When a great tidal force, even a tidal force of human misery, builds up sufficient force it will burst out from its confinement into freedom. Throughout 1847 and 1848 such a tide of human misery built up in Ireland and it strained against the fetters that were holding it back. This struggle did not, fortunately, manifest itself in bloody revolution. As we have seen, in the attempt by the ‘Young Irelanders’, such uprisings could end in an embarrassing and costly failure. But, increasing numbers of the Irish population had found their ‘safety valve’ in emigration and they began to frantically flee their once beloved, but now accursed land. For many, getting out of Famine stricken Ireland quickly became a matter of life and death.
The Famine was not only a ‘visitation’ on the poor but was a great equaliser in the way that its effects struck at every stratum of Irish society, from the highest ranks to the lowest. Those who lived through these dark days found it virtually impossible to find the words that could accurately convey the horror around them, as they sent their appeals for assistance to friends and relations who had been lucky enough to have escaped Ireland. In fact, the scale of that escape from famine, poverty and death was without precedent in the annals of international migration. Even in the periods when famine-induced deaths were at their heaviest, the numbers emigrating were equally important in the overall decline in Ireland’s population. It is estimated that, between 1846 and 1850, about a million people left Ireland’s shores. Over the following five years, even with the end of famine, emigration grew in even greater numbers.
The Famine that first struck the country in 1846 quickly spread throughout the entire land, and it brought the appeal of massive emigration to almost every county and parish of Ireland. The idea of emigrating to pastures new was like an infection that spread with such astonishing speed that the poorest counties of western area of the country quickly became the major sources of Famine emigration as well as Famine deaths.
As we have seen, this terrible Famine struck the poverty stricken Irish Catholic peasantry that tilled the land. As a class of people, the Catholic peasantry had never felt the need to stray more than a few miles from their ramshackle cabins. But, driven by the needs to feed one’s hunger, traditional norms were abandoned. Driven by famine and disease the people began to lock-up their homes and travel all around the country on journeys that extended to a hundred miles, or more, in search of work and food. Opportunities to work for food relief soon disappeared as disruption and death from disease and starvation began to spread. In their despair the minds of these poor people now turned to those places across the sea that they had heard so much about. Canada, America, and, because it was nearer, England became increasingly attractive to a suffering class.
As the year, known as “Black ’47” turned bleaker and increasingly deadly, the better-off farmers from among the tenant class began to leave in large numbers. Entire families left the land with sufficient funds, and much needed farming skills, to find a better life in the New World. Then, as 1848 dawned, a nationwide panic began to set in, which saw a flood of terrified poverty-stricken peasantry that was ready to escape the evils that were tearing Ireland apart. They were willing to risk their lives in an Atlantic crossing, facing horrific conditions in the depths of winter, rather than face almost certain death from starvation, or disease, in their own country.
There were some concerns among landowners concerning the numbers of people leaving their lands to emigrate to distant lands, especially the larger tenant farmers that regularly paid their rent. But, Sir Charles Trevelyan, was not so concerned about the land clearances caused by emigration said, “I do not know how farms are to be consolidated if small farmers do not emigrate … By acting for the purpose of keeping them at home, we should be defeating our own object. We must not complain of what we really want to obtain. If small farmers go, and then landlords are induced to sell portions of their estates to persons who will invest capital, we shall at last arrive at something like a satisfactory settlement of the country.”
With the arrival of the ‘Gregory Clause’ on the legislative rolls for Ireland the landowners quickly discovered that emigration could save them money. A poor peasant could be shipped out of the country for half what it cost the landowner to maintain him in the workhouse for a year. Furthermore, once the poor peasant was shipped off to foreign parts, it was almost certain that he and his family would almost inevitably never came back. The advantages of this system became only too obvious to landlords in January 1847, when the government transferred its responsibilities toward the destitute by making landlords responsible for them under the poor law, through the payment of increased rates. For the poor peasantry emigration was seen as a better option than being evicted from their homes to wander the roads.
By September 1848 the wave of emigration had become a torrent of the destitute, as more and more people gave up any hope of remaining alive in Ireland. Sir Charles Trevelyan was almost ecstatic at the way things were now going in Ireland. He declared, “If small farmers go, and then landlords are induced to sell portions of their estates to persons who will invest capital, we shall at last arrive at something like a satisfactory settlement of the country.” Everywhere land was being left waste, and the landowners who despaired of selling the land simply abandoned their estates. It was a virtually impossible task to find any buyers who would even consider the purchase of large estates that were crumbling under the weight of massive debt. Trade across the island was almost at a standstill, with the smaller towns being abandoned by the people hoping for a better life in the cities.
Among the millions who fled from the ravages of the famine there were large numbers of the very old and the very young, all of whom had been severely weakened by fever, lack of food, and need of warm clothing before they had even started their journeys. In those far off days, undertaking the long journey to such countries as the United States was both exhausting and full of hardship. Even at those times when the travelling conditions were good, the emigrant needed to be very fit for the journey ahead of them. It was not unknown that weak and ill children were sometimes left behind by parents to die alone of fever or starvation.
It would be wrong to believe that every landlord was happy to evict the tenants from the land, throwing them at the side of the road to struggle for life and shelter. Even prior to the onslaught of the potato blight, emigration from Ireland had become a common means for the poor and oppressed Catholic population to seek a new life. But, with the arrival of famine and the overriding aim of landlords to clear their lands of unproductive tenants, there now began some ‘assisted emigration’. This tactic called upon the landlords to give their tenants enough money for a passage to America, Canada, or other destination. In fact, some landlords went as far as to hire ships to transport them.
