During the 19th century, Ireland saw a rapid increase in unemployment. Thousands suffered in poverty, and were often regarded as “permanent deadweight”, “feckless”, or a “redundant” population. Because so many were desperate for jobs, employers were able to reduce wages even further – far below the proper acceptable level – leaving even the employed in dire straits.
This left much of the population looking abroad for relief. Most had family or friends in America, and these fortunate folks often had their fares paid. There was a sizeable group, however, that had neither the connections nor the finances to move.
These poorest of the poor turned to England and Scotland for jobs. Before long, however, the English government became alarmed at the prospect of thousands of migrant paupers pouring across the borders and negatively affecting the native labour conditions. The British job market was already overloaded with English workers, and there were simply not enough resources to provide for the Irish influx.
Thus, a plan was conceived to fund assisted emigration programs. The British government and poor law unions along with independent philanthropists and landlords conspired to pay the fares of 300,000 of the most destitute in Ireland. Those sent abroad were typically able-bodied workers who simply could not find employment at home. These primarily included workhouse paupers, single women, and landless agricultural labourers. This group was overwhelmingly Catholic, and made up nearly 10% of the total migration.
A number of schemes were implemented, and each saw varying degrees of success. Some colonies such as New Zealand and Australia were desperate to attract skilled immigrants, and offered money or land grants to any Irish who chose to emigrate. Most, however, were sent to North America.
Conditions varied greatly for the newly arrived emigrants. Many struggled enormously, finding conditions abroad little better than back in Ireland. Some programs, however, were very successful.
A program led by Peter Robinson, for example, stands out as a highly successful venture. A select group of Irish emigrants was chosen from a number of estates in County Cork, as well as a few from estates in the southeast of Ireland. Stringent rules required emigrants to be Roman Catholic peasants under the age of 45.
Roughly 300 families were selected, and each emigrant was given 70 acres of land in Canada’s Ottowa Valley. Emigrants would be required to pay an annual quit rent to the Crown at a rate of 2 pence per acre; however, each emigrant was provided with needed supplies, including food, seed corn and potatoes, cattle, and tools for building and farming. Log cabins were even constructed and clearings made on each settler’s land grant.
By contrast, other programs were significantly less successful. Those implemented during the Great Famine created the greatest hardships, as many schemes were enforced by landlords on unwilling evicted tenants. These were poorly funded ventures which generated great difficulty for both the emigrants and the host nations.
Overall, however, a great many of these assisted emigrants went on to prosper in their new homes. Despite the difficulties they faced, many made the courageous choices necessary and established prosperous settlements for following generations.