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This week, Dr. Ciarán Reilly, author and historian of 19th and 20th century Irish history at Maynooth University tells the story of 'remittances' - the money sent home by emigrants so their family could too make the emigrant voyage. The National Museum of Ireland estimates that $19 million dollars was sent back to Ireland between 1845 and 1854, much of it in the form of prepaid tickets. 

Remittances and the Great Irish Famine

For the million or so emigrants who left Ireland during the hungry 1840s (and immediately after) the memory of their home place was never far from their thoughts.  In particular, Famine emigrants were anxious that parents and family members would be free from the continued threat of hunger and eviction. When enough money had been saved they remitted money to family and friends for the purchase of a ticket so that they too could undertake the emigrant voyage. 

American Money & Chain Migration

In 1851 Lord John Russell, British Prime Minister, claimed that more than a £1.5 million had been sent to Ireland in emigrant remittances since the Famine had commenced six years previously.  This money as it trickled into every town and village in Ireland provided a means of survival for many and helped fund emigration for thousands of others. A survey of Irish newspapers from the late 1840s and early 1850s confirms this, with almost daily reports of people emigrating once they had received remittance money. For most Irish Famine emigrants remittances were said to be simply ‘remembrances of love and duty’ which made ‘many an aged mother or fathers’ heart…to sing with joy’ on the receipt of the so-called ‘American money’. Of course, remittances came from across the globe and not just the United States of America. 

Remittances were crucial in promoting chain migration and there quickly grew a dependence on the receipt of the ‘American money’.

According to the Nenagh Guardian newspaper every village had four to five orders a week coming from America thereby facilitating the emigration of others. Indeed, such was the scale of emigrant remittances that many villages were emptied of people. In Lusmagh, King’s County (now Offaly), for example, it was claimed that there was not a man in the parish who was not in receipt of money from America. Such was the frequency with which remittances were sent to would-be emigrants, that even Charles Bianconi’s coaches were said to have been overburdened bringing people to the docks. On one day in March 1853, for example, over 150 people were brought from Clonmel to Waterford port for emigration. Likewise, in Killeshandra, county Cavan it was claimed that seven coaches, instead of one, passed through the town on a daily basis conveying emigrants to the boat.

A family at the ruins of their house in Killarney, 1888 in a private collection. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
A family at the ruins of their house in Killarney, 1888 in a private collection. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images


The social background of the emigrants mattered little and even the poorest were able to send some amount of remittance within a few months of their arrival in America, Australia, Canada or elsewhere. Some were substantial amounts. In 1852 a man in county Armagh was reported to have been sent £92 by his daughter. Similarly, on a single day in January 1853 £300 was received at Newmarket on Fergus post office in county Clare. On the same day at Limerick post office seventy registered money letters were received from Melbourne, Australia, ranging from £50 to £500. As one contemporary quipped ‘from the great amount that is coming, one would be lead to believe that there is a spirit of rivalry in the remittances’.

Priests were often a favoured method of many for sending remittances, as they were deemed trustworthy to deliver money to family members.  

In 1853, for example, Mary Connors of Kenmare, county Kerry sent her remittances to the parish priest Fr O’Sullivan, while at Maynooth, county Kildare the bursar of St Patrick’s Pontifical College, the Revd Thomas Farrelly was a regular recipient of remittances on behalf of parishioners. The receipt of money was often the first correspondence with the emigrant after their departure, bringing to an end a period of anxiety for the family. Indeed, given the frequency of newspapers reports outlining the loss of emigrant ships such fears were well founded. In the case of the money (£2 8s) remitted to Honora Brosnahan of Scartaglen, county Kerry in August 1852, for example, there were continued worries about family members who had not been heard of since they arrived in New York.

Understandably, remittances were not look on favourably by some, particularly where many of the skilled population were leaving. Servants were also among those who undertook to emigrate safe in the knowledge that there would be plentiful work in America for them. In April 1853 thirty-five servants emigrated from Dungarvan, county Waterford in one week following the receipt of remittances. For more information about the Famine in Dungarven, County Waterford click here

Means to an end for those in Irish Workhouses

For others it provided the means to leave the dreaded workhouse. Indeed, a large proportion of inmates in the workhouses towards the end of the Famine waited patiently for money to remitted to the guardians so that they could leave at once. In August 1851 in Newcastle West in county Limerick no less than seventy men discharged themselves in one week following the arrival of the remittances.  It was unsurprising that those who had themselves experienced the horrors of the workhouse were quick to send help to family and friends. Within a year and half of her departure to Australia, Mary Brophy one of the so-called ‘Earl Grey Orphans’ who was assisted in emigration from Mountmellick workhouse in Queen’s County (Laois) in 1851 sent her mother £4 in remittances.  


Irish Emigrant Society

Spearheading much of the remittance drive was the Irish Emigrant Society who expanded its activities to found the Emigrant Savings Bank in 1850.  Another who saw a lucrative trade in emigrant remittances was Abraham Bell (1778-1856) who was among a number of Ulster emigrants who had settled in New York in the early years of the nineteenth century. 

