Departure - During Famine
Oral tradition has much to say about emigration during the famine. Preparations would often occupy whole communities for a considerable period. Where it could be managed, supplies of potato or of meal would be accumulated. Oatcake was the usual food taken; a week would be spent by neighbors & friends in making it; it would be baked three times until it was of a slate-like hardness. Emigrants would also take bedding where possible, & many would carry a sod of turf. The scenes at their departure would be heartrending. One old man in the district of the Rosses, Co. Donegal, gave a typical account which he heard in his youth. He told how before the famine people of this district were able to make a living on their poor holdings, but how the famine first uprooted them. Emigration being a new experience, people felt it more keenly. On the night before the departure, people would crowd into the house of the emigrating family, & would try to cheer them by making forced merriment until morning; but for all that the house would be "as sad as a wake-house." When the time for departure came, the emigrants would make ready and would bid farewell to the company, which would accompany them to where the car for Derry was waiting - "Some of the women would fall feinting when they saw any person going; others would hang onto the car to keep out the departing ones; but when it would go, the whole lot, men & women, would raise a cry of grief that would wrest an echo from the peaks."
[- no citation given for this entry]
After the 1845 failure & a hard winter, emigration started in the spring of
1846 - the volume was not large, [although] observers agreed had the means been
available more would have gone. These were mainly small farmers whose
resources had not been entirely exhausted &, fearing the future, decided to
leave before poverty engulfed them.
1846 - (fall) "If the next crop fails us," declared a peasant, "it is the end of the world."
It failed. A letter of Father Matthew records the suddenness of the disaster.
Traveling one day from Cork to Dublin, he saw potato patches in bloom.
Returning one week later he saw the same fields "one wide waste of putrifying
vegetation. In many places the wretched people were seated on the fences of
their decaying gardens, wringing their hands & wailing bitterly the destruction
that had left them foodless."
1847 - Probably few of those who decided on emigration in 1847 reasoned consciously
regarding their state. Their impulse was merely to get away - a curse rested on
the land. Anticipating heavy traffic, the ship companies raised the rates from 3
to 5 pounds. Only the well-off could afford this. For the poorer sort
opportunities abounded in every Irish harbor. Wherever an American or
Canadian schooner landed its cargo a bargain might be made, & on such vessels
they set out from home.
- Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Mig., p. 244-51
Throughout the spring & early summer the village streets & country roads bustled with activity. A few carts, probably lent by philanthropic neighbors, helped transport the baggage from home to the sea. Most of the wayfarers found no difficulty in carrying their meager belongings on their shoulders. On every hand crowds of neighbors, often totaling hundreds, streamed toward the ports, where they camped in confusion upon the quays, contested for passage, & finally embarked upon the great adventure.
- Ibid., p. 250
"The critical years were 1846 & 1848. In both the potato failed completely. These hammer-blows struck home so surely because they were accompanied by disheartening forces of every kind: death by starvation & great physical suffering close at hand; the protracted, seemingly endless struggle against the wretched harvests; rising taxes & fixed rents; the partial collapse of ordinary commerce, especially in the cities depending on the provision trades... The failure was not merely economic, not merely the long-prophesied disintegration of an iniquitous, top-heavy system of land tenure, which denied anything like a tolerable standard of living to more than half the entire population. It was the failure of morale as well. The mood prevailing from 1848 onwards seems to differ from the earlier terror. It is marked by a note of doom, an air of finality, a sense that a chapter in history has come to a close. This mood explains many of the peculiarities of the famine movement, not least the bitterness & sense of wrong which so many emigrants carried with them to the New World.
- The Great Famine, p. 329
One might almost say that the potato blights of 1845-49 caused a volte face in the general attitude to emigration. By relaxing the peasant's desperate hold upon his land and home, they destroyed the psychological barrier which had forbidden his going for so long... He now looked upon emigration as a possibility, as a genuine alternation to maintaining the struggle against such fearful odds.
- Ibid., p. 331
The potato blights of 1845-49 were a catastrophe which broke the Irish peasant's tenacious attachment to the soil & convinced many of the futility of further struggle against hopeless odds. As an Irish peer remarked at the time, the famine reversed the peasant's former attitude toward emigration, hitherto considered a banishment, it was now regarded as a happy release. The prevailing mood of despair gripped not only the laborer & cotter, but even those who in famine Ireland passed for substantial farmers. Thus all classes were represented in the million and a half people who left Ireland in the decade that followed. The panic-stricken flight from hunger in 1847 was followed by a more deliberate & sustained movement that continued even after the return of relative prosperity in the early 1850s.
- Maldwyn A. Jones, Am. Imm., p. 109
So it was in their various ways they decided to leave. Their deep feelings about the familiar village & the gently sloping fields were overborne by the fact of failure & the fear of further defeat. Ireland was beautiful & damned. There was no life for them there. They had to go.
- Wm. V. Shannon, The Am. Irish, p. 26
Did the fact that they were coming to another island help? [- HC]
The famine was the prime mover of the period, & many of the laborers & cotters who left did so because hunger or the workhouse ____ them at home. Their departure meant the abandonment of numerous patches of ground upon which they had barely managed to eke out their subsistence.
This was also a period of widespread forced clearance. Irish landlords, long distressed by the uneconomic practice of excessive subdivision indulged in by their tenants, & anxious also under the impact of the repeal of the corn laws to convert their lands into pasture as rapidly as possible, saw in the calamity of the famine an opportunity to consolidate their holdings. The large-scale clearances which they carried out swelled the emigrant flood.
- Franklin D. Scott, ed., World Migration in Modern Times, p. 27-28 (Wab.)
Early in 1847 the roads to Irish ports were literally thronged with immigrant families. Sometimes strong men actually battled with each other at the ports of embarkation to secure passage on ships entirely inadequate to provide transportation to all who wished to go to Am..
- Carle Wittke, We Who Built Am., p. 1321
Departure - Embarkation
Because of the difficulties & expense of overland travel in the early 19th cent., emigrants generally preferred to embark at the ports nearest their homes. This accounts for the popularity with immigrants of the timber ships which offered passage from a score of Irish ports. It explains, too, why emigrants were regularly to be found traveling on tiny brigs. With the improvement of internal communications the trade gradually concentrated in larger ports... Liverpool became the main port of departure for the Irish. [Did this apply to Aranmore? Roads were still primitive in middle of century.]2
- Maldwyn A. Jones, Am. Immigration, p. 105
Departure - General Preparations
For carrying supplies, A. C. Buchanan (1828) advised "a strong deal chest in the shape of a sailor's box," broader at the bottom than the top, in order to increase its steadiness on board ship...Strong linen or sacking bags or baskets were useful for potatoes, but oatmeal & flour should be packed in a strong barrel or flax-seed cask, &, in addition to the usual hoops, "two of iron," as well as "a strong lid & a padlock," should be used.
Another writer emphasizes the care needed to prevent loss: "All packages should not only have locks but should be kept locked, & the keys taken out. This cannot be too carefully attended to, as loss of articles on shipboard are not infrequent, & such losses unfortunately cannot be supplied."
- Edwin C. Guillet, The Great Mig., p. 50
His friends rallied round to bid him Godspeed. It may be that the women of the village had brought as contributions a supply of hard oaten cakes - the journey-cakes of the Irish emigrant - baked & baked until each one "was like a slate there, and it was as good when they got there as when they left." Or a collection of potatoes had been made for him in the townland.
- Patton, To the Golden Door, p. 142
1 Carl Wittke, We Who Built America: The Saga of the Immigrant. Cleveland, OH: Press of Western Reserve University, 1964.
2 Brackets in original.