Irish Emigration (Mary Johnston)

During the Victorian era, England experienced tremendous growth in wealth and industry while Ireland struggled to survive. The reasons for Ireland’s inability to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution are complex, and have been the subject of debate for more than a century. Many English viewed the Irish as stubborn farmers who refused to embrace the new technology. The Irish, however, believed the English had sabotaged their efforts to industrialize. The truth of why the Irish fared so badly while England became the most powerful nation in the world probably lies somewhere between these two extremes.

It’s a common assumption that Ireland’s mass exodus during the first half of the l9th century was the result of the disastrous potato blight of 1845, but the famine was actually the proverbial last straw. Until the 17th century, the Irish, like much of feudal Europe, consisted of many peasants under the rule of a minority of wealthy landowners. When Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland in the mid-17th century, those landowners who refused to give up Catholicism saw their property confiscated and then redistributed to the English Army. By 1661, 40% of Ireland was owned by England. Many Irish peasants-stayed on as tenant farmers, working the land and paying rent for the small plots of land where they lived and grew their own food. But as crops became less profitable, many landowners began taking back the land from the Irish poor in order to graze sheep and cattle for English consumption. This led to a series of evictions, where tenant farmers were forced off the land that sustained them, often with no warning at all. One of the worst, now known as the Ballinglass Incident, (after the west coast village in County Galway), took place on March 13, 1846, about 6 months after the potato blight appeared. Anticipating mass starvation from the previous failed crop, Mrs. Gerrard, like many landowners, feared nonpayment of rent from her tenants, and suddenly leveled 61 houses occupied by 76 families. The following is an eyewitness account taken from The Great Hunger.

The inhabitants were not in arrear of their rent, and had, by their industry, reclaimed an area of about four hundred acres from a neighbouring bog. On the morning of the eviction a ‘large detachment of the 49th Infantry commanded by Captain Brown’ and numerous police appeared with the Sheriff and his men…the people were officially called on to give up possession, and the houses were then demolished –roofs torn off, walls thrown down. The scene was frightful; women running, wailing with pieces of their property and clinging to door-posts from which they had to be forcibly torn; men cursing, children screaming with fright. That night the people slept in the ruins; next day they were driven out, the foundations of the house were torn up and razed, and no neighbour was allowed to take them in. (p. 71-2)

Tenant farmers who weren’t evicted found there was less land available to them, and these shrinking plots were being shared by more and more occupants. This diminishing land contributed much to Ireland’s eventual reliance on the potato during the late 18th century. Potatoes didn’t rob the soil of its nitrogen, and the amount of land needed to grow potatoes could feed more people than the same amount of land used to grow a grain crop like wheat. By the time the 1845 blight appeared, approximately 3 million people consumed little else, and the average adult male was eating 12-14 pounds per day. The following chart shows the use of potatoes in millions of tons around 1845. (O Grada, p. 25)

A. Human Consumption in Ireland:  
Occupation Population Annual Consumption
Labourers 3.3 3.9
Cottiers 1.4 0.8
Small Farmers 0.5 0.3
Large Farmers 0.25 0.1
Textile Workers 0.75 0.4
Other Workers 0.85 0.4
Professional and other 0.95 0.3
Total 8.2 6.2
B. Animal Consumption (of Potatoes):  
Pigs   2.6
Cattle   1.8
Horses and other   0.3
C. Exports:   0.2
D. Seed and Wastage   2.5

Before the Great Famine, many Irish were already being squeezed by rising rents and a sluggish job market. The agricultural industry grew but modern machinery eliminated the need for much of its manual labor. And while agriculture became more limited to workers, industry in Ireland wasn’t faring much better. There was some manufacturing in Dublin and Belfast which included tanneries, glassmaking, and the spinning and weaving of linen. After England’s invasion, Ireland was forbidden to export these items as well as the wool sweaters and Wexford china which had been the major source of its wealth. This ban was lifted in 1824, but the damage to this trade was already done. Furthermore, that same year, the English removed its own Irish duties, flooding the Irish market with cheaper English goods and textiles. As a result, Ireland’s domestic industry collapsed. Their own industrial revolution was stunted before it ever really began, and these workers were forced back into agriculture with its already overtaxed labor pool of farmers. By 1835, only 1/3 of all Irish laborers had regular work.

Hunger, poverty and even famine were not strangers to the Irish poor in the first half of the l9th century, particularly in the rural south and west of the country. But by the time the 1945 potato blight hit, there were no other resources left for these people. They had no other means of making a living, and farmers and landlords who depended on receiving rents from them were now vulnerable too. There was nothing else for the Irish poor to eat, and such absolute dependence on this one commodity resulted in one of the worst disasters in history. It doesn’t seem possible to imagine their misery. Death phases, and those who didn’t starve often fell fever and dysentery caused from eating, in putrid diseased potatoes. In their weakened others would suffer “relapse fever” or become to cholera and typhus, which soon became known in the United States and England as “Irish fever.”

Between 1841 and 1851, Ireland’s population of 8 million had dwindled down to 6 million. An estimated half of these people left the country while the other million died. Most of these deaths occurred in those under the age of 10 or over the age of 60. While these young and old made up less than 1/3 of the total population, they accounted for 3/5 of the deaths. This is partly due to the children’s vulnerability to dysentery and the elderly’s inability to fight off typhus. But to some extent, “lifeboat ethics” were being practiced, similar to decisions made in an overcrowded lifeboat. A child might not be fed so that the food could sustain his working teenaged brother.

