Saturday, June 19, 2010

Irish emigration in the famine years

In my last post I quoted an 1851 news report concerning immigrants who arrived in New York suffering from starvation. The reporter said the immigrants had come from Irish poorhouses and had been sent over by a British aristocrat, Lord Lansdowne.[1] These were the West Country Irish from Lansdowne's vast holdings in Kerry County and they found themselves in New York as a result of what was then called his "Assisted Emigration Plan." To avoid the paying poor rates to keep his tenants alive in workhouses, Lansdowne offered them a suit of clothes, pocket change, and free passage to North America. Most of his malnourished, weak, and disease-ridden tenants accepted this offer.[2]

For generations these Kerry paupers and their families had been subsisting on tiny plots of land, exploited by their landlords and treated no better than beasts of the field, in some cases possibly worse. Nothing was expected of them, no opportunities to advance were open to them, no education was made available to them. There were no wage-paying jobs to be had. Most could not read or write and many had Irish as their only language.

Their lives were brutal and they themselves, not surprisingly, brutish.

Their farming skills were medieval. Like medieval peasants or serfs, they married young and raised large families. As the world knows, they were also totally dependent on the potato for sustenance. It was a nourishing crop and not much else would grow in the rocky soil on which many of them lived.

Local practice did not restrict the subdivision of small holdings into smaller and yet smaller ones so that, even before the famine struck, many families could no long subsist on the land they rented.

The lived in abominable shelters. A contemporary gave this description of a Kerry tenant's "home" about a decade before the famine:
Imagine four walls of dried mud (which the rain, as it falls, easily restores to its primitive condition) having for its roof a little straw or some sods, for its chimney a hole cut in the roof, or very frequently the door through which alone the smoke finds an issue. A single apartment contains father, mother, children and sometimes a grandfather and a grandmother; there is no furniture in the wretched hovel; a single bed of straw serves the entire family.

Five or six half-naked children may be seen crouched near a miserable fire, the ashes of which cover a few potatoes, the sole nourishment of the family. In the midst of all lies a dirty pig, the only thriving inhabitant of the place, for he lives in filth. The presence of a pig in an Irish hovel may at first seem an indication of misery; on the contrary, it is a sign of comparative comfort. Indigence is still more extreme in a hovel where no pig is found... I have just described the dwelling of the Irish farmer or agricultural labourer.

-- Excerpt from a description of his tour in Ireland
by Gustave de Beaumont (1830s) quoted from the Foreign Monthly Review in The Mirror of literature, amusement, and instruction, Volume 34, ed by John Timbs (J. Limbird, 1839)
Bad as things were before the famine, they were much, much worse when it suddenly struck.

The water mold that caused Irish potatoes to rot in the field did not originate in Ireland but in Mexico. Irish Landowners had advance warning of its coming but took no action either to prevent its invasion of their properties or to make available alternative food sources for their tenants (though grain was available and could have been provided). Local authorities charged with assisting paupers were quickly overwhelmed and as many people probably died of starvation and disease within Ireland's Poor Law workhouses and while seeking "outdoor relief" as they did in the barren fields.[3]

In the late 1840s, the Illustrated London News and other British papers sent sketch artists into the western counties of Ireland to make a visual record the famine conditions there.

{caption: "Searching for potatoes is one of the occupations of those who cannot obtain out-door relief. It is gleaning in a potato-field &mdash and how few are left after the potatoes are dug, must be known to every one who has ever seen the field cleared. What the people were digging and hunting for, like dogs after truffles, I could not imagine, till I went into the field, and then I found them patiently turning over the whole ground, in the hopes of finding the few potatoes the owner might have overlooked. Gleaning in a potato-field seems something like shearing hogs, but it is the only means by which the gleaners could hope to get a meal." -- Illustrated London News,December 22, 1849. Source:}

{caption: "The first Sketch is taken on the road, at Cahera, of a famished boy and girl turning up the ground to seek for a potato to appease their hunger. 'Not far from the spot where I made this sketch,' says Mr. Mahoney, 'and less than fifty perches from the high road, is another of the many sepulchres above ground, where six dead bodies had lain for twelve days, without the least chance of interment, owing to their being so far from the town.'" -- Illustrated London News, February 20, 1847. Source:}

