Archive for 'Irish American'

English: Plaque in Waterford, Ireland honoring .

Plaque in Waterford, Ireland honoring . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A large percentage of modern Newfoundland residents can trace their heritage to Irish ancestry. Throughout the island, you’ll find that surnames, culture, and even accents speak strongly to the largely Irish heritage. Some have even called Newfoundland “the other Ireland.”

Irish migration to Newfoundland began as early as the 17th century; however it only really reached its peak by the late 18th and early 19th century. Beginning in the 1670s, English ships began calling in ports along the southern coast of Ireland. The ships would stock up on salt pork, beef, cheese, butter, and other foodstuffs for the Newfoundland fisheries and the hundreds of fishermen travelling there.

As the English fisheries expanded in subsequent decades, they also began to recruit labourers as they stopped in ports along the Irish coast. Ireland was replete with young, poor men who jumped at the opportunity for employment abroad – even if only for a season. Most of the Irishmen had little experience in the fishing industry; however, they found work aplenty as agricultural workers and servants for fishing merchants.

Since the English vessels charted their route along the south eastern coast of Ireland, most of these migrants originated from the immediate region. The majority had roots in Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny, Cork, and Tipperary.

For many years there was much “to-ing and fro-ing”, as workers migrated each year to work at the fisheries. This kept a strong link between the two islands, and allowed the Newfoundland Irish to keep up with the political and cultural developments back home.

Approximate location of the 'Irish Shore' on t...

Approximate location of the ‘Irish Shore’ on the Avalon Peninsula. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These early migrants would leave Irish ports in the spring, and work on plantations or in the cod fisheries for a season. Some stayed longer, putting in two summers and a winter before returning home. While a few chose to settle in permanently, these were hugely outnumbered by the seasonal migrants.

By the early 1700s, the Irish workers had grown fairly experienced in the fishing industry, and were becoming an increasingly important part of the business. The fisheries had seen a decline in English labourers due to war, so the ship masters and merchants had naturally turned to the ready force of Irish workmen.

Each year, the number of seasonal migrants increased. Some workers tucked away money season after season until they were able to become planters themselves – and they in turn began recruiting additional Irish labourers. By the 1770s and 1780s, over 5000 men passed through Irish ports each year, headed for Newfoundland fisheries.

In time, the fishing industry expanded to become a year-round resident operation. As the old migratory fishing patterns collapsed in 1790, so did much of the seasonal migration. The temporary migration quickly evolved into permanent emigration as families settled and formed strong Irish communities.

Irish migration to Newfoundland peaked in the 19th century, as approximately 35,000 Irish migrants made the voyage. Unlike Ireland at the time, Newfoundland was experiencing an age of prosperity, offering an attractive alternative for many who remained in the Old Country. By the 1840s, nearly 50% of Newfoundland’s population was made up of Irish residents.

English: Immigrants entering the United States...

Immigrants entering the United States through Ellis Island, the main immigrant entry facility of the United States from 1892 to 1954. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An Italian immigrant was quoted as saying: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, found out three things: First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all: and third, I was expected to pave them.” This sentiment was echoed by many who made the migratory voyage with high hopes, only to be disappointed upon arrival.

We hear many success stories of immigrants who left on a one-way trip and never looked back. We must consider though, that out of the hundreds of thousands who successfully emigrated from the UK and made new homes abroad, there were many who gave up and returned home. We have put much discussion into the decision to migrate; however, in this article, we look at some of the reasons that caused a large number of immigrants to return home.

How Frequent are Return Migrations?

Return migration can be somewhat difficult to measure. Some immigrants returned home to stay, while others returned to their home countries temporarily, only to emigrate once more.

Most countries also kept poor records on those leaving the country, focusing instead on those arriving. The US, for example, only started recording departing passengers in 1908. Even those statistics can be fairly misleading, as the records only state that an immigrant is leaving. No mention is made of whether the departure is permanent or temporary.

Prior to the 19th century, return migration was far less frequent. Travel was expensive, time-consuming and dangerous, and immigrants tended to settle since returning was so difficult. In the late 19th century, trips home became more frequent, and by the early 20th century, we begin to see clear statistical patterns of return migration.

An immigrant Punjabi family in America. c. 1900s

An immigrant Punjabi family in America. c. 1900s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For example, some scholars have estimated that a full third of American immigrants returned home. During certain periods, such as the Great Depression, return trips were even higher.

Interestingly, however, immigrants from the UK had a fairly low return rate compared to many other nationalities. English immigrants returned at a rate of about 10.4%, while only 6.3% of Irish immigrants ever returned home.

Why Did Immigrants Return Home?

