Irish Immigrant Ancestors: Who, What, When, Where and Why?
Review of my last posting: I covered the effects of Irish Uprisings on emigration and the effect of the Rebellion of 1798, a pivotal point in Irish immigration.
War of 1812.
The United States and the United Kingdom found themselves at war after the British enacted trade restrictions between the U.S. and France. France and England had been at war for two decades. England wanted to hold a trade monopoly with the U.S. The War of 1812 began when the British decided to interfere with our trade with France by blockading ships in upper Canadian waters. America retaliated by attacking the city of York in Ontario, after which the British came to Washington D.C. and burned the White House.
By 1815 peace between the U.S. and U.K. was restored. During the war, United States had made immigration by Americans to Britain nearly impossible. However, they heavily advertised for people of the UK to come here and come they did.[i]
From 1815 to 1850 over 800,000 immigrants arrived from Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, England and Wales. The journey took from twenty days to two or more months, and most emigrants were carried in the holds of cargo ships. The conditions for these immigrants was terrible. The conditions on non-Irish ships were better because other Europeans and U. K. citizens left their countries with better resources and in far better condition than did the Irish—who still had not recovered from centuries of occupation, repression, and poor nourishment.
Side Note: In my historical novel, Mary Quigley’s Da, my own great grandfather’s family from Ireland suffered from filthy conditions on their ship, and half of the family died of disease in transit and on Staten Island. Typhus, cholera and dysentery caused thousands of impoverished immigrants to die—less so among the Germans. These conditions lasted from 1815 and through the potato famine—for more than a quarter of a century.
Between 1815 and 1860 most immigrants were Irish and German.[ii]
Mixed views and issues across the political landscape in the Irish immigration after 1812.
The population of Ireland was so great that the British, who had dragged them into poverty long before the industrial revolution, “needed” to get rid of them, to dump their impoverished burden off onto someone else.
Side Note: This helped to explain how and when some of my Irish Quigley family ended up in South Africa as well as Australia.
From an article in The United States Gazette, 1826:
“Great Britain incurs great expense in promoting emigration from Ireland to the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) and to Canada, in order to lessen the population of that ill-fated country (Ireland). It would be a national benefit, therefore, to the British government, to make an opening for distressed Irish in this country, and thus save it from the expense of their removal.
The superabundance of the unemployed population of Ireland arises from the ruinous policy of the government, and the extravagant drains of national wealth (of Ireland), by the absentees, being no less than $13,500,000 per annum. The same effect is produced in Great Britain by the wonderful improvement of machinery, which supersedes the labour of the working classes, reduces their wages in many cases to the minimum of the support of a mere existence; and in some, even below that wretched modicum, thus sinking a large proportion of them into the degraded state of paupers.” [iii]
There is no question that the terrible wages the Irish immigrants earned as laborers was still far superior to what they earned in their homeland. Also from the same United States Gazette, above:
“There is scarcely any limit to the number of labourers, who are now and probably will be for twenty years to come, wanted in this country. The spirit of internal improvement, in canals, railroads, and turnpikes, is wide awake in every part of the union; and creates a great demand for that class, of which the number of native citizens bears no proportion to the demand. The Irish labourers are found uncommonly hardy and active, and for years have done a large portion of the work on canals and turnpikes. Their wages are about seventy-five cents per day, or four dollars and a half per week. Their board, which includes meat every day, and often twice a day, costs about two dollars, leaving a balance of about two dollars and a half or ….(illegible) sterling, which is far more than the whole of their earnings in their own country”[iv]
Again, the Irish were inclined to stay in cities where they landed. I believe, again, that if they had possessed greater wealth and had not been in such wretched physical condition, they might have gone farther inland. They needed those laboring jobs in coastal and industrial cities where they could immediately go to work.