Abraham Bells Records of 'Bills of Exchange'

A Quaker, Bell (1778-1856) was born in county Armagh and upon emigrating to New York quickly built up a shipping firm, Abraham Bell & Company, where he emerged as one of the leading merchants in the city. Operating on a number of transatlantic routes, Bell & Company shipped a wide variety of goods to America and Europe including linen, glass and candles. With offices in Boston, New York and St Louis, Bell’s Irish affairs were handled from 14 Tomb Street, Belfast. The surviving records of Bell’s company are scattered across a number of American university libraries and archives.

One collection located at the New-York Historical Society provides a remarkable insight into the world of Famine emigrants and their families. Providing details of the recipient, their address and the amount of remittance, the details of these ‘bills of exchange’ inform on the nature and process of emigration.

For the purposes of this piece, a sample of over 200 recipients Bell delivered remittances was examined. Hundreds more are unidentified by location, or at least the surviving records of Bell’s do not elucidate on their background. In this sample the average return was just over £6. Indeed, contemporary commentators believed that the average sum was about £3, just over the price of passage to America.

However, many of the individual remittances were much larger; Owen Corcoran, from Ballyhaise, county Cavan, for example, received £11 from St Louis in August 1852; James Gann from Enniskillen, county Fermanagh received £12 the following month, while the Widow Mary McCaffery, also of Enniskillen received £20. Presumably, such high remittances were intended to fund entire families to emigrate.

Abraham Bell
Abraham Bell, merchant and ship builder


Those such as James Cox in Newbliss, county Monaghan and Mary King in Tullyvin, county Cavan were at the other end of the scale receiving £3 and £2 respectively which would help towards the cost of passage, then estimated to be around £3 12s. While admittedly the sample is quite small, the geographical spread also provides interesting information on the spread of Famine remittances. Of the 200 plus examined in this study few appear to be located on the western seaboard (stretching from Donegal to Cork), although emigration was particularly high in these counties. However, this did not mean that Bell’s network failed to penetrate the western counties as examples from Kilmacrenan, Ballyshannon and Castlefin in county Donegal testify. 

Perhaps the overall geography of recipients reflected Bell’s distribution network in the country, with many northern recipients including those located in Strabane, county Tyrone; Forkhill, county Armagh; Glenarriff, county Antrim and Newtown Limavady, county Londonderry. In some instances, the name and county of the recipient is all that was given and it would be interesting to ascertain (although probably impossible) whether that money was ever received. How easy, for example, was it to identify Mary Flaherty in ‘Galway’, Mary McNeill in ‘Roscommon’ or the veritable Michael Murphy of ‘Cork, Ireland’. Likewise, the transcription of names frequently posed a problem, not least in the case of ‘Ciaran Whelan’ of Maryborough (modern day Portlaoise) in Queen’s County which was transcribed phonetically as ‘Keyran Whalen’.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island
Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island


Using contemporary sources, including Griffiths Valuation and estate records, it is however possible to identify many of the individual recipients. For example, William Larkin, the holder of twelve acres of land near Ballylinan, Queen’s County survived the Famine and his family were later involved in the major land agitation in the 1880s against their landlord the marquis of Lansdowne. Likewise, Joseph Anderson who was in receipt of £4 from St Louis in August 1852 was a merchant in Athy, county Kildare and during the Famine tendered to the Athy Board of Guardians for turf.



The success of Bell and others was all the more remarkable given the imprecise nature of the transaction. In the majority of cases no townland was given, so a level of invesigation must have taken place as money orders were sent throughout the country. As a result of such lack of information often cited on the bills of exchange, there was little that could be done when money did not arrive at its destination. A poor woman in Blackpool, county Cork, for example, sought the advice of the constabulary when a money order from her daughter in Nashville, Tennessee failed to arrive. Her quest however eventually fell on deaf ears. 

The Bell ‘bills of exchange’ also provide other remarkable details about the recipients.

For example, in the bills which were remitted from St Louis in 1853 the recipients were overwhelmingly female, suggesting that their male counterparts had gone ahead and were now funding the voyage for other family members. There were also a significant amount of widows in receipt of remittance money; the ‘Widow’ Elizabeth Murphy in Ferns, county Wexford received £2; the ‘Widow’ Margaret Wallace in Clones, county Monaghan (£3) and the ‘Widow’ Catherine Walsh of Rathdowney, Queen’s County (£5). The remittances suggest the further breakup of the family after the death of head of the house during the Famine years. As already alluded to, priests were often the recipients of emigrant remittances; in county 

About the Author: 

Dr Ciarán Reilly is a historian of 19th & 20th Century Irish history at Maynooth University. The Assistant Director of the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses & Estates based at Maynooth, he is also the author of a number of books on the Great Irish Famine including Strokestown and the Great Irish Famine (2014), and co-editor of Dublin and the Great Irish Famine (2022).

Dr. Ciarán Reilly regularly posts about his research on his Twitter account, which you can follow here

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