government's part rather than any deliberate policy.

In some areas there were food riots in the 1840s (England also saw food riots in 1847), a rise in crime rates and a resurgence in Nationalism culminating in the 'Young Ireland' rebellion in 1848.

Photography in the 1880s generated some powerful images of evictions that have often, incorrectly been superimposed on earlier times.

The story is a complex one. You can read about different aspects of the famine, the official responses to it, and its effects, to draw your own conclusions about Famines and Famine Policy* and the effects of the famine in Skibbereen and Schull*

*Where Did Irish Emigrants Come From?*top of page

Irish emigrants leaving home - the  priest's blessing'
'Irish emigrants leaving home - the priest's blessing' Illustrated London News 10 May 1851
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) ZPER 34/18
By the late-19th century, emigration was heaviest from Ireland's most rural southern and western counties.

Cork, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, Tipperary and Limerick alone provided nearly half of southern Ireland's emigrants. Some of this movement was temporary, made up of seasonal harvest labourers working in England and returning home for winter and spring.

The picture was little changed even by the mid-1950s, when Cork, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, Donegal and Limerick provided 55% of the emigrants from the Irish republic. All these counties had large rural populations, poor quality land divided into numerous small land-holdings and few large towns.

Many emigrants were single women: more women than men left Ireland in the periods from 1871-91, 1901-11, 1926-36, 1946-51 and 1961-70.

Until 1930, most emigrants from Ireland's western counties were more likely to emigrate to America than England. With the Depression, however, work there became scarce, and Irish emigrants to America were required to provide 100 in capital or a guarantor.

By the mid-1930s, England was, by necessity, the choice of many who had to leave Ireland.

Other Parts of Ireland

Early 19th-century emigrants tended to come from the more prosperous northern and eastern counties, including Wexford and Dublin. Transatlantic fares might then cost a labourer a year's wages, so most emigrants were sent a ticket, or the money for a ticket, from relatives already in America. President Ronald Reagan's ancestors moved to England where they could earn more than at home, saved enough for the fare, and then left for the United States.

Dublin has always funneled migrants to England, the first stage for many budding lawyers, journalists, actors and artists on a journey that eventually led to settlement in London.

*Reasons for Leaving Ireland*top of page

Until the 1930s, most emigrants from  Ireland's western counties were more likely to emigrate to America than England.
Until the 1930s, most emigrants from Ireland's western counties were more likely to emigrate to America than England. This is reflected in local newspapers such as the Galway Observer, which carried a weekly column headed 'Galway in the States' or 'With the Exiles', reporting news of Galway people in the United States.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (BL) 025GLOB19300315
While the Great Famine gave emigration a major boost, it was already well-established before 1845, with some estimates of 1.5 million Irish people crossing the Atlantic in the period from 1815-45 alone. Economic motives have been the key factor over the last two centuries.

Lack of job opportunities, especially for those who did not have the right connections, or poor pay and conditions in Ireland, pushed many into leaving for the prospect of higher wages and secure employment in England.

This was a situation that did not markedly improve after the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. In the 1950s, the Irish Prime Minister, De Valera, called upon emigrants to return. But, as one embittered migrant put it, there was no point in lighting a candle in the window if there was nothing in the cupboard.

England's wartime economy (1939-45) and post-war boom attracted many Irish people to expanding towns such as Luton.

Other emigrants, Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist, might leave Ireland because of political unrest.

After the 1798 Rebellion, many Irish people fled to Manchester. More recently, some Unionists fled Southern Ireland after the Irish Free State was established in 1922. Over the last 30 years, both Catholic and Protestant have left Northern Ireland in the wake of *sectarian strife.

Others left either because they found Ireland's social and cultural life too restricting; to escape family friction; or to get an abortion. Divorce and contraception were illegal and job prospects were limited. Some occupations, such as the civil service (as in England), required resignation upon marriage. Thousands of pregnant single women emigrated to England from the 1920s onwards in order to escape the censure of Irish society, and because England offered adoption facilities decades before Ireland.

The early promise of equality in voting rights for women, introduced in 1922 (and before it happened in England), was not reflected in wider employment opportunities.

Creators: Aidan Lawes

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