From an article in the Baltimore Sun, 1840:
“One of the greatest mistakes committed by immigrants arriving on our shores from foreign countries, is their general preference for city, over country life. This is more especially the case among the Irish, a greater proportion of whom, it is believed, either remain in the port of debarkation, or seek some other maritime city, or large commercial mart in the interior, than of those from other countries. …..that the largest portion of the English, Germans and Swiss—the most numerous, except the Irish—have a stronger affinity for the country; hence we see them daily, especially the Germans and Swiss, directing their course, both singly and in large bodies, toward the west. ……..money had been brought from abroad and invested in lands, and hardy, frugal and industrious settlers are constantly pouring in, to subdue the wilderness, which to the…..”[v]
Again, this indicates how the Irish needed immediate work and shelter to thrive, and how unaware some reporters were regarding the terrible social and personal condition of the Irish people. Irish immigrants could not afford to purchase livestock, wagons, and staples for a journey into the wilderness, nor were they physically fit to do so. As previously noted, there were many accounts of the Irish having nothing more to eat than potatoes, milk, butter and cream, and seasonally, cabbage. Fishermen had fish. Wild greens and onions and turnips were special treats. They didn’t have vegetables like carrots or beets or fruits like apples or pears. Rarely did they eat meat. The population was so great that wild game had been hunted to extinction, except for the private property of the wealthy estate owners that became game refuges. The Irish could be shot for catching a quail grazing along the road abutting an English or Scottish estate.
From an 1845 article from the Louisville Courier comes the following:
“………The arrivals into the port of New York for the last 14 years, with a part of the present, is as follows:………”
1830 – 30,224 1834 – 48,111
1831 – 31, 739 1835 – 35,308
1832 – 48,589 1836 – 60, 541
1833 – 41, 752 1837 – 52,800
Numbers who arrived in 1838 – to 1843 could not be retrieved by the reporter. However, I found humor in his/her concern over the 1844 numbers:
“….There were 12,896 alien passengers, to this port, during the month of June last, which is an increase of 7,654 upon the same month last year. During the quarter ending with June last there were brought to this port 25,008—a large increase upon the same quarter last year. In the meantime, 8,827 had arrived at Quebec; 8,000 have arrived in one week, 3,000 within 12 days, and 1,000 before breakfast!”
The reporter then gets down to the real issue: Immigrants as criminals.
“It may be fairly estimated that of the 200,000 now and within two or three years emigrating to this country, 150,000 are Roman Catholics—that near that number are unable to read or write, and that half the number, or 75,000, cannot speak our language! …………And he (Governor Bouck of Kentucky) says also that 5,047 ‘got off without passports’ or in other words, were felons, murderers, or other criminals. ……..Others enter the city unreported for personal reasons, particularly murderers, thieves, refugees, and criminals of every grade; and these are supposed to be not less than one-tenth part of the whole, or 20,000 annually! But it should be remembered that all these criminals are admitted as citizens, and are allowed to wield the elective franchise, while native Americans are disfranchised for the same crimes!”[vi]
Side Note: I had wondered if Donald Trump’s portrayal of immigrants nearly identical to Kentucky Governor Bouck, above, meant that Trump had read this article. The reporter apparently used the same metric: He is, after all, a governor, so I’m quoting a guy who must be a credible source. A more dubious and current metric is: “A lot of people agree…. people are saying that immigrants are felons, murderers, or other criminals”. Let’s hear it for the 1845 Louisville Courier reporter to keep false information flowing. We all know, using common math, that 5,047 starving Catholics without passports does not constitute a crime wave!
The reporter then suggests that we should treat the Irish the same way Native Americans are treated. What?
Most of us would believe that the Naturalization law and voting rights go hand in glove. Not so. The Constitution granted states to set the qualifications for voting in 1789, so voting rights varied from state to state from then on. Most states required property ownership and the payment of taxes. Voting only applied to white males in every state. Free black males had lost their right to vote in Pennsylvania and New Jersey three years later—in 1792. In that same year, Kentucky dropped the property ownership requirement.[vii] To me, that signals a political desire to pick up many of the illiterate white male voters, including, perhaps the many immigrants.
For some reason, voting rights continues to be a political hot potato, and often a tool to be misused as we see happening today. Like immigration, it’s an issue that should have long been settled and based on what falls within the boundaries of what a democratic republic is.
Pointing out Roman Catholicism among the Irish was a “scare” tactic used very effectively in the press.
