Emigration from Connemara, by Gerard Moran

Paper delivered by Dr Gerard Moran lecturer in the Dept of History, NUI Maynooth, at Uncovering Our Connemara Roots, a genealogical conference held in Clifden on 30th May – 1st June 2012.

‘In Search of a Better Way of Life’: Emigration from Connemara in the late Nineteenth Century.

While an estimated eight million people emigrated from Ireland in the nineteenth century there were great regional variations and patterns to the exodus. Connemara society retained many of the pre-Famine features up until the subsistence crisis of 1879-82: an increasing population, the subdivision of holdings and early marriages. The crisis of the late 1870s resulted in a new approach to the perennial problems of poverty and overpopulation and assisted emigration was advocated as a solution by the philanthropists, Fr James Nugent of Liverpool and the Quaker, James Hack Tuke, who visited the region in the Spring of 1880. Both realised the region’s resources were not capable of sustaining a large population and by removing families it would have the dual advantage of consolidating farms into economic units for those who remained, while improving the lives of those who were sent to North America. Both men identified the mid-western states of North America as the most suitable region for settlement because land and employment opportunities were available as the region was being opened up by the railways. In June 1880 Nugent with the co-operation of local Catholic priests sent 329 people to Graceville, Minnesota where land was provided by Bishop John Ireland of St Paul. Their passage fares were paid by the Duchess of Marlborough Relief Committee and private subscriptions. At the same time Tuke advocated the emigration of families from the region and it resulted in the establishment of the ‘Tuke Committee’ in London in March 1882. Its emigration efforts were concentrated on the Clifden area because the local board of guardians were prepared to take out a £2,000 for emigration purposes. The demand for assistance was greater than the resources which the ‘Tuke Committee’ had and while nearly 1,300 were assisted between April-June 1882 many were left behind. Tuke called on the government to provide the funding for a large-scale emigration scheme and £150,000 was allocated in 1883 and 1884 with the ‘Tuke Committee’ administering the schemes in Connemara. Over 6,000 people had their passage paid to North America in the early 1880s representing about 12% of Connemara’s population. Families were mainly assisted with at least one member having English and a high number of bread winners in each group. Only those with friends and relations in the United States were assisted to that jurisdiction, the rest being sent to Canada where the colonial authorities were prepared to provide help when they arrived at their ports. While the assisted emigration schemes ended in 1884 due to opposition from Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary and the Catholic bishops of the west, it initiated a chain migration process with at least another 500 emigrating by the end of the decade, their passage being paid by the Tuke emigrants. Remittances were also sent back by the emigrants: by 1890 £8,000 was sent back to the Clifden area which was used to supplement local incomes. The assisted emigration schemes initiated a migration process which continued into the twentieth century.

Dr Gerard Moran

Dept of History,

NUI Maynooth

Further Reading:

Gerard Moran, Sending Out Ireland’s Poor: Assisted Emigration to North America in the Nineteenth Century (Dublin, 2004),

Gerard Moran, ‘From Connacht to North America: State-aide emigration from Galway to North America in the 1880s’ in Gerard Moran (ed), Galway: History and Society (Dublin, 1996)

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