Bridget O'Donnel and Children
{caption: "The Sketch of a Woman and Children represents Bridget O'Donnel. Her story is briefly this: — 'We were put out last November; we owed some rent. I was at this time lying in fever. . . they commenced knocking down the house, and had half of it knocked down when two neighbours, women, Nell Spellesley and Kate How, carried me out. . . I was carried into a cabin, and lay there for eight days, when I had the creature (the child) born dead. I lay for three weeks after that. The whole of my family got the fever, and one boy thirteen years old died with want and with hunger while we were lying sick.'" -- Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849; source:}

{"Potato Dinner"; source:}

{caption: "A specimen of the in-door horrors of Scull may be seen in the annexed sketch of the hut of a poor man named Mullins, who lay dying in a corner upon a heap of straw, supplied by the Relief Committee, whilst his three wretched children crouched over a few embers of turf, as if to raise the last remaining spark of life. This poor man, it appears, had buried his wife some five days previously, and was, in all probability, on the eve of joining her, when he was found out by the untiring efforts of the Vicar, who, for a few short days, saved him from that which no kindness could ultimately avert. Our Artist us assures that the dimensions of the hut do not exceed ten feet square; adding that, to make the sketch, he was compelled to stand up to his ankles in the dirt and filth upon the floor." -- Illustrated London News, February 20, 1847. Source:}

{caption: "A man of the name of Leahey died in the parish of Dromdaleague about a fortnight ago; his wife and two children remained in the house until the putrescent exhalations from the body drove them from their companionship with the dead." -- Illustrated London News, February 20, 1847. Source:}

The man who had been given charge of Lansdowne's Kerry estate wrote despairingly of this period: "The local gentry were paralyzed, the tradesmen were paralyzed, the people were paralyzed, and the cottiers and squatters and small holders, who now saw the consequences of their previous folly in unlimited subdivision, unable from hunger to work, and hopeless of any sufficient relief from extraneous sources, sank quietly down, some in their houses, some at the " relief works," and died almost without a struggle." -- Realities of Irish life by William Steuart Trench (Roberts Brothers, 1880)[4]


Some sources:

Assisted Emigration from the Shirley Estate in County Monaghan, 1846-1853 on

Emigration from Europe, 1815-1930 Volume 11 of New studies in economic and social history, by Dudley Baines (Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Emigration and immigration: a study in social science by Richmond Mayo-Smith (C. Scribner's sons, 1912)

Pre-Famine Life on rootsweb

The Famine in Clare from The Illustrated London News, 1849-50: Condition of Ireland - Illustrations of the New Poor-Law from

Views of the Famine, page on the famine at

Illustrated London News images at

A history of emigration from the United Kingdom to North America, 1763-1912 Issue 34 of Studies in economics and political science, by Stanley Currie Johnson (Routledge, 1914)

From Famine to Five Points: Lord Lansdowne's Irish Tenants Encounter North America's Most Notorious Slum by Tyler Anbinder

Lansdowne's Estate in Kenmare Assisted Emigration Plan, Shea Family History in Ireland, Dick Shea, December 2009

Eyewitness Accounts of the Famine

The Great Famine of 1845 - 1849

Irish Views of the Famine

Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 3rd Marquis of Lansdowne

The Night side of New York. A picture of the great metropolis after nightfall by Frank Beard (New York, J.C. Haney & Co. 1866)



[1] Here's the news item:
Destitute Emigrants. — Several destitute emigrants who arrived in this city a few days ago by the ship Montezuma, from Liverpool, were found Monday afternoon in the streets, in a starving condition. They were taken to the [local police station], where they were provided with food, after which they were sent to the Commissioners of Emigration. These emigrants, it appears, were taken out of the poorhouses in Ireland, by Lord Lansdowne."
-- New-York Daily Tribune, Wednesday, March 19, 1851.
[2] Lansdowne's agent, the author of the plan, described it in a somewhat self-serving memoir he wrote some years later:
The remedy I proposed was as follows: that he [Lansdowne] should forthwith offer free emigration to every man, woman and child now in the poor-house or receiving relief and chargeable to his estate. That I had been in communication with an Emigration Agent, who had offered to contract to take them to whatever port in America each pleased, at a reasonable rate per head. That even supposing they all accepted this offer, the total, together with a small sum per head for outfit and a few shillings on landing would not exceed from £13,000 to £14,000, a sum less than it would cost to support them in the workhouse for a single year. That in the one case he would not only free his estate of this mass of pauperism which had been allowed to accumulate upon it, but would put the people themselves in a far better way of earning their bread hereafter, whereas by feeding and retaining them where they were, they must remain as a millstone around the neck of his estate, and prevent its rise for many years to come; and I plainly proved that it would be cheaper to him, and better for them, to pay for their emigration at once, than to continue to support them at home.
-- Realities of Irish life by William Steuart Trench (Roberts Brothers, 1880)
Workhouses and the Poor Law are explained here: 650x4green.gif (935 bytes) Prelude to Famine 3: Economics

