The initial cause of the Irish Famine was the failure of the potato crop, due to a disease called Blight. However, it was a combination of disastrous political actions and poor social structures that turned the crisis into a tragedy of un-precedented proportions. During its 6 years, an estimated 1 million people died, and 2.5 million people emigrated, leaving behind a population that was deeply scarred and utterly heartbroken. By the time of the 1911 census, there was half the amount of people living in Ireland as there had been 70 years earlier, in 1841.
Picture above: National Famine Memorial in County Mayo
Descendants of those who fled the Irish famine can be found all over the world today, and many of them are now looking to discover their family history and connect with their place of origin in Ireland. Every year Ireland Reaching Out helps thousands of people who are beginning the process of tracing their ancestors who immigrated during the Irish famine. The goal is to reconnect everyone of Irish heritage with their place of origin in Ireland and the community living there today. The task of going so far back to discover family history, when the scale of emigration was immense, and the record-keeping was scant, can be daunting for anyone who is looking to trace their roots to the time of the Great Hunger. However, it is by no means impossible and every day, descendants of famine emigrants, sometimes as the first family members since the 1800s, are returning to visit the Irish villages their ancestors left.
Picture above: A famine cottage in Athea, County Limerick as it stands today. The Great Grandmother of an Ireland Reaching Out member was born there in 1847.
So where do you start if you are a descendant of Irish famine emigrants? In the 19th Century people were more concerned about who was arriving in their country, as opposed to who was leaving. That’s why it’s a good idea to start your research in the country your ancestor emigrated to. Here we have highlighted some of our top foreign resources for researching people who left Ireland at the time of the Irish Famine.
Finding your Irish Famine ancestors outside of Ireland
The vast majority of those that left Ireland, ended their journey in the USA, arriving either directly by boat or by travelling first to Canada and then crossing the border. Over the course of the Famine, around 650,000 Irish immigrants arrived in New York harbour and by 1850 U.S. immigration records show that 43% of the foreign-born population was Irish.
Picture above: Depiction of Ship preparing to sail from Ireland to America during the Irish Famine
Around 30 years before the Irish Famine, with the increased volume of immigrants arriving sick or having died in transit, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to limit the number of passengers on each ship. Beginning in 1820, the captain of each arriving ship prepared a Customs Passenger List and filed it with the collector of customs at the port of arrival. This marks the commencement of the systematic collection of data on immigration to the United States—and the starting point for the archives at Castle Garden database. It contains and makes available eleven million records of immigrants who arrived at the Port of New York from 1820 - 1892. As a main port of entry for Irish immigrants during the Famine period, this is a fantastic free resource and sometimes contains information not just on the emigrant, but also who was left behind in Ireland. Until recently, this database could be accessed through a dedicated website but at time of publication, this website was offline. An alternative and free way to access this database can be found on the Familysearch website under their collection New York Passenger Lists 1821 - 1890.
The United States was the first country to call for a regular census. This makes the 1790 census the oldest national census in the world. The 1850 Census was the first to record the names of every person in a household and an individual’s place of birth. Previous efforts listed head of family only. This is particularly useful in identifying people who had arrived in the USA during the worst of the Irish Famine years. MyHeritage has the complete set of USA census records from 1790 to 1940, totalling 650 million names.
Published by the Library of Congress, the Chronicling America website offers many digitised newspapers which can be helpful when researching ancestors who settled in the U.S. Many of the death/obituary notices included in the newspapers give great clues about the deceased’s county or parish of origin, other family members and where they reside. This information was often lost between generations.
Almost 4.5 million Canadians claim to be of Irish descent, with many of those connections dating back to the time of the Irish famine. Passage to Canada was less expensive than passage to the United States, and Canada became the destination for some of the most poverty-stricken Irish. In 1847, the Port of Québec became so overwhelmed with ships arriving from Europe, that some vessels carrying over 14,000 Irish queued for days before landing. It is estimated that the delayed entry, worsened by disease and deplorable sanitary conditions on board the ships, caused the death of almost 5,000 Irish. The cemetery on the island of Grosse-Ile, where the immigration depot was located, is known to be the largest Irish burial site outside of Ireland.
Picture Above: A poster advertising the sailing of the Superior from Derry to Quebec in July 1847
Library and Archives Canada is a free database and a a wonderful resource for anyone with Canadian ancestry. It contains 19th century census information, immigration information including Grosse-Ile quarantine records, naturalisation records, land records and military records. It also is divided by place so that records can be searched by area or or place.
