Migration: Emigration from the Seventeenth Century to 1845

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Emigration from the Seventeenth Century to 1845

The number of Irish who emigrated prior to the Great Famine (1845–1852) is uncertain and disputed. Recent scholarship (e.g., by Cullen and Wokeck) has revised steeply downward older estimates (e.g., by Dickson) of eighteenth-century migration to North America. The higher numbers remain credible, however, and other historians (e.g., Bríc and Kirkham) suggest that even these may be too low.

During the 1600s migration to Ireland exceeded emigration from Ireland. Perhaps 250,000 English, Welsh, and Scottish Protestants settled in Ireland (Canny, Smout), whereas about 50,000 Catholic soldiers and others left the island, primarily for Europe (Cullen), and perhaps as many again emigrated to the Americas. Most of that last group were Catholics—primarily indentured servants, rebels, or "vagabonds"—transported to the British West Indies. Smaller numbers of Catholic servants and convicts disembarked in the Chesapeake region, and a few seasonal migrants from east Munster—servants and laborers on the Grand Banks fisheries—settled permanently in Newfoundland. Also, the 1680s and 1690s witnessed the start of Irish Protestant migration to North America, as Ulster Presbyterians migrated to the Chesapeake, while Irish Quakers and Baptists sailed to Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The frequent wars, famines, and economic crises of the seventeenth century were the principal causes of these migrations.

Between 1700 and the American Revolution, movement from Ireland greatly exceeded migration to Ireland, and North America prevailed among overseas destinations. In the period 1700 to 1775 perhaps 25,000 Britons settled in Ireland (Canny, Landsman). By contrast, some 88,000 military and nonmilitary migrants left Ireland for Europe or Britain or to work for the British East India Company (Cullen). Moreover, at least 150,000 Irish migrated to North America, although some historians (Cullen, Wokeck) suggest that they numbered merely 60,000. Of the migrants to the New World, about three-fourths left from Ulster, and the remainder from commercialized and anglicized areas in southern Ireland. Perhaps 60 percent of the total were Ulster Presbyterians (or Scots-Irish); a fifth to a fourth were Catholics from both Ulster and southern Ireland, and (despite continued Quaker migration) most of the remainder were Anglicans, members of the legally established Church of Ireland.

Between 1700 and 1775 Catholic settlement in Newfoundland increased and migration to the West Indies diminished. However, Catholics and Anglicans were relatively reluctant to migrate to America—the former because legal discrimination in Britain's colonies reinforced archaic Catholic notions that emigration (at least to Protestant countries) was tantamount to exile or banishment, the latter because of their privileged position in Ireland and the empire. Although indentured servitude enabled Ireland's poor to obtain free transatlantic passages, the great majority of Irish Catholics—still monolingual Irish-speakers—were insulated from America's attractions as promoted by newspapers and shipping agents. Most Catholics and Anglicans who did cross the Atlantic were subsumed in the Scots-Irish migration, and the dearth of priests and chapels in the colonies promoted the absorption of Catholic emigrants into Presbyterian sociocultural networks. Thus nineteenth-century America's "Scotch-Irish" community would include many Protestants whose ancestors had been Catholics or Anglicans.

R. J. Dickson identified four major phases of Ulster Presbyterian migration to prerevolutionary America: 1717 to 1720, when several clergymen led entire congregations to New England; 1725 to 1729, when some 8,000 Scots-Irish disembarked at or near Philadelphia and, in lesser numbers, at Charleston; 1730 to 1769, when perhaps 70,000 Presbyterians left Ulster, primarily for the Delaware River; and 1770 to 1775, when Ulster emigration, mostly to Philadelphia and to the Deep South, peaked at 40,000 or more. Voyages from Ulster typically lasted eight to ten weeks, and the costs of passage and provisions ranged between 9 pounds and 3 pounds 5 shillings. Many Presbyterian farmers could afford to transport entire families, but most Protestant artisans and laborers—and nearly all Catholic migrants—emigrated as indentured servants, bound to labor in America for three to five years in return for their passages. (Yet another 25,000 Irish migrants, mostly Catholics, were convicts sent to the southern colonies.) Most of the Scots-Irish and others initially settled in the middle colonies. However, from the 1730s through the early 1770s many of them, with their American-born offspring, moved south down the Great Path into the Virginia, Carolina, and Georgia backcountries, where they met others who had disembarked at Charleston or Savannah. By 1790 the Irish-born and their descendants comprised a fourth of the whites in Pennsylvania, more than a fourth of those in South Carolina and Georgia, and perhaps a third of those in Kentucky and Tennessee (Doyle).

