19th Century Emigration to the North Americas
In the early years of the nineteenth century agriculture, always the mainstay of the Irish economy, was booming. The Napoleonic Wars meant that England was heavily dependent on Ireland to supply foodstuffs and Irish farmers and their labourers were doing well. Once peace was restored (in 1815), however, trade with the rest of Europe was possible, and England became less dependent on Ireland for produce. The Irish economy started to slide into a depression and with less favourable prospects at home, ambitious young people thought to try their luck elsewhere.
At first it was mainly those farmers who feared for their livelihood and were bold enough to leave. Those who had just finished serving an apprenticeship or had recently gained a qualification - the skilled artisan or the young professional - also chose to follow the advice to 'Go West, young man!'. These emigrants would have had the means to pay their passage and to set themselves up in the New World. They often had letters of introduction from friends and relatives already established.
Life in Ireland. The conditions in which people lived varied enormously. This picture, taken in the 1880s, exemplifies the typical Irish mud cabin so beloved of folklore. This photograph shows a cabin which originally stood in Bladon Park, Belfast.
Less than five miles away from Bladon Park is Belfast's Royal Avenue. This was, and still is, the commercial heart of Belfast. The photograph was taken around the same time as the photograph of the mud cabin.
Also part of the same collection is this view of the Gleno, Larne, County Antrim, very much a rural area at the time (c.1880s). Gleno is reputed to be the homeland of President Theodore Roosevelt's maternal forebearers: they emigrated in May 1729.
By the late 1820s, however, those children born during the boom times were at an age to want land and families of their own. Pressure of population meant less land to go round. In Ireland it was traditional to divide land among all the children rather than passing it down to the eldest son. For example, a large farm, which once would have supported a family of six, would have been sub-divided into six small farms, each of which was expected to support a family. More and more marginal land (i.e., land of poor quality) was brought under cultivation and, naturally enough, produced a smaller and less reliable crop. The only crop that would grow with any success in poor ground was the potato. Over the years people became increasingly dependent on the potato as their staple - if not their only - source of food.
Inevitably, when the potato crop failed, hardship followed. Between 1800 and 1845 there was, on average, a failure of the potato crop in some part of Ireland every two years, with a general nation-wide failure every five years or so. Worsening conditions encouraged those who could afford it to sell up and emigrate. From 1820 to 1830, emigration from Ireland to North America was running, on average, at just less than 5,000 people per year. From 1831 to 1845, however, the overall yearly average was 26,250.
Even at this stage, it was still the young professionals and the middle and upper working classes who were most likely to emigrate. But that trend changed dramatically in the aftermath of the Great Irish Famine.
The Great Famine got its name because, unlike earlier famines and shortages, it lasted several years and, at its peak, engulfed the whole of Ireland. Its primary cause was the failure of the potato crop. A fungus, which first appeared in Ireland in late August 1845, attacked and destroyed the potatoes. Not all of Ireland was affected that first year but, where the blight did appear, it destroyed everything. The following autumn not an area of land in Ireland escaped the blight. In 1847, the crops seemed healthy but as so few seed potatoes had survived the previous two years, there was a general shortage. This one good crop renewed confidence in the potato and led people to believe that the worst of the crisis had passed.
When the blight returned with a vengeance in 1848, it was a sickening blow.