Emigration from Ireland during the Great Famine represents one of the greatest population displacements of its time, an exodus on a stunning scale that has no other nineteenth century parallel. Between 1845 and 1855, some 2.1 million persons, approximately a quarter of the inhabitants of an entire European nation, were permanently removed from their homeland.
Over one million left during the Famine years proper, in an outflow which the term 'emigration', with its connotation of planned progress from one country to another, describes very poorly, especially during the panic-flight of 1846-1847, in which destinations were almost irrelevant.
By the mid-nineteenth century mass emigration from Ireland already had a centuries long history. Between 1815 and 1845 the transatlantic movement alone accounted for upwards of 800,000 Irish emigrants, one third of the entire emigration from Europe at that time.
In these decades also a small emigrant side-stream diverted southwards towards the old penal colony of Australia; lesser British colonies received some Irish emigrants over the same period and there was also a tiny flow towards south America.
To a great degree the Famine emigrants would follow in this earlier footprint.
The first surge
The first emigration surge that can be directly related to famine conditions in Ireland began early in 1846, commentators remarking on the numbers of male and female farm servants leaving the country, together with a small proportion of independent smallholders, who were reportedly anxious to leave while they still had the means.
For these early emigrants passage money came from hard-earned savings. With the passing months, the smallholder component rose rapidly to become the dominant one by the year's end, although by that time most of those leaving possessed very little more beyond their passage money.
Some images of Irish emigrants presented a more romantic wistful picture than the grim reality. This copy of an 1865 painting by Erskine Nicol shows a couple at Ballinasloe station on their way to Galway to board boats to America. Nicol, however, first visited Ireland in 1846 and stayed there until 1851, witnessing the horror of the Famine. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Black 47: a "panicked flood"
During 1847, emigration became a panicked flood, including elements from all social classes, all fleeing the first great cycle of starvation, disease and mortality now sweeping across Ireland. For much of this dreadful year, situations of near-chaos prevailed in the country's ports of embarkation; for the first time in living memory the emigrant tide continued through the winter.
By the end of 'Black Forty Seven', some 250,000 persons had left the country, double the number for the previous year. Even though late 1847 saw numbers fall back considerably, levels were still extremely high, and they surged powerfully again after a renewed failure of the potatoes in 1848.
Famine emigration was overwhelmingly a transatlantic affair, the United States being the immediate destination of 80 per cent of emigrants and the ultimate destination of most of those forced to stay temporarily in Britain for want for money to travel further.
If the Canadian emigration is included, over 95 per cent of Famine emigrants travelled across the Atlantic. Transatlantic emigration reached a peak in 1851, when just under a quarter million persons left Ireland; for a short time after it rose even further.
The lower orders
Famine emigration was predominantly a phenomenon of the lower orders, and especially of smallholding occupiers. Famine emigrants were poorer than those who went before them, possessed fewer technical skills and proportionately far more of them were illiterate and Irish-speaking.
Even though historians categorise them as 'voluntary' emigrants, only transported convicts and those emigrating under 'assisted' Poor Law or landlord-sponsored schemes had less of a say in their departure.
Poor Law and landlord schemes reflected deeply self-interested motives: the former were at best cold-hearted cost-cutting exercises, the latter little more than eviction by another name.
In both types of emigrant scheme, sponsors were entirely indifferent to the subsequent fate of paupers/tenants; throughout the entire Famine period the only evidence we have of a genuinely philanthropic impulse in sponsored emigration comes from schemes inaugurated by Vere Foster in the early 1850s.
Assisted schemes in any case represented a small fraction of the total emigration from Ireland during the Famine, involving fewer than 40,000 persons in all between 1846 and 1850. Government, for its part, made no serious attempt at implementing the massive emigration schemes urged on it by social reformers or its own commissions of inquiry, or any measure to assist or protect emigrants on their passage.
Indifference was a major reason for this, a greater one the cynical realisation that the colossal 'voluntary' mass exodus from Ireland made any such initiative unnecessary.
This was because the Famine exodus was sustained by the enormous sums sent home by family members who had already made the emigrant journey. These remittance payments, as recorded in post office money orders, rose from £460,000 in 1848 to well over £1 million by the time the Famine had ended.
Remittances were crucial in maintaining the pattern of chain emigration that would be a defining element in the Irish experience of exile for over a century and a half to come.
'This mighty emigration pays for itself', declared the London Times in April 1852, 'It seeks no aid from the public purse.'
Refugees in Liverpool
From the time the rush began across the Atlantic, refugee emigrants were also pouring across the Irish Sea into ports all along the west coast of Britain, from northern Scotland down to south-western Wales.
In each port as they arrived, especially during the plague season of 1846-1847, they were greeted with hostility, nowhere more strongly than in Liverpool, the port of embarkation for North America, and the interim destination of the vast majority.
On arrival in the city, those whose resources were exhausted crowded into the dank, filthy cellars for which it was notorious, spreading fever as they went. The truly desperate applied to the Poor Law for relief and were promptly deported back to Ireland: in 1847 alone the city authorities repatriated over 15,000 Irish paupers.
Only the poorest of the emigrants remained in Liverpool, almost 250,000 of them, either in the city or the industrial towns of the hinterland; the vast majority travelled onwards across the Atlantic.
For those of restricted means, transatlantic options were confined to Canada, since American passenger legislation made the passage to that country much more expensive.
The great majority of emigrants who reached Canada, however, subsequently crossed the border to the United States, often taking the greatest pains to do so rather than remain in a British-ruled country.
About 70% of all emigrants to North America eventually settled in seven northerly states: New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Massachusetts, and in cities with populations of over 100,000 persons.
The death toll of emigration
All stages of the transatlantic voyage were attended by hardship: unpredictable sea conditions, the absence of basic facilities or privacy, poor or non-existent provisioning, brutal treatment by ships' crews, sickness and shipwreck.
The tragedies were innumerable; from the fever-wracked coffin ships that shed corpses overboard as the crossing proceeded, to those that sank as they approached landfall, to those that discharged their passengers only to have them die wholesale in fever quarantine.
Quarantine stations became places of particular horror, most notoriously the Canadian station at Grosse Ȋle, Quebec, during 1846 and 1847.
We have no definitive statistics for shipboard/landfall mortality, but if to the general accepted minimum figure of 50,000 persons for those dying en route to Britain, the United States or Canada, or immediately after, we consider the 'lesser' tragedies of the four following years - shipwrecks, ship fevers, including the cholera of 1853, which killed ten per cent of Irish transatlantic passengers - the overall mortality cannot have been less than 80,000 persons.
The Irish Famine immigrants were among the most innocent and fearful of all arriving in Britain or the Americas, and the least prepared for exile. Very few of them prospered afterwards.
Those who did almost always possessed the ingredients for success before leaving Ireland: financial resources, basic education, and the confidence to exploit opportunity. The vast majority were destined for lives of grinding poverty and backbreaking, badly-paid work.
For the most part the immigrants found shelter in existing Irish neighbourhoods, or in new Irish neighbourhoods created by their numbers, relying for protection on the Catholic Church, cultural societies and political organisations.
Little Irelands emerged in hundreds of cities, each a local variation of a much wider, instantly recognizable international phenomenon. These communities and the organisations within them would serve the Irish extraordinarily well over succeeding generations, until a slow economic advance eased them gradually outwards towards assimilation within the majority society.
This piece is part of the Great Irish Famine project from RTE History and UCC and its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.