In the years 1700 to 1775 Scots-Irish departures often were responses to specific crises—for example, to sharp rent increases, famines, and depressions in Ulster's linen industry. However, Quaker and Scots-Irish emigration quickly became routine and self-perpetuating, spurred by letters from America. There was also a religious and political dimension to early Scots-Irish emigration, as their spokesmen often claimed that they were fleeing Anglican "oppression." Most emigrants were motivated chiefly by America's cheap land and high wages; Presbyterians' resentments were real, coloring a communal exodus from what their clergy called "Egyptian bondage."

After the American Revolution, in the period 1783 to 1815, at least 150,000 migrants sailed to the United States, a large but unknown number settled in Britain, and 25,000 or more left home to serve in the British army and navy. Also, in 1791 British vessels began shipping Irish convicts to New South Wales, and even Irish migration to the United States was not entirely voluntary, as it included about 2,500 Protestants and Catholics who fled the suppression of the United Irish rebellion in 1798. Most transatlantic migrants were still Ulster Presbyterians, although scholars (e.g., Bríc) discern a rise in Catholic departures from southern Ireland. The 1783 to 1815 emigration may be seen as a continuation of the migration of the early 1770s or as a harbinger of the larger exodus of 1815 to 1845; evidence exists to support either perspective. Evidence on the social character of the emigrants is equally mixed: after 1783 the rapid decline of indentured servitude curtailed pauper emigration, yet while some observers reported an increase of skilled and propertied migrants, others complained that they represented "a very inferior class." Likewise, although most new arrivals followed their predecessors to the U.S. frontier, there is evidence of early Irish-American urbanization and political organization in cities such as Philadelphia (still the major debarkation port) and New York City. Finally, although most of the migration between 1783 and 1815 was crisis-driven—by economic depression in 1783 to 1785, by near-famine in 1799 to 1801, and by political upheavals and high wartime taxes from 1793 on—many emigrants followed paths blazed by kinsmen who had departed prior to 1776. Surely, overseas migration would have been even greater had not the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars precluded many departures after 1793, and had not the 1803 British Passenger Act impeded lower-class emigration by raising passage costs.

In the prefamine era of 1815 to 1845 most of the "modern" or "classic" patterns of Irish emigration, especially to North America, were established. In the three decades prior to the Great Famine, between 800,000 and one million Irish moved to North America, and perhaps at least another half-million, unable to afford transatlantic fares, went to Great Britain. At least 35,000 more, mostly convicts, disembarked in Australia; others went to serve the British empire; and a few settled in Argentina and elsewhere. Altogether, the 1815 to 1845 emigrants were roughly twice as numerous as those who left Ireland in the two preceding centuries.