Reasons for return are almost as varied as the immigrants themselves. Some went with high hopes and gave up when those hopes were not realized. Others never intended to immigrate permanently in the first place.

“Birds of Passage”, for example, traveled purely for economic reasons. They intended to work long enough to make a bit of money so that they could better their lives back home.

Others returned due to family obligations. Many women emigrated to earn enough money for a dowry, and once that objective was achieved, they returned home. Others were forced to return home to care for parents or siblings they had left behind.

Others still had been unwilling emigrants in the first place. Shipped off as indigents, many in this group simply returned home as soon as they were able to earn passage.

Finally, a great number of immigrants were just unhappy in their new country. Instead of the easy life they had hoped for, the immigrants were faced with struggles and hostility. They looked back on their home with nostalgia and decided that perhaps things were better there after all.

There has long been much coming and going between Ireland and England. In fact, historians note that a scattering of Irish names existed in Liverpool as early as 1378. However, it was when Liverpool gained prominence as a port city that it became the primary access point for Irish immigrants as they made their way to England.

Liverpool waterfront

Liverpool waterfront (Photo credit: djmcaleese)

The Irish population in England grew gradually through the 19th century. Many poor labourers, drovers and artisans emigrated due to economic reasons. They weren’t the only ones, however. Middle class Irish moved in and made their mark on the history of Liverpool. Michael Whitty, for example, founded the Liverpool Fire Brigade and the Liverpool Daily Post. William Brown was another prominent figure, who financed the building of the public library.

But the situation took a drastic downturn during the tragic Potato Famine which stretched from1846 to 1852. A succession of the worst potato crop failures led to massive poverty and starvation in Ireland. The potato was a staple food of the poor, especially in winter, and the loss of the crops was devastating. Over one million people lost their lives over the course of the famine.

The Irish escaped in droves, with approximately 1.3 million immigrants passing through the port in Liverpool. Though a substantial Irish population already existed in England, the enormous influx deeply impacted the city of Liverpool.

English: Irish immigrants in Kansas City, Miss...

English: Irish immigrants in Kansas City, Missouri in c.1909 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many immigrants saw Liverpool as a stepping stone on their way to the United States; however, a large number ended up staying on, making their homes in Liverpool. By the end of the famine in 1851, there were some 90,000 Irish born and living in Liverpool. In fact, the Irish immigrants made up about 25 percent of the town’s population.

Those that stayed in Liverpool gravitated toward established Irish communities. The Irish community developed predominantly around St. Anthony’s Church in Liverpool. Further Catholic churches quickly sprung up throughout the 19th century, providing a ballast for the droves of Irish immigrants.

Unfortunately, the Irish who arrived in Liverpool were starving, weak and extremely vulnerable. Certain groups sprung up almost immediately and found an easy livelihood taking the little money the immigrants possessed upon arriving on the Mersey docks. Many of the Irish immigrants quickly moved on; however, those who stayed near the docks were at great risk and were often preyed upon by the unsavoury characters.

Conditions worsened as the enormous volume of immigrants quickly exceeded the available housing and employment. The sanitary system was taxed to its limit – as was the Poor Law system. Liverpool taxpayers quickly became disgruntled, feeling that the immigrants were overburdening the Poor Law system.

Many Irish workers were forced to take low-paid, labour-intense jobs at the docks, processing plants, in the chemical industries, and as warehouse and construction workers. Irish women found even fewer opportunities, and were relegated to low-level jobs like hawking box chips and crushed sandstone residue.

To compound matters, typhus, dysentery and cholera swept through the population with epidemics so severe that floating hospitals and fever sheds were built along the Mersey. The overcrowded living quarters were breeding grounds for disease, and despite numerous attempts to improve sanitary conditions, “Irish Fever” persisted. In fact, at that time, life expectancy in the dock areas of Liverpool fell to the lowest in the country.

Eventually, the Irish came to dominate the Liverpool docks, and in fact had quite an impact on how the port developed. As Liverpool became a prominent port city, efficiency on the docks was a priority, and Irish dock workers played a huge role in making that possible. Irish “lumpers” loaded and unloaded cargo on the ships. Irish “carters” carted tobacco between the port and various private warehouses. Around 1900 Irish porters were employed in warehouses on the Liverpool docks. The Irish were involved with dock construction on the Mersey, and many found work as stevedores, sailors and ship’s firemen.

All-in-all, Liverpool just might not be the place it is today without the influence of the great Irish migration. The impact of the Irish on the city as a whole can still be felt today. After all, a couple of the most famous fellows to come out of Liverpool – John Lennon and Paul McCartney – do carry Irish surnames.

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