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Causes Of Very High Emigration From Ireland History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Emigration was the very important feature of Irish society for much of its history. Some periods are more associated with emigration than others. For example famine and post famine years. Despite Ireland had long established culture of emigration , the scale of the problem in the 1940s had much bigger influence on the country than emigration in earlier and later periods. No other country experienced such a heavy emigration over so long period. Emigration peaked between 1846- 1855 when about 2, 5 million Irish left the country in the response to the famine and to the social evolution afterwards. High level of emigration lasted until 1860s. Irish were going to many different locations depending on the period. The numbers of people who left the country and famine itself have huge impact on Ireland.

The Great Irish Famine

The period between 1845 and 1852 is one of the most tragic in the whole history of Ireland. For Irish people this was the time of starvation, emigration or death. Great Irish Famine had many causes and even more long-lasting results. Even before the famine Ireland was an underdeveloped, poor and over- populated country with great social diversity. One of the facts that where important for the emergence of the Irish famine was the potato blight. Potatoes attacked by this disease, caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans, could not be eaten. At these times potatoes were a basic component of the diet of most of the Irish society. The fact that Ireland was a potato- based country resulted in about one million death and a very high rate of emigration. The emigration achieved extraordinary high rate with lasted until 1960s. In the result of starvation and emigration population decreased from 8,295,000 to less than 6 million.

There were many causes of the Great Irish Famine and famine emigration and the story of starvation can be linked to many things, to a growing population, low living standards, insecurity of land tenure and high rents, industrial stagnation but also to excessive dependence on the potato. The Famine was triggered by the fungal disease blight. The problem of potato blight was crucial for the emergence of the great Irish famine and emigration primarily because over 3 million people in Ireland were relying on potato as main food and approximately 15 million tonnes of potatoes were consumed annually in the early 1940s. Potatoes became so popular because they were not only very nutritious and easy to cook (unlike grain) but also could grow anywhere and did not need great conditions and could be grown in bad quality and rocky soils. Irish farmers utilized an ancient ‘lazy bed’ planting technique. For poor families what counted was the fact that on hectare of potatoes produced as much food as two hectares of different crops. Great help for the cultivation of potato was also the Irish climate. Frost and rain were great enemies for more demanding vegetables. It does not mean that there were no others crops in Ireland. There were others for example corn that were grown, but for different purposes, for example for export.

Failure of the British Government

The starvation itself was not the only problem which forced people to leave their country, very crucial was also the failure of the British government to deal with the crisis. Sir Robert Peel was the Prime Minister when the famine became a serious problem.

Despite the hard situation in the country taxes, rents, and food exports were collected and sent to British landlords. As a result, the Irish were left with no alternatives to the potato, and therefore couldn’t make a living. Before famine Ireland was exporting to Britain amount of corn which was enough to feed 2 million people. This is one of the reasons why Ireland was called the “bread basket” [1] of Britain. During famine there were many new policies introduced. New regulations were not intended to protect Irish but rather to protect existing trading relationship. Despite the big role of the blight for the emergence of famine and disastrous results there were still many possibilities for saving people from starvation. A contemporary comment was that “God sent the blight, but the English made the famine”: and this was true because the help of governments of both Peel and Lord John Russell was was not accurate to the scale of the tragedy. The British government upheld the absolute right of landlords to evict Irish families during a terrible famine even in the dead of winter. Further, the Poor Law was encouraged landlords to engage in eviction in order not to be bankrupted by poor rates for their tenants. In deciding their course of action during the Famine, British government officials and administrators rigidly adhered to the popular theory of the day, known as laissez-faire (meaning let it be), which advocated a hands-off policy in the belief that all problems would eventually be solved on their own through ‘natural means.’ After many years, PM of United Kingdom, Tony Blair admitted Irish people were dying of starvation not only because lack of food but also because lack of food they could afford to buy. Irish historian described Irish famine as “the tragic outcome of three factors: an ecological accident that could not have been predicted, an ideology ill- geared to saving lives and, of course, mass poverty” [2] 