Ireland’s Population 1841 – 1860
By 1841, Ireland’s population had risen from more than 2.5 million to 8 million! In 2022 it is 5 million. The population declined by 1.63 million between 1841 and 1851. That was a decline which started before the potato famine that ensued in 1847. Over 2 million souls perished or emigrated from an island (27,132 square miles) about the size of the State of South Carolina or the western side of Washington State.[viii]
If you are Irish Catholic of my generation, 1845-1860 are the years in which most of our great grandparents arrived—whether we live in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Latin America or the European Continent.
Many of the Potato Famine Irish (1847-1850) sailed from Liverpool, England as well as Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Sligo, Ireland. Even Scottish trade ships that sailed across the north of Ireland, past Cushendall, Londonderry and other farthest northern heads like Portrush quietly dropped anchor rowed ashore and picked up starving widows and their children standing into the winds to wave ships down.
For many Irish, once the potato blight of 1847 hit, their only option was to flee before they died. I won’t go into details of the consequences of famine in Ireland, as that is not the goal here. However, if you have not read any famine literature, a compelling and easy read that portrays what a typical family went through is When Ireland Fell Silent: A story of a Family’s Struggle Against Famine and Eviction by Harolyn Enis.
Side Note: In Mary Quigley’s Da, I did not start the narrative of their journey in Ireland because I truly didn’t know it. I started the story in New York. I do not know if the Quigley family suffered eviction, but it was a cruel event, and Ms. Enis’s story portrays the harsh consequences of losing one’s shelter while without food and money.
The state of our world in regard to the never-ending politics of greed, war and other crimes against humanity (e.g. famine as a tool of genocide) is frequently dire in regard to refugees and emigrants. The pictures of the Irish sitting on rocks in the rain outside their “tumbled” cottages with all their clothing on is an image on a pervasive theme of cruelty perpetrated by evil men.
On display at the Famine Museum in Roscommon is a crowbar. It was used during the famine to knock down people’s homes. A young Irish lad had stolen and hidden it from the English. Retrieved rather recently, the crowbar is a reminder that the Irish persistently rebelled, and sometimes, in very small ways. If the best you can do is to steal your repressor’s hand tool, it’s indicative of powerlessness. On the other hand, it is a symbol of hope, of people who refuse to stop. These were the rebels of an Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger) in 1847. We see it in the Ukranian people today. Some of the starvin’ Irish (rebels-at-heart) became presidents, judges and sold a lot of whiskey in America! Sláinte!! In Ireland, they raised hell. Erin go bragh!!
In my next post, I will share further information about “An Gorta Mór” (The Great Hunger) migration to America.
[i] Bridge, Rehanna. “The War of 1812 + The Great Migration.” Prezi.com Posted: 01 October 2015. https://prezi.com/hudsvub4bzmr/the-war-of-1812-the-great-migration/ Accessed: 20 August 2020
[ii] Wills, Chuck. Destination America: The people and Cultures That Created a Nation. Accompanies the major television series by David Grubin, PBS. New York: DK Publishing, 2005, p. 7.
[iii] Reflections: On the subject of Emigration from Europe. 1826, June 30. The United States Gazette. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), p. 2. Retrieved from https://www.newspapers.com/image/605133559/?terms=German%2Band%2BIrish%2BImmigrants. Accessed 21 August 2020.
[iv] Ibid., p. 6.
[v] Immigrants. (1840, August 14). The Baltimore Sun. (Baltimore, Maryland), p. 2. Retrieved from https://www.newspapers.com/image/364971658 . Accessed 11 August 2020.
[vi] Foreign Immigration. 1845, 13 January. The Louisville Daily Courier (Louisville Kentucky) p.2. Retrieved from
https://www.newspapers.com/image/118733135/?clipping_id=52671469 Accessed 02 June 2020.
[vii] Wikipedia. “Timeline of voting rights in the United States.” Last edited on 15 October 2020.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_voting_rights_in_the_United_States#:~:text=1790%3A%20The%20Naturalization%20Act%20of%201790%20allows%20free,did%20not%20automatically%20grant%20the%20right%20to%20vote. Accessed 15 October 2020.
[viii] Bridge, Rehanna. “The War of 1812 + The Great Migration.” Prezi.com Posted: 01 October 2015. https://prezi.com/hudsvub4bzmr/the-war-of-1812-the-great-migration/ Accessed: 20 August 2020