In the years up to 1848 most of the long-distance movement of people out of Irish ports consisted of family groups or unmarried men. But, the impulse to escape hunger and disease soon proved too strong to ignore. That impulse became powerful enough even to overwhelm the conventional aversion to emigration among young girls in Ireland. This reluctance had been reflected in previous years by the male domination of migrations out of Ireland, and elsewhere in Europe. At the height of the ‘Great Famine’ the numbers of male and female emigrants were quite evenly balanced and was to remain like this in subsequent years. Boys and girls alike swarmed out of every parish, every social stratum, and almost every household in Ireland. Such was the size of this exodus that it systematically thinned out the entire fabric of Irish society. There had, of course, been numerous plans put forward for colonisation that was subsidised by the state. But, such plans had usually involved the evacuation of the surplus population from some troublesome district and transplanting them in some scarcely populated area in Canada or the United States. They were well-intentioned schemes that, like most of these plans for social and moral betterment, collapsed miserably because of the great expense and uncertainty involved. Not surprisingly, any effort to remove Ireland’s excess population would not be carried out at public expense. Sadly, only a few thousand Irish emigrants received official subsidies, which would include the tenants of derelict crown estates, workhouse inmates, and some crown witnesses or ‘informers’ who needed to be moved for their own protection.
Rather more emigrants received assistance from landlords than did from the state. The landowners would offer financial inducements to tenants, which encouraged them to surrender their holdings and, by doing so, assisted in the consolidation of estates. These ‘assisted’ passages were very few because of the manner in which ‘unassisted emigration’ grew. “Necessity being the mother of invention”, those desperate to emigrate began to create their own informal mechanisms to assist them, and the opportunity for state sponsored social engineering faded away. The records show that only some three or four per cent of emigrants overall were helped by the landlords. The remainder succeeded in getting aid from various charitable groups or were sent money by family members who already gone.
By the time this massive shift of population had begun to slow down, almost two million people had left the Ireland forever. In the beginning, those landowners who helped people to emigrate were praised for their efforts, but by 1848 there was a dramatic change of tone. Priests, politicians and the Press began to attack this enforced exile, accusing Britain of conspiring with the landowners to annihilate the population. Nevertheless, because so many people had already emigrated over the previous decades, emigration considered to be a common-sense response to the appalling conditions in Ireland. Meanwhile, in most European countries, emigration was the last resort in bad economic conditions. In Ireland, however, the emigration process began within a matter of months after the first crop failure. Then, once the famine had tightened its grip, it was not just the poor and hungry who emigrated. The Merchants and tradesmen, who had watched the economy collapse and were financially overburdened by heavy taxation now joined the throng of emigrants. Large numbers of young and old from all strata of society now began to flood the emigration ports.
Unfortunately, in countries to which they were being sent, the Irish were not welcome emigrants. The only thing that the Irish brought with them to the ‘New World’ was their poverty and the fevers they carried. Very few of them had any suitable skills or trades, and the majority were so weak they were not fit for any kind of work, even the unskilled agricultural labour they had been used to. When they landed the Irish emigrants usually drifted into the slum areas of the large cities, supporting themselves by unskilled labour. Quite a few drank heavily as they attempted to cover their despair and loneliness in this new land and fighting among themselves was a frequent occurrence.
Between 1846 and 1852, an estimated one million people left Ireland for other places. Once a pattern had been established the increasing number of emigrants continued to drain the country. The ships that took them away were overcrowded, rarely provided with the legal quotas of provisions and water, and dangerously inadequate for the journey. The loss of life that took place on these vessels earned them the well-deserved name of ‘Coffin Ships’. It was only after 1848 that stricter controls on these vessels and their owners were enforced and resulted in emigrant death rates falling quite dramatically.
In the sailing ships, which were so prevalent prior to 1850, it took the emigrants at least a month to cross the wide Atlantic Ocean. Ship passengers were provided with the basic minimum of food and water but had to provide any other requirements themselves. The ships’ holds, packed with suffering human beings, were a fertile ground for typhus and other deadly contagious infections. The worst recorded death rate among emigrants occurred in 1847 when the notorious ‘Coffin Ships” took emigrants to Canada. There were over 100,000 emigrants making this trip and one-sixth of them died on board ship or soon after landing, which was much higher than the normal death rate of Famine emigrants being about two per cent.
A serious recession struck Britain between 1847 and 1851, which made it an unattractive place to settle. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of poor emigrants did their utmost to scratch out a living as unskilled workers, or paupers receiving relief in British towns. The Australian colonies were also in an economic crisis and did not regain their popularity among emigrants until the ‘gold rush’ of 1850. Naturally, these factors increased the appeal of the United States, where prices during the Famine years were stable and low. For most emigrants, America’s expanding industrial sector and receding frontier made it the desired destination. Even those emigrants who had been forced to enter the New World through Canadian ports were celebrated for their determination to continue their journey south, into the U.S.A. It was from there that ‘American Money’ came for the most effective agency for promoting emigration, namely the pre-paid passage. Those emigrants who first left the country were only able to do so through the savings, loans, local lotteries or unrecorded gifts from their family and neighbours. These emigrants to the New World took with them a deep sense of moral and financial indebtedness to those who had helped them. And they sent back money to repay the debt, or to help others to get out of Ireland.
The tremendous growth in numbers seeking to leave Ireland placed unprecedented pressures on the under-regulated passenger trade. In rudely converted and unsafe cargo vessels many passengers had to endure disgusting and dangerous conditions. The perils of life aboard these ships were increased by the weakness of many undernourished and diseased emigrants, and ‘Famine Fever’ spread quickly before, during and after the long sea journey.