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Irish Emigration to America - The Journey

Irish emigration was often viewed as exile. The 'American wake', was known since the 1830s. The Irish custom of 'waking' (watching) the dead was an ancient one. The ‘American wake’ was held for the emigrant in the same manner as the waking of the deceased.

Assisted Emigration Schemes

A number of assisted emigration schemes were available for those who could not afford to emigrate. Between 1856 and 1906 the Irish Poor Law Boards of Guardians financed the emigration of about 25,000 paupers, primarily to the United States and Canada. In 1882-83 Parliament passed legislation which subsidized transportation for over 54,000 more. Passage money also came from landlords, charitable institutions and private philanthropists. Vere Foster and James Hack Tuke together financed about 30,000 departures in the 1880s.

Ports, Ships and steerage

Up to the 1830s the favoured route was to Canada and from there to the United States. The majority of departures were from Irish ports mainly Belfast, Dublin and Derry. After the 1830s, as trade increased between Britain and the US, the cost of the journey from England dropped. Many Irish first crossed to Liverpool and from there made their way to New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Large numbers also left from ports such as Limerick and Sligo. During the Famine many also left from small ports such as Westport, Killala and Kinsale. After 1858 it was possible to travel to America directly from Belfast, Cobh, and Galway.

The ‘Elizabeth and Sarah’

The 'Elizabeth and Sarah' sailed from Co. Mayo in July 1847. She carried 276 persons, instead of the 212 listed, and had only 8,700 gallons of water for the voyage, instead of the required 12,532 gallons. Each passenger was entitled to be given 7 lbs of provisions each week, but none was ever distributed. The 276 passengers shared 32 berths, and there was no sanitary facility of any kind. The voyage took eight weeks, because the captain took the wrong course, and by the time the ship broke down and was towed into the St. Lawrence River in September, 42 people had died.


In 1851 there were often as many as fifteen ships a day sailing to America from Liverpool. The crossing could be very traumatic, indicated by the phrase "coffin ship" that became part of the the Irish famine story. In the 1840 and 50s many emigrants lodged in Liverpool while waiting to sail to the US. The emigrants faced many dangers including robbery, exploitation as well as contraction of contagious diseases. Among the most common scams was the selling of dollars at exorbitant exchange rates, selling inferior quality clothes and overcharging for boarding. Emigrants were also offered hiding places on ships for a fee.


Cargo was loaded first, then the cabin passengers and only when the ship was ready to sail could steerage passengers board. Most of the passengers had never been on a ship before. They were expected to bring their own food on board and cook it on the few grates provided. The staple food of Irish emigrants on the ships was oatmeal and water.

American Letter & Remittances

The 'American letter' generated was often accompanied by remittances or money transfers or other items such as tickets, clothes or photos.

The Irish Emigrant Society of New York expanded its activities to found the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank in 1850. This made it possible to more easily send remittances home to Ireland. Between 1845 and 1854 when the famine was at its worst, $19 million dollars was sent back to Ireland much of it in the form of prepaid tickets so that families could be reunited. This encouraged ‘chain emigration’.

Historian Arnold Schrier has calculated that the Irish in America sent over $260 million back to Ireland during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Dennis Clarke called this phenomenon “the greatest transatlantic philanthropy of the nineteenth century”. In 1864 one writer asserted that not more than five per cent of the emigrants from Mayo paid their own passage (Mayo Constitution, March 15th 1864).

What brings such crowds to New York by every packetship is the letters which are written by the Irish already here to their relations in Ireland, accompanied, as they are in a majority of cases, by remittances to enable them to pay their passage out. It is from this source, and this mainly, if not only, that the Cork or Galway peasant learns all he knows about the United States, and he is not in the least likely to trust to any other.”
- London Daily News, 1864.

The Titanic ship collected 1,385 bags of letters at Cobh destined for America.

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