Due to their great hardships, many Irish had no choice other than to leave their home country. Famine related emigration achieved a number equal to famine- related deaths. Total emigration from Ireland in the ten years after the blight struck totaled two and a half million people. And until 1870 this number arose to 3 million. By 1851 there were one million Irish in United States, three-quarters of a million in Britain and a quarter of a million in Cana, 70 000 in Australia and Many in Central and South America. In the beginning most only men or the whole families emigrated. First main destination for Irish emigrants was Britain but after the crisis in1847 people were going to United States more often. The cheapest fares were to Canada, around 55 shillings, while a fare to the USA cost between 70 shillings and £5 (100 shillings). There were two ways one could travel; either in a standard class or steerage. Standard passengers had berths and could walk on the deck. Steerage passengers were crowded together below decks and often could not use the deck. For many emigrants, steerage was the most they could afford. People leaving Ireland were travelling on dirty and dangerous vessels. These early vessels got a name of coffin ships. The suffering associated with travelling on coffin ships does not need to be only imagined as we have vivid relations for example the one from Stephen de Vere who was travelling as a steerage passenger to Canada in the late spring of 1847. The British authorities were well aware that the Poor Law made landlords more likely to make a one-time payment for “coffin ship” passage for their tenants rather than continue to pay taxes for their upkeep in workhouses. Canadian officials repeatedly sent reports informing British officials of the massive mortality rates on these ships. Lack of medical care together with lack of food on board was the cause of many deaths during long journey. Despite the journey was so dangerous, people still preferred to go. Departures during the immediate aftermath of the famine were almost as enormous as during the famine years themselves. Of the total 2.1 million who left between 1845 and 1855, 1.2 million fled before 1851, but as many as 900 000 departed over the next five years.

Britain was the main destination was Irish emigrants since the 1830s so before the emergence of the great Irish famine. Prior to the 1930, the majority of the Irish immigrants went to United States and not to England. Later by the late 1940s over 80% of all Irish emigrants were going to England. The reason was simple. Irish people were allowed to settle in England without restriction according to Ireland Act (1949), Section 2 (1). High level of emigration to England lasted until 1870s (Barrett 1998; Courtney 1995). In the famine years, according to its geographical location, Liverpool became the main port of disembarkation and provided the best opportunity for a transatlantic berth. Only from 1846 when it was obvious that newcomers are a problem, it was ordered that police should count arriving immigrants. Edward Rushton reported that only between January and December 1847, number of immigrants from Ireland reached nearly 300 000. Some of them, about 130, went later to United States. Next year in Liverpool there were over 250 000 new immigrants. Soon after many people became aware of the economic slump in Britain and concentrated their efforts on making it to United States, but still in order to get to United States they were very often coming to Liverpool first. During next years from 1849 to 1953 it was estimated that about 1 241 000 passengers arrived from Ireland to Liverpool, including many paupers. Passengers coming to Liverpool were travelling in very unsanitary conditions. In 1848 many passengers (72 of 206) on the Londonerry suffocated during the journey from Sligo when crowded below decks. It took quite long before officials decided to prompt a parliamentary investigation. New regulations limited overcrowd on the steamers.

Many thousands of Irish decided to cut their losses and set sail on emigration boats to America. New York was the main destination in North America during and after famine. The figures for this period show a dramatic increase in Irish people arriving in the United States: 92,484 in 1846, 196,224 in 1847, 173,744 in 1848, 204,771 in 1849, and 206,041 in 1850. By the end of 1854 nearly two million people – about a quarter of the population – had immigrated to the United States in ten years. They mainly lived in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio and New Jersey. An investigation carried out in 1978 revealed that since 1820 over 4,723,000 people immigrated to the United States from Ireland. This amounted to 9.7 per cent of the total foreign immigration during this period.

Results of emigration for Ireland

The country left behind by the emigrants was transformed by the famine. The famine was followed by a dramatic fall in the birth rate and a rapid and irreversible decline in the poorest sectors of rural society, the cottiers and laborer who were swept away by death and emigration.

(It must be pointed out that the map does not show the ‘final’ state of the famine years)

The fall of population resulted in a consolidation of farms, a decrease in a number of small holdings and the beginning of emergence of the new social group in Ireland – tenant farmers with medium or large holdings.

The Famine hardened resentment toward the British who ruled Ireland.. They were to provide a retrospective condemnation of Britain for its alleged murder of the Irish people, as well as the source of money for Irish nationalist movements. Nationalist movements in Ireland, which had always ended in failure, would now have a powerful new component: sympathetic Irish immigrants living in America. Again, copied sentence…

Another result of famine and emigration was a decline of the Irish language. The gradual decline began the famine, but the both famine and post- famine emigration accelerated this process. In 1845 about 30% of Irish population spoke Irish, this amount decreased because people who died or emigrated, so people from rural areas were mainly Irish speakers. People in their relations from post famine period also mention this problem

The blight that struck the potato crop in 1845 was the main cause of starvation, which in turn pushed Irish people to emigration on a scale much larger than ever before. The government was faced with several difficulties in dealing with famine, but there are also many questions about its willingness or unwillingness to act. Government’s slowness in grasping the scale of the problem made it to become a real disaster and forced people to leave their country.

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