The Irish in America


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The Famine: Views from Ireland and Abroad

“The Coffin trade is the most flourishing one at present here.”

This quote appeared in the January 8, 1847 edition of the Cork Examiner.  Steve Taylor of Vassar College has compiled a fascinating collection of newspapers, illustrations, and other items from Irish and British sources pertaining to the Great Famine.  The collection, Views of the Famine, is available online and provides a glimpse into how the press was reporting the crisis, and what people were doing (or not doing) to cope with the disaster.

"The causes of emigration in Ireland." 13 January 1849 (from Views of the Famine)

The collection includes excerpts from the Cork Examiner during 1846-47.  The weekly reports of death by starvation and disease and a pervasive sense of hopelessness can be difficult to read.  Entire families perished, their lifeless bodies found on the dirt floors of make-shift huts, post-mortem exams showing not even a trace of food in their stomachs and intestines.  Columns reporting over-capacity in the workhouses appear alongside advertisements for steerage passage to North America costing more than most Irish could ever afford.

On September 1, 1847, a column Emigrant Disasters ran in the Cork Examiner.  The column explains why the journeys of emigrants bound for the United States were more “successful” than those destined for Canada.  The major difference was the ships used to transport emigrants to Canada were timber ships, vessels utterly unsuitable for passengers.  The Examiner explains: “…less attention to be paid to their [ship’s] sea-worthiness, since they are laden half the way with what can’t sink, and the other with a freight, which is thought no loss if it do.”

The passage to Canada (British America) was cheaper and the preferred route for much of the “assisted emigration” that took place during the Famine years.  Owners of the large estates in Ireland who favored a more “humane” method of getting rid of tenants, chose to send them to Canada rather than merely evict them from the land.

The destination for many of these emigrant ships was New Brunswick, Canada.  The New Brunswick Archive offers a collection of online databases pertaining to the Irish who came to Canada.  Specifically, there are some useful resources related to assisted emigration.

The Fitzwilliam Estate Emigration Books 1848-1856 lists the tenants evicted from the Coolattin estate of Lord Fitzwilliam in County Wicklow, Ireland.  The archive provides an informative introduction, a narrative by Jim Rees providing context, a finding aid, and a transcript, complete with genealogical information.  Quite an interesting and useful tool.

The New Brunswick Archive also has a collection of letters, transcribed and available online.  I will address some of these letters in my next post, but I would like to turn your attention to a group of letters, Letters from Irish Emigrants and others, put in by Sir Robert Gore Booth Bart: [1846-1849].  Click here and scroll to the last group to read these letters.  Sir Robert owned an estate in Sligo.  These letters speak to the conditions and challenges faced by the Irish in the New World.

For more information on the Famine Irish in New Brunswick, read this essay by Dr. Stewart Donovan of St. Thomas University, In the Wake of Dark Passage: Irish Famine Migration to New Brunswick.

Just a couple more examples of the resources available online to help us better understand the Irish experience in America (and Canada, too!)

Resources:

Views of the Famine

New Brunswick Irish Portal

Irish Canadian Cultural Association


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Diaries and letters and newspapers…oh my!

Where can you find these treasures, in addition to many other historic research sources? Online at DIPPAM – Documenting Ireland: Parliament, People, and Migration.  This is one of the coolest websites out there for anyone interested in Irish studies, emigration, and history.  DIPPAM is a project of Queen’s University, Belfast and several other entities.  They describe themselves like this:

DIPPAM is an online virtual archive of documents and sources relating to the history of Ireland, and its migration experience from the 18th to the late 20th centuries.

DIPPAM consists of three databases – Enhanced Parliamentary Papers on Ireland-EPPI, Voices of Migration and Return-VMR, and Irish Emigration Database-IED.  Let’s take a closer look at the IED.

The IED is a collection of over 33,000 documents (with new material added regularly) covering the 32 counties of Ireland, with the majority dated from 1820 to 1920.  If you relish the thrill of perusing old archived collections in person, browsing this virtual archive could become a new favorite destination.  Why not take advantage of the neatly transcribed diaries and letters, and set aside the microfilm reader for a bit – all the documents in this collection are available to view online.

Click here to read the general guidelines for searching the IED.  You are able to search for a specific term, or use the categories on the left side to define parameters and browse the fascinating collection of documents.

Here is an example of a search I did on the emigrant letters in the collection.  I began by restricting the “Document Types” to Letters (Emigrants).  Next I entered Minnesota in the “Search” field.  This search resulted in 14 emigrant letters with some mention of Minnesota.

I selected the following return:

18-10-1884    Thomas McCann, Minneapolis, Minnesota to Mary McKeown, Belfast.

Mr. McCann is writing to his sister in Ireland from Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is located in the north central portion of the United States.  Most of the letter talks about the McCann siblings who are scattered throughout the US and Ireland.  The pattern of Irish emigration is evident in this letter; one at a time the siblings made their way to the US, some via Scotland, joining relatives already established in American cities.  Once in the US, some stayed in New York while others moved west to Madison, WI, Minneapolis, MN, and beyond.

…dear sister
Maggie is well and likes this
country she would not go back to old
ireland for any money she came to
Uncle James from New York and stoped [stopped?]
there last winter so she do not think
of the old Country any more she sayes [says?]
she had to work to [too?] hard when she
was there and had nothing for it
she is now working in a hotel in
Madison near my uncles house but
I am 2 hundred and fifty miles furder [further?]
west I left my uncles last spring and
came west I am now 7 hundred miles
from New York so you may think I am quite
away from the place I was Born in
old Ireland but I am quite happey [happy?]
sometimes I never think I was in old
Ireland still I never think of it
sometimes for I do not entend [intend?] ever
to see it I am still working at my
trade and always has plenty to do
I spent quite a little some [sum?] on maggie
to take her here she cost me forty
seven dollers [dollars?] to take her from
Ireland to here but I do not care
for that it makes me happey [happy?] to
hear from her and that is all I want
from her sometimes she do not think
worth her while to write me a few
lines to let me know how she is getting
along well…

Click here for the full text from ied.dippam.ac.uk

Maybe I am cynical, but I note a hint of a passive-aggressive tone when Mr. McCann refers to his sister Maggie.  Glad to see that was alive and well in the 19th century.  Also interesting are the attitudes he expresses toward his homeland – more practical than sentimental, but rather sad.  Reading this letter we can understand a bit more about how it must have felt to have to leave home and have your family dismantled.

Start browsing: click here to go directly to the Irish Emigration Database.  What else do you have to do this weekend?