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An Gorta Mór (1845-1850) changed the landscape of the Irish community forever. In the mid-1800s, market towns and small country villages formed the basis of life in Ireland. The majority of people learned quickly and painfully that the land would not support them and their families, or at least not all of their families. Many made the difficult decision and left in a wave of mass emigration in the wake of the Great Famine, or died from disease and hunger as a result of extreme poverty. This emigration was to continue and indeed is still a part of Irish life today. 

IrelandXO Insight - Transatlantic Crossings

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the leaving of Ireland for North America was a difficult and emotional journey for all. From a rural existence that centred on family, farming and prayer, to live in a country that had embraced all the advances of the industrial revolution and was developing at a furious pace.  

An Gorta Mor Memorial Bowl

An Gorta Mor memorial (the great hunger) is located in the Irish hills area of Michigan, built on the grounds of St. Joseph's shrine, consists of a large empty bronze bowl between two posts which symolizes the great hunger. its base is surrounded by cobbles from Donegal, Ireland.

An Gorta Mor Memorial Upper Part

An Gorta Mor memorial (the great hunger) is made of stone and metal and consists of two limestone columns that support a stone step from the Penrose Quay in Cork Harbour, Ireland as a lintel.

An Gorta Mor Monument

An Gorta Mor Monument represents the great Irish potato famine. the Irish potato famine memorial consists of two plaques, with a little boy on the right one and the head and hands of a woman on the left one.

Living in Ireland in the 1800s

Rural homes were usually made up of only 2 or 3 rooms, many with a roof of thatch and 2 or 3 front windows.  Out-buildings also made up a family’s holding and were often adapted to suit their needs. Many families kept pigs and cows in these outhouses. These farm buildings could also be used to store potatoes, hay or turf.

In the 1800s, people married young and went on to have many children, making it increasingly difficult to sustain the family as it grew. The legacy of Penal Law meant that farm holdings were still very small in size and emigration was often the last resort in order to survive.

Gweedore Natives, Gweedore, Co. Donegal. By Robert French

Photo courtesy of NLI: Gweedore natives, Donegal. By Robert French  c 1865 - 1914

Payment of the passage to a new life on the continet of North America

For many emigrants, payment of the passage to America was one of the most significant events of their lives. Some who could afford it paid their own, but the majority of emigrants received the passage from a family member, usually a sibling who had already made the journey across the Atlantic, paving the way for younger brothers, sisters or even parents to follow.

The cost of passage in Steerage or Third Class remained steady at around £5 between 1880 and the start of World War I. At the time, this was the equivalent of about half the yearly earnings of a labourer. 

Flyer to Agents of White Star line

Queenstown (Cobh) was the most practical port of departure for those leaving Ireland, though Londonderry did offer passage for those in the north of the country. They would wait to hear news of the ship having been cleared for departure from Liverpool, and then would make their way by train to County Cork. The majority of emigrants left as teenagers or in their twenties and many would never have needed to travel very far at all. The prospect of a move to America must have been monumental.

A view of Queenstown Harbour C1900 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

Queens of the Sea

By the time the Ellis Island Immigration Station officially opened in 1892, transatlantic travel had come a long way when compared to the "coffin ships" of the famine exodus.  At the turn of the century, the crossing was made on steam-powered ocean liners, with journeys from Ireland lasting between 6 and 12 days.  

Steerage was increasingly referred to as "third-class" and in 1907, The White Star Line published its new brochure announcing "in former days, the accommodation consisted entirely of what might be termed open dormitories, whereas now it includes good separate airy cabins; and the Third Class passenger is better off in most respects than the Intermediate of twenty years ago, while the fare is not more than was paid by his predecessor in the Steerage."


White Star Line Ship's Flag

A picture of the white star line ship flags which consists of a white star on a red flag.

White Star Line brochure cover 1907

Passenger travel between Europe and North America had become a competitive business with ocean liner companies such as Cunard Company, White Star and American Steamship Company just some of those competing for the Irish share of the market. Modern marketing techniques were employed with glossy brochures and press advertising used to promote and differentiate their on-board facilities and services.

 White Star third class ticket     

Ellis Island immigration process and immigrant's experience

After docking at the Hudson or East River piers, third class or steerage passengers were shuttled to Ellis Island on ferryboats for inspection and immigrant processing. Due to large numbers of immigrants arriving in New York, people often had to wait days on these ferryboats, in freezing and unsanitary conditions, before being able to disembark at Ellis Island.

Arriving at Ellis Island source: Library Congress of Library Photographs and Prints Divisions

After landing, emigrants collected their baggage, often a single suitcase, using a special tag they had been given and underwent a series of checks before being allowed to continue on their journey into the US. There was a physical examination by medical officers and immigrants went through a legal inspection that focused on the information given in the ship's manifest. This included details of their nationality, trade and literacy skills.  If a person was healthy and their papers were in order, the immigration inspection usually lasted between 3 and 5 hours. 

Ellis Island Immigration Station

A black and white picture of the Ellis island immigration station from the side view

A black and white picture of the Ellis island immigration station with a ship docked in front of it

A black and white picture of the Ellis island immigration station from the front view with a boat docked in front of it

The Great Hall at Ellis Island Immigration Station

A black and white picture of the interior view of the great hall at Ellis island immigration station.