Despite a surge in departures between 1815 and 1816 and the dampening effects of the U.S. financial panics of 1819 and 1837, overall Irish migration to the New World increased steadily (from 20,000 in 1826 to 65,000 in 1832, and to a record 92,000 in 1842). Before the 1830s a majority of emigrants were Protestants—mostly Presbyterians from Ulster, although many Anglicans left southern Ireland. However, Catholic departures from both Ulster and the southern provinces steadily increased, and from the mid-1830s Catholics—primarily from the most commercialized and anglicized areas in south Ulster, Leinster, east Munster, and east Connacht—comprised a growing majority. The social complexion of the migration changed accordingly: Numbers of poor and unskilled emigrants rose steadily, outnumbering farmers and artisans by the prefamine decade. Alongside agricultural laborers were many noninheriting sons and daughters of middling and poor tenant farmers who recently had adopted impartible inheritance—a custom whereby only one son inherited land and only one daughter received a dowry. This custom became universal after the famine. Male emigrants remained a slight majority, but departures by young, single women steadily increased. Most prefamine emigrants traveled alone or with siblings, not as members of multigenerational families. Growing numbers (a majority among Catholics) financed their passages with remittances or prepaid passage tickets sent by kinfolk in the United States. Of those who sailed directly to the United States, in voyages lasting six to eight weeks, most now sailed from Liverpool, not from Irish ports as formerly, and most disembarked at New York City rather than Philadelphia.

However, most prefamine migrants landed in British North America rather than the United States. In the 1820s British passenger laws and a growing timber trade between Canada and Britain reduced passage costs to the Maritimes or Quebec to merely 1 or 2 pounds, compared with fares to New York of 4 to 10 pounds. Fares equalized in the 1830s, however, and between 1838 and 1844 Irish migrants to the United States outnumbered those to Canada by 202,000 to 150,000. Moreover, despite British and Canadian inducements, many emigrants who landed in British America, particularly poor Catholics, quickly migrated to the United States for greater opportunities. Most prefamine emigrants to the United States (and the great majority of those who remained in Canada) pursued farming, primarily in the states/territories as far east as Ohio as well as states/territories farther west, such as Illinois and Wisconsin (rather than in the South, as formerly). However, growing numbers engaged in semiskilled and unskilled occupations on public works (such as the Erie Canal) and in construction, dock laboring, and (for women) domestic service—work located primarily in northern seaports and industrial towns. Likewise, Irish migrants to Britain concentrated overwhelmingly in urban industrial centers and on public-works sites.

The magnitude of prefamine emigration reflected the contrast between U.S. economic attractions and Irish poverty and population pressure. Between 1790 and 1844 Ireland's population grew from about four million to perhaps eight and one-half million, and from 1815 the island suffered severe economic depression and dislocation. Economic crises following the Napoleonic wars brought rapid deindustrialization in most of Ulster and southern Ireland, as rural and (outside Belfast) urban spinning, weaving, and other crafts contracted or collapsed, unable to compete with British manufactures. Consequently, most Irish country people became totally dependent on agriculture in a period when prices for farm products and wages for agricultural laborers declined steeply, when hard-pressed landlords and commercial farmers strove to rationalize their holdings by evicting "superfluous" tenants, subtenants, and laborers, and when fierce competition for land kept rent levels (especially for subtenants and laborers) exceptionally high. By the eve of the Great Famine 70 percent of Ireland's rural families lived in or barely above poverty, largely or entirely dependent for subsistence on their annual potato crops. Another consequence was increased social, religious, and political strife, which only spurred more emigration, as Catholics and Protestants competed violently for economic advantage. The rural poor joined secret agrarian societies to defend traditional economic "rights" against the agents of capitalism; and Daniel O'Connell mobilized Catholic peasants' grievances in a series of political crusades against Ireland's Protestant Ascendancy. Even had the Great Famine not occurred, emigration would have continued to rise in a country whose people were, after the Act of Union in 1800, powerless to shape economic or social policies to Irish advantage. Despite Irish-speaking Catholics' traditional reluctance to emigrate (already dissipating as a result of anglicization as well as desperation), increasing numbers of Irish people now focused their hopes for economic improvement or survival overseas.

SEE ALSO American Wakes; Diaspora: The Irish in Australia; Diaspora: The Irish in Britain; Diaspora: The Irish in North America; Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Great Famine; Migration: Seasonal Migration; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Population Explosion; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Rural Life: 1690 to 1845; Subdivision and Subletting of Holdings; Town Life from 1690 to the Early Twentieth Century


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