Of the million Irish inhabitants who emigrated during this decade, most went to America and England. These were not the first Irish to emigrate, but the countries which hosted them were overwhelmed by this new wave of immigrants. Between 1815 and 1845, almost a third of North America’s immigrants were Irish. Many were young, single, and had a little more money than those rural occupants who would later experience the Great Famine. These earlier immigrants had few technical skills, and their agricultural skills were limited to the spade-culture of potatoes and animal tending. But they were considered to be healthy and strong, and provided cheap casual labor. Some American contractors even recruited Irish labor through newspapers in Dublin, Cork, and Belfast, for the vast construction of railways, canals and roads.

But the refugees in 1847 were half-starved, weak, destitute, and incapable of hard manual labor. Too poor to leave Ireland when the crisis began, these families found passage on overcrowded, fever-ridden ships after a few businessmen discovered they could make money transporting these desperate Irish at bargain group rates. On one of these “coffin ships,” as they came to be known, 20% of the passengers sailing from Cork to Quebec died during or just after the trip.

By 1847, there were 37,000 Irish immigrants in Boston alone, making up a full third of its entire population. In The Immigrants, Oscar Handlin describes them as “a massive lump in the community, undigested and indigestible.” These newcomers had no skills, no tools, no education to become clerks, and the factories where they might have found work a decade earlier had moved out to Lowell, Lawrence, and Waltham. Many men had to be supported by their wives and daughters who worked as domestic servants in hotels and private homes, while they themselves worked sporadically sweeping streets, tending horses, cleaning stables, cutting fish, and performing any other menial work they could find.

For the next several decades, standards of living improved for the Boston Irish, as their sons became plumbers, carpenters, and police, and new Italian immigrants took over the more lowly jobs. But the first Irish immigrants to arrive here occupied terribly overcrowded slums in the North End and Fort Hill, often living in conditions which rivaled the misery they had fled.

England too had received Irish immigrants before the famine, and found that what the Irish lacked in industrial skills they made up for in physical strength. They were considered ideal as steelworkers and dockers to lift heavy cargo onto the ships. But the English must have been terrified by the sight of the destitute men women and children landing in their ports in 1846. Not only were they judging this last wave of immigrants when these people had hit rock bottom financially, physically and spiritually, but the living conditions they had become accustomed to through their poverty shocked even the poorest English. They viewed the Irish slums in disgust, and decided that their overcrowded residences, which out of sheer necessity often housed several families in one or two rooms, provided further evidence that the Irish were breeding uncontrollably and even preferred to live in such squalor. England’s poor also viewed the Irish as potential “knob-sticks” who would drive down already meager wages and this alienated them from those who might at least have understood their poverty.

While some of them went to inland factory towns such as Manchester, many Irish resided in the towns near the port where they landed, such as Lancashire, London, and Liverpool. By 1851, 25% of Liverpool’s population was Irish. Many others joined the English Army, where, until 1870, recruits signed on for life, so those who enlisted were either devoted or desperate. In 1851, 37% of The English Army were Irish.

In general, the Irish poor were considered worse off than displaced English weavers, because most had no regular trade. The only day work offered to the

…the docker, the factory ‘hand’, the general labourer, or the labourers working for craftsmen such as bricklayers, for ever on the edge of a trade without a hope of getting into it.” …some of the worst Victorian poverty was amongst the immigrant Irish, who came in right at the bottom of the labour market to jobs which not even the poorest English, if they could help it, would take on. (Reader, p. 73)

The Irish lived on the absolute fringes of Victorian society either as unskilled day labor or among Henry Mayhew’s costermongers –those street peddlers who, as a group, Mayhew estimated to be 3/8 Irish.

The upper classes of England feared the strain these poor Irish would put on their charities, which, considering their well-established attitude toward their own poor, hardly seems like a legitimate worry. As we’ve discussed in class, from the early 1830s, poverty was no longer viewed as unfortunate, but immoral, and it was commonly believed that anyone with enough determination could be financially solvent. This general attitude was reinforced by philosophers and economists who promoted laissez-faire. Regarding the Irish, Thomas Malthus, a noted English economist, explained the earlier famines and starvation in Ireland as God’s answer to the overpopulation of those who refuse to show restraint, much the same way that some right extremists today explain the AIDS epidemic as the wrath of God against alternative lifestyles. In 1845, Malthus had already died, but his sentiments and explanations for the lot of the poor were alive and well, and served to justify the fear and prejudice of the Irish immigrants on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Irish were stereotyped as drunks and criminals, breeding without restraint and responsible for allowing their own backward ways to impoverish them. With little to eat and few extra clothes, their slovenly appearance was used as proof that they were dirty by nature. In both the United States and England, they were further isolated by their Catholic religion which was considered to be a lack of patriotism in England and a full-fledged religious conspiracy to some of the Brahmins of Boston.


Smith, Woodham. The Great Hunger, New York, 1964.
O Grada, Cormac. The Great Irish Famine, Dublin: MacMillan, 1989.
Lees, Lynn. Exiles in Erin: Irish Migrants in Victorian London, Cornell, 1979.
Reader, W.J. Life in Victorian England, London: B.T.Batsford Ltd., 1964.
Whitehill, Walter Muir. Boston: A Topographical History, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1968.
O’Connor, Thomas H. Bibles, Brahmins, and Bosses, Boston, Trustees of the Boston Public Library, 1991.
Foster, R.F. Modern Ireland 1600-1972, London, Penguin Press, 1988.
Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor, London, Penguin Press, 1985.
Lunn, Kenneth. Hosts, Immigrants, and Minorities: Historical Responses to Newcomers in British Society 1870-1914, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980.