Thursday, December 30, 2010

Questions for Curatorial: A look at forced emigration from Ireland

Curatorial Director Dave answers your a Museum educator's question.

A visitor told me that many of the Irish arrived on the coffin ships because the economy was switching from planting to grazing, and landowners wanted to get rid of the farmers. They would buy them ships passages to attempt to get rid of the farmers’ kids. The landlords didn't want to spend much money, so they bought the tickets on the worst ships. Is this true?

What this visitor has suggested is partly true. Many famine-era Irish immigrants arrived on what were called “coffin ships,” overcrowded and infested with disease. During the worst year of the Great Famine, 1847, 9% of all Irish emigrants bound for the United States died during the voyage.

The British government and many Irish landowners did view the Famine as an opportunity to remake Ireland in an image that conformed to their vision for the island society. This regeneration would be carried out through the transformation of Irish agrarian society using eviction and emigration to consolidate land holdings in the hands of a small number of strong land owners.

As the historian of Irish America, Kevin Kenny, has written: “Given the scale of the catastrophe, remarkably little assistance was offered to potential emigrants. Evictions were frequent, but only rarely were they accompanied by financial assistance to leave the country… The chief form of assistance available to them came not from landlords or the state, but from their own relatives in America.”

Indeed, very few Irish who were forcibly evicted received aid from landowners – approximately 50,000 out of a total 1.5 million that set sail for the United States.

It is possible that this particular visitor is thinking of two specific examples that appear to not have been indicative of the norm. During the Famine, Lord Palmerston forcibly evicted and assisted two thousand tenants from his Sligo estate to emigrate, and the Marquis of Lansdowne did the same for the 3,500 tenants of his estate in County Kerry.

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