The Famine merely acted as a catalyst

A glance in a phone book almost anywhere in the world, will inevitably lead to the recognition of Irish surnames. Spreading them-selves across the globe, emigration has been a mainstay in Irish life since at least the eighteenth century. 1 Roger Swift describes it as ‘the great fact of Irish social history from the early 19th century’. 2 It has seen the spread of the Irish throughout the globe. The impact of Irish emigration on the world has been so vast that at census time in the United States of America, 43 million people state their ethnic origin as Irish.

3 As a result of such widespread emigration, Saint Patrick’s Day is now a major celebration not just in Ireland, but across the globe. Many view the Great Famine as the cause of this widespread emigration, but the suggestion that the Famine of 1845-51 brought about a fundamental change in the pattern of emigration from Ireland can only be thought of as an exaggerated one. While it did indeed perpetuate the tradition of emigration, it did not markedly transform it. The transformation that did however occur can be seen as the transformation of traditional Irish attitudes towards it.

According to Tim Pat Coogan, the pattern of Irish emigration began in the sixteenth Century. 4 The invasion of Ireland under Elizabeth I, and the attempt to spread the Anglican Reformation, may be said to have started Catholic Irish emigration. 5 Wars in Ireland, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw waves of emigration from Ireland to Catholic Spain, Portugal and France. In addition, Cromwell transported several thousands from Ireland to Virginia and the West Indies. Despite this, it wasn’t until the early eighteenth century that emigration became common practice.

Low-level migration to North America from Ulster occurred throughout the eighteenth century until it was interrupted by the Napoleonic wars (1793-1815). A combination of reasons led to Ulster Presbyterians making up a large proportion of the first waves of emigrants: rising rents, falling trade in the linen industry and discrimination against them by Anglicans. An economic recession and food shortages (in 1816-17) coincided with the end of conflict, and this teamed with wartime suppression of emigration, stimulated a renewed flight of both Catholic and Protestant alike.

It is argued by some that the end of the war saw the development of new characteristics of emigration (the development of sustained mass migration, the beginning of a cheap emigration trade, the first wide-spread signs of poor migration) that were to shape the pattern for the rest of the century. 6 Indeed, in the years prior to the famine as many as 100,000 Irish had left for the USA and Canadian shores annually. 7 During the pre-famine period it was essentially those with the resources, the will, the information, and the aspiration to move that sought a new life abroad.

While many foreign visitors condemned the lifestyle of the Irish poor, they were in fact amongst the tallest, healthiest and most fertile population in Europe. 8 The potato diet, particularly when supplemented with buttermilk, was highly nutritious. Further, as a subsistence crop, potatoes had a good record of reliability. Irish dependence on the potato had been growing since the early eighteenth century. Described as a ‘potato economy’9, the staple foodstuff of the labouring poor by the mid 1840’s was undeniably the potato.

This dependence on one specific crop for food production meant that any prolonged disruption to the supply would result in disaster, and those primarily affected would be the cottiers who formed the bulk of Ireland’s 8. 2 million population (in 1845). In the years 1845 to 1851, this disaster did occur with the spread of a potato blight throughout Ireland. The fungus responsible for the blight also spread through Europe and America, but nowhere else did the damage even closely match that caused in Ireland. Starvation and disease caused by the famine claimed 1 million lives, and stimulated mass emigration which totalled 1.

5 (although some estimate as high as 2. 5 million)10 million between 1845 and 1855. 11 The Famine merely acted as a catalyst, and the trend of heavy emigration that had begun before the famine, and was taken to extremes during the famine ‘in a huge shoaling out of panic-stricken people’,12 continued in the years after Ireland had recovered from the potato blight. Moreover, the patterns of emigration that had been established as early as the 1820’s, were not changed by the famine, rather, they were furthered.

13 A particular example worthy of note is the migration of poor emigrants. Many historians argue that the famine is the first instance in Irish history of the emigration of the poor members of Irish society, and that it was only those who were reasonably well off who emigrated up to that point. This however, was not the case. While it may have been primarily those who were more financially secure who undertook emigration before the famine, an increasing amount of people on the lower rungs of society had begun to emigrate in search of a better life.