[3]See Phytophthora infestans, the wikipedia article on the potato blight; and see Potato Blight and Prelude to Famine 3: Economics on

[4] Trench's memoir is self-serving and not uncontroversial, but he gives vivid descriptions from an overseer's point of view. Some excerpts:
The district of Kenmare at that period, — January, 1850, — was not in a desirable condition. "The famine," in the strict acceptation of the term, was then nearly over, but it had left a trail behind it, almost as formidable as its presence.

The estate of the Marquis of Lansdowne in the Union of Kenmare had at this time been much neglected by its local manager. It consists of about sixty thousand acres, and comprises nearly one third of the whole union. No restraint whatever had been put upon the system of subdivision of land. Boys and girls intermarried unchecked, each at the age of seventeen or eighteen, without thinking it necessary to make any provision whatever for their future subsistence, beyond a shed to lie down in, and a small plot of land whereon to grow potatoes. Innumerable squatters had settled themselves, unquestioned, in huts on the mountain sides and in the valleys, without any sufficient provision for their maintenance during the year. ... The estate, in fact, was swamped with paupers.

Half Ireland was stunned by the suddenness of the calamity, and Kenmare was completely paralyzed. Begging, as of old, was now out of the question, as all were nearly equally poor; and many of the wretched people succumbed to their fate almost without a struggle.

The agent of the estate, who on my first arrival was my chief informant, did not seem to consider that any one in particular was to blame for this. He talked of it as "the hand of God." The whole thing had come so suddenly, and all those residing at Kenmare were so entirely unprepared, and incapable of meeting it, that an efficient remedy was utterly out of the question.

The magnitude of the suffering seemed to paralyze all local efforts to avert it.... And thus almost in the midst of plenty, — for there was abundance of corn within a few miles distant, famine stalked unmolested through the glens and mountains of Glanerought.

When I first reached Kenmare in the winter of 1849-50, the form of destitution had changed in some degree; but it was still very great. It was true that people no longer died of starvation; but they were dying nearly as fast of fever, dysentery, and scurvy within the walls of the work-house. Food there was now in abundance; but to entitle the people to obtain it, they were compelled to go into the work-house and "auxiliary sheds," until these were crowded almost to suffocation. And although out-door relief had also been resorted to in consequence of the impossibility of finding room for the paupers in the houses, yet the quantity of food given was so small, and the previous destitution through which they had passed was so severe, that nearly as many died now under the hands of the guardians, as had perished before by actual starvation.


Anonymous said...

Dear Jeff,

This is such an interesting article and with your authorisation i would like to quote in for my homework for Irish Studies in the Sorbonne Nouvelle. If you are in agreement
Could you please let me have your full name, date of article etc.
Many thanks in advance
Best regards
Patricia Killeen

Tempo Traveller Rental Company- said...

Good Blog with good Pictures, i really like it.We provides
Tempo traveller in Delhi
Tempo traveller rental Delhi
Hire tempo traveller Delhi
Luxury tempo traveller in Delhi
Tempo traveller on rent in Delhi
9 seater tempo traveller in Delhi
12 seater tempo traveller in Delhi
17 seater tempo traveller in Delhi
20 seater tempo traveller in Delhi
26 seater tempo traveller in Delhi
for easy travel call us +91-9999029051
Find us on Youtube: Tempo traveller on rent
Faridabad location:
FCA-1405, Block - C, SGM Nagar, Sector 48, Faridabad, Haryana 121001

Ballabgarh location:
Plot No 2 , Near Rawal International School, Faridabad, Haryana 121001

Gurgaon location: F28, 1A, DLF Phase 3, Sector 42, Gurugram, Haryana 122002
Noida location: N 1106, Sector120, Amrapali Zodiac, Noida, Uttar Pradesh 201301
Delhi location: 118, Vardhman AC Market CSC Block - E, Sec,18 Rohini, Delhi, 110089
Ghaziabad location: Flat No : 1304, Sector 16A, Sector 16, Vasundhara, Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh 201012