The devastation of the Famine led to thousands of Irish emigrants arriving in Scotland - bringing disease and desperation with them. Martin J. Mitchell explains what happened to them - and how they were received

Refugees from the Famine in Ireland first came to Scotland in late 1846, and from then until 1851 over 80,000 Irish settled in the country, double the number of Irish immigrants who arrived between 1841 and 1846. Most of the destitute Irish landed at Glasgow – in 1847 alone over 50,000 arrived in Scotland's largest city.

Throughout that year the Town authorities, and the middle class in general, viewed the new arrivals with fear, horror and alarm. This immigration coincided with high levels of unemployment in Glasgow, and also with the arrival of refugees escaping the potato famine in the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland. The poverty-stricken Irish were therefore an additional burden on the resources of the city.

The new bridge at Broomielaw, on the River Clyde in Glasgow, 1841. Drawn by W. H. Bartlett and engraved by R. Wallis. Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For example, in January over 7,000 Irish immigrants received assistance from the parochial boards of Glasgow and its suburbs, an increase of almost 6,000 on the previous year’s total. 

Typhus epidemic

The Famine Irish were mostly responsible for the massive increase in begging and overcrowding in Glasgow. Moreover, thousands of the immigrants died of typhus - indeed, the authorities were convinced that the Famine Irish were responsible for the typhus epidemic which engulfed the city, and other parts of the western lowlands of Scotland, during 1847.

By the summer of that year it was apparent that Glasgow was in the midst of a major social and economic crisis which threatened to overwhelm and engulf the city. On 10 June the Glasgow Argus, under the heading 'THE IRISH INVASION’ stated that:

The streets of Glasgow are at present literally swarming with vagrants from the sister country, and the misery which many of these poor creatures endure can scarcely be less than what they have fled or been driven from at home. Many of them are absolutely without the means of procuring lodging of even the meanest description, and are obliged consequently to make their bed frequently with a stone for a pillow.

Morphological characteristics of the body louse (Pediculus humanus corporis), carriers of the epidemic typhus. Image courtesy of Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Source: Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Later that month the Glasgow Courier, in an article entitled ‘IRISH DESTITUTION AND DISEASE IN GLASGOW’ declared that it could be stated,

without the slightest exaggeration, that this city is now in as bad a condition as respects Irish pauperism and disease as any city or town in the most afflicted districts of Ireland itself.

Independent of the Infirmary and every other customary receptacle for fever patients being quite filled with these persons, they are to be seen every day squatting in swarms on the river banks beside the bridges, and individuals are often found stretched in a state of suffering, and covered with rags and filth, in the public thoroughfares. 

Repatriation

The authorities in Glasgow adopted a number of measures to deal with the crisis.  At the beginning of 1847 a soup kitchen was established in the city centre, and this was soon feeding between 4,000 and 5,000 Irish a week. Temporary poor relief was given to the destitute Irish, and temporary fever hospitals were eventually opened.

Glasgow slum in 1860s
 A Glasgow back alley in the late 1860s, photographed by Thomas Annan (1829 - 1887) Source: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Thirteen local officials and medical staff caught typhus and died after dealing with the fever patients. Thousands of the destitute were sent back to Ireland by the civic authorities. Indeed, between 1847 and 1852, 41,275 were repatriated to Ireland from Scotland - the overwhelming majority from in and around Glasgow. In 1847, 10,727 were sent home, the largest number returned in one year during the period of the Famine emigration to Scotland.  

It was not only the civic authorities in Glasgow who gave relief to the pauper Irish. The Catholic Church and its adherents in the city and elsewhere in the Western Lowlands also played a small role in providing help to those who were suffering.

Overwhelmingly Irish

By the 1840s, the Catholic community in the west was overwhelmingly Irish – immigration from Ireland had been going on since the turn of the nineteenth century and by 1841 there were 126,000 people of Irish birth resident in Scotland. Around 75 percent stayed in the west of the country, and most lived and worked in the manufacturing towns of the region.

St Andrew's Cathedral in Glasgow. The Catholic community in the city was overwhelmingly Irish and the Church provided some assistance to their fellow Catholic arrivals. Source: Getty Images

Although the Catholic community was overwhelmingly working class and poor, its members were able to provide some funds and assistance to help their fellow Irish Catholics. The Catholic clergy in Glasgow and the west provided both financial and spiritual aid but struggled to do so as the sheer number of destitute Irish needing help was at times overwhelming.

In early February 1847 the head of the Catholic Church in the west of Scotland, Bishop John Murdoch, informed a colleague about the situation in the city: 

Fever still rages… I am kept in constant bustle & turmoil endeavouring to keep together the souls & bodies of crowds of poor Irish who continue to cross the Channel, fleeing from the famine at home only to encounter starvation here… Every morning just now I distribute 400 soup and bread tickets, and leave perhaps one or two hundred wretches unserved. The congregation is acting very generously, but its means will, I fear, be soon exhausted.

Four months later Murdoch informed a fellow bishop that fever was still raging and that he and his priests ‘have terrible work of it. I have to be so much among the sick & dying that I am obliged to let almost all other business lie over.’ One of Murdoch’s priests at that time was Michael Condon, who was based in the east end of the city. In his memoir of his ministry in Glasgow he recalled that:

The fever scenes were truly awful. I had often to administer sacraments to the living as they lay chattering, unconsciously, to the corpses beside them. I anointed a family in an open court, in Calton: another, under a tree, at Partick - & a third in a deserted hut or hole at Hoganfield [sic]; & others at the stairfoot of closes.

During 1847, four priests in Glasgow and the west of Scotland contracted typhus and died as a result of their visits among the sick and dying in their congregations. Others, including Condon, caught the fever but recovered. 

Another photo of an alley in 1860s Glasgow by Thomas Annan. A child sits on the steps of a tenement building. Source: George Eastman Museum/Getty Images)

The response of the local authorities and of other agencies and institutions to the Famine Irish in Glasgow during 1847 and into 1848, along with the role of the Catholic Church and community in that period, helped the city avoid the utter societal devastation that many had feared during the first half of 1847. An upturn in the economy by 1849 further helped matters. 

However, the onslaught of Famine refugees continued to be viewed with alarm. In 1848, 10,691 pauper Irish were sent back to Ireland. Newly arrived Irish immigrants were blamed for the outbreaks of cholera in Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1848.

No-Popery

By the early 1850s, however, the number of destitute Irish arriving in Scotland was much reduced. One indication of this is that in 1852 the number of paupers deported back home to Ireland had fallen to 2,675. Many of the Famine immigrants who remained in Scotland eventually found employment in Glasgow and in other manufacturing and industrial towns. 

The Famine refugees attracted considerable hostility from sections of Scottish society, and this contributed to the ‘No-Popery’ agitation of the 1850s. This increasing antipathy especially amongst middle-class Scots was expressed in racial terms with the Catholic Irish in Scotland, mainly because of the destitute immigrants who arrived in the country during the Famine years, coming to be viewed by many as an inferior race.

This piece is part of the Great Irish Famine project coordinated by UCC and based on the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.