Canadiana is a free website contains a large database of materials with regard to Canadian culture and heritage. Some of the sources include newspapers, directories, books, historical studies and parliamentary papers.
The ShipsList is a work in progress which documents many details about the ships that carried Irish emigrants to Canada. Searches can be made by ship name, port, passenger name. In addition, there is a special section on Famine Emigration. Although most passenger records concern Canadian arrivals, there are also records for ships that arrived in Australia, New Zealand, U.S.A and South Africa.
Between 1848 and 1850, more than 10,000 Irish immigrants arrived in Sydney, Port Phillip and Moreton. The number of Irish famine refugees who choose to travel to Australia was much smaller compared to the mass exodus to the United States, happening around the same time. However, the arrival of what was considered the first ship of famine refugees in February 1848 had a significant impact on those who had travelled from Ireland to Australia as free emigrants, in the decades prior to the Great Hunger. Upon hearing first-hand of the suffering of the Irish people they were motivated to send remittances to those family members left at home, which resulted in many of their family having the financial means to follow them abroad.
Image 7: The Irish Famine Memorial in Sydney is dedicated to the 4114 young Irish women who arrived in Australia from 1848 to 1850 under the Earl Grey assisted emigration scheme
Trove is an initiative of the National Library of Australia and contains a wealth of information from its digitised newspaper reports, which often give great details about families in particular areas. This free website was recently under threat due to funding, but with the outcry from all over the world, those fears may have subsided. Many references to the Irish Famine can be found in the newspapers of the time, such as the Sydney Sentinel, NSW 1842-1848.
The Australian Cemeteries website contains the largest collection of graveyard information on one site and is free to search. Many of the headstone inscriptions include place of birth in Ireland and parents’ names.
During the famine years, Ireland continued to sentence convicts to transportation to Australia and Convict Records is a free site that is useful for research regarding any ancestors that were transported as convicts during this time.
The National Archives of Ireland features the Ireland-Australia transportation database, and this includes records of men and women who were sentenced to transportation for their crimes during the famine years.
Unlike for Australia and North America, there was no obligation to record the passengers on ships arriving from Ireland into the United Kingdom during the Irish Famine. Up until 1922 both islands were under British rule and therefore any movement of its people from one isle to the other was classified as internal migration. Seasonal migration was commonplace, with Irish people working in the United Kingdom for prolonged periods of the year to support their families still living in Ireland. During the famine years, the decision to remain the UK rather than return to a scene of chaos and starvation would have been easy to make. Many people who did make the decision to move to the UK, did so only temporarily, earning enough money to pay the ships passage to further afield. This is what was known as Step Emigration.
Picture above: A drawing of Bridget O’Donnell and her children, victims of evictions in Tullig, County Clare. This appeared in The London Illustrated News in 1849
Although there are no passenger lists to clearly identify who might have emigrated to the UK there are other excellent resources that we can turn to.
A simple search of the England and Wales Census returns on MyHeritage shows that in 1851, there were 466,000 people living there that were born in Ireland. This compares to just over 280,000 Irish-born residents recorded ten years earlier in the 1841 Census. The England and Wales Census of 1841 is the earliest Census that has survived in its entirety.
The government recording of Births, Marriages and Deaths began in England and Wales a decade prior to the Irish famine. Compliance with the registration laws was very high and by 1875 99% of all births were recorded. An index of these civil registrations from 1837 to 2005 can be found on MyHeritage, and the collection includes images of the index pages for 1837 to 1983.
The National Archives of England and Wales website contains information about their digitised record collection including, Wills, military records and census records and has a wealth of historical documents relating to the Irish Famine.
Scotland’s People is worth mentioning due to the large number of parish registers, census records and civil registration records for births, marriages and deaths. It is a worthwhile resource if your ancestors emigrated to Scotland or perhaps used it as a temporary residence during Step Emigration.
The above list is by no means exhaustive, and there are countless other resources relating to the Irish Famine, such as the local Workhouse records that are today archived by the Department of Health and available to those who can prove descendancy.
Everyday, in every part of the world, documents are being discovered that bring more clarity to our history and the people that went before us. Don’t be discouraged by any failed attempts to discover your Irish family history. Remember that you can always share what you know on the Ireland Reaching Out Message Board, and engage with other members who are delighted to assist and enable you to connect with your ancestors’ place of origin.
Have you found information relating to your Irish Ancestors using the sources outlined in this Insight? If so, why not add them to their Irish parish of origin on the XO Chronicles? This is a completely free way to share what you know about your Irish ancestors with the community they are descended from and to connect with other descendants living in Ireland and all over the world today.