Thursday, May 23, 2013

Compelling Reasons Why Our Irish Ancestors Left The Emerald Isle

The following article was originally written for (see Ireland, "Emigration & Immigration")

Reasons Irish Emigrated

Emigrants leave Ireland.jpg
The Irish throughout history had many reasons for leaving Ireland. As well many among those remaining in Ireland would have emigrated but were unable to, due to poverty or impoverishment. Many Irishmen during the Great Famine years who did embark were in such sickened and critically weakened condition that death followed many while traversing the high seas to their new world home.
Generally, the Irishman's reasons for emigrating--if not compelled to do so, to countries abroad were due to an intolerable convergence of circumstances including, but not limited to:

  • dire economic conditions that destituted families
  • austere political policies such as the Crown's Penal laws (from 1695-1829)
  • a series of circumstances surrounding devastating crop failures especially in the mid-19th Century.
  • social and religious persecution against most nonconformists and Catholics (the dominant segment of Irish society)
Here's a little closer look at the devastating effects of the Penal Laws and other reasons for emigrating.

Dunseverick Harbour - - 24159.jpg
     A look at Dunseverick Harbour

Many local people began their long emigration trail during the 1800s, being rowed out to catch a passing schooner bound for Glasgow or Londonderry (see above view) where they would embark on one of the many emigrant ships to Australia, New Zealand or the Americas.

If the 17th and 18th century Penal laws of the Royal Crown leveled at many Nonconformist societies, and in Ireland--especially Catholic society and later, i.e. the Highland Clearances in Scotland--could mostly be summed up in one word:  "brutalisation" seems to fit the bill for those times. For example, from at least as early as the year 1603, imagine a family homestead which prior to this time was once held by the family for several centuries, but was suddenly ripped from beneath their feet and which forced many onto the 'street' in abject poverty practically overnight.
These and other intolerable conditions in Ireland forced Irish (especially Catholic) emigrants to leave the country.
There were four central motivating factors which caused so many Irishmen to turn their backs on their homeland, in order to escape and thrive in a new existence abroad:

Political Culture of Persecution 

  • Austere taxation and tithes policies
  • Continual doctrine of ‘Conquer and divide’ policies enacted over centuries seized and evicted lands from native Irish Catholics
  • Could not hold public office  
  • Could not practice law
  • Cruel landlords (not all--as there were compassionate ones among the many)
  • Sponsorship of land price increases ('rent-racking')--allowed to unbearable rate levels--tossed hoards of already poor families, ‘out onto the street’
  • Could not build a (i.e. Catholic) chapel/parish or live within 5 miles of the civil parish church
  • Disallowance of land ownership for all Catholics


  • British government backed England’s grain exportations—but not Ireland’s; farmers emigrated
  • New farming techniques increased output, decreasing the need for agricultural laborers
  • Manufacturing industries sprang up, causing less emphasis in farming
  • Irish poor-law provided means by which vast numbers were granted mostly free passage to countries abroad

Social and Religious

Ireland Church Tower.jpg

A culture of social and religious persecution by the local Protestant-led and British Crown government was manifest in utter disregard and total distrust of Catholics’ loyalty to the Crown, and escalated to harsher laws enacted, such as the 1695 Penal laws passed by the Crown government, which stripped many Nonconformists and of course Catholics in Ireland of their civil rights to—
  • choose between attendance in a Catholic, or a Protestant place of worship
  • vote
  • enter a profession
  • receive an education
  • serve as officers in British armed forces
  • teach in, or enroll in colleges
  • defend themselves with weapons
  • be employed or an employer in a trade or in commerce
  • own a horse of greater value than five pounds
  • purchase nor lease land
  • inherit land or moveables from a Protestant
  • buy or receive a gift of land from a Protestant
  • rent any land that was worth more than thirty shillings a year
  • reap from his land any profit exceeding a third of the rent
  • be a guardian to a child
  • hold a life annuity 
  • leave infant children under Catholic guardianship
  • accept a mortgage on land in security for a loan
  • attend Catholic worship
  • educate his child
  • be instructed by a local Catholic teacher nor be educated abroad
  • practice their own religion outside of the Protestant faith

Crop Failures 

  • Devastating crop failures—especially The Great Famine from 1846 to 1851 decimated or starved to death, nearly a million people
  • British government’s lack of food aid to Ireland during The Great Famine coerced nearly half the surviving population to leave Ireland
  • Famine brought abject poverty, severe malnutrition inducing poor health, and adversely affected (to some--even death) 3-4 million Irish
  • During the Great Famine years: Grains out of Ireland, were exported to England, while Irish were dying from the famine or causes due to it
Overall, some of the great positives borne out of these waves of Irish emigrants was the fact that millions the world over, have benefited from their rich Irish heritage.  On the backs of their respective Irish ancestors, each descendant (or not) has reaped the benefits of solid industrial and manufacturing infra-structures in their current societies such as in the Americas--the building of the extensive railroad, canals, steel and iron foundries, highways and remote byway systems, and often strong political leadership roles played in the evolvement and development of each nation's local and national governments.

Further Reading

1. O hEithir, Breandan, A Pocket History of Ireland, The O'Brien Press, Dublin, Ireland, 1989
2. MacManus, Seamus, The Story of the Irish Race, The New York Irish Publishing Co., 1921