Immigrants at Ellis Island

A black and white picture of immigrants passed and waiting to be processed at Ellis island

Ellis Island Line Inspection of Arriving Aliens

Failure of either health or legal inspections could result in deportation. Staten Island had a quarantine station that housed immigrants awaiting deportation as a result of infection or ill health. One of the most serious medical conditions was the eye condition, trachoma and those suffering with this were marked with the initial 'CT' on their clothing. Overall the examination process was stressful, especially for women as male-only doctors were employed up to 1914. Other medical conditions that inspectors would perhaps exclude an immigrant included pregnancy (marked by a 'PG'), hernia (marked by a 'H') and lameness (marked by an 'L') along with other serious illnesses like mumps and diphtheria, although a hospital wing could accommodate those who became ill on the passage. There were also a series of intelligence tests for those deemed to be mentally unstable. Single, unmarried women too were at a great disadvantage and along with illegitimate children were usually deported on moral grounds. 

A passport was not needed to enter the US at that time. This requirement didn’t come into place until 1925.

There was a money exchange office on Ellis Island so that newly released immigrants could exchange their home currencies for the dollar – one of their last tangible connections to their previous existence.

Rare Footage showing immigrants arriving on Ellis Island

This 3-minute video, from the Library of Congress Archives, depicts scenes at the Immigration Depot and a nearby dock on Ellis Island. First, we see a group of immigrants lined up to board a vessel leaving the island, then another group arriving and directed off the dock and into the Depot by a uniformed official.

Annie Moore - The first immigrant through Ellis Island Immigration Station

The original Ellis Island Immigration Station was officially opened in 1892 and the first immigrant to pass through its doors was a 13-year-old girl from County Cork by the name of Annie Moore.  She had travelled from Queenstown on the Etruria with her 2 younger brothers and they were on their way to join their parents who had had already settled in New York City.  

Annie Moore Cobh Failte Ireland

Etruria Ship

A black and white picture of the Etruria ship sailing.

On that same day, 2nd January 1892, 3 large ships landed at Ellis Island and 700 passengers passed through the immigration station.  They were the first of 450,000 immigrants who passed through the Island that year.

Ship's Manifest Etruria 1892

New York city: home to the statue of liberty and source of life

Ellis Island was incredibly busy, a city in itself and many thousands of people passed through each day.  People from all over the world were flocking to the new opportunities offered in the US and the immigration station would have been a melting pot of Asians, Africans, Europeans and Russians.

There was a vibrant mix of languages, faces and costumes – all of which were completely new to Irish people who had left home for the first time, and now found themselves in this chaotic but exciting place.

5th Avenue New York c 1913

Although many Irish immigrants who came through Castle Garden and Ellis Island settled on the East Coast, Ellis Island was very much a gateway to North America and most people travelled onwards to settle across the US and Canada. The main US hubs for Irish immigrants at the turn of the 19th century were Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Nebraska, Los Angeles and New York.

Today, it is estimated that almost 50% of US households can trace their ancestry to someone who came through Ellis Island or Castle Garden.

Researching your Irish ancestry through free Castle Garden and Ellis Island records

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, which can be searched easily and accessed through Steve Morse's website. It contains and makes available eleven million records of immigrants who arrived at the Port of New York from 1820 - 1892. As the 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. 

These records only give names, ages, gender and country of origin, but they are useful for narrowing down when an ancestor may have emigrated to New York before 1892.

The Ellis Island Immigration Station opened in 1892 and this facility operated until 1955. Ellis Island has a database of over 12 million passenger records and Irish emigrants account for 3 million of these records.
These records can be searched here.

During our September 24th Creating Connections webinar, when we looked at immigration through New York Ports we highlighted the following three emigrant stories:

Patrick Conheady

Patrick was a 19-year-old farm labourer who emigrated to New York and arrived on 27 April 1913. He left behind his mother, Mary and his siblings. Patrick was going to stay with his sister, Katie Conheady Walsh in Brooklyn, New York. He worked as a longshoreman on the docklands after he


In 1917, Patrick was drafted into military service and he served as a Private with the COA 308th Infantry. He was sent overseas, and he was killed in action on 5 October 1918 in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He was buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Lorraine, France.

The Clarke Family

Several members of this family from Bailieborough, County Cavan emigrated through Ellis Island during the course of its operation. One of them, Andrew married in 1922 and emigrated to New York in 1923 leaving behind his wife, Susan and infant son, Patrick. Andrew was an agricultural

labourer who was going to stay with his brother, Patrick in New York. In 1928, Susan and Patrick Clarke obtained immigrant visas from Dublin and they sailed to New York to settle with Andrew. This family remained in the New York area where further children were born. Andrew became a U.S.

citizen in 1933.

Catherine Phelan Sage

Catherine was a young widow with 9 children in 1912. She had sold a family pub and moved her family to Waterford, Ireland where they were residing at that time. In February, her two oldest children emigrated to her sister in New York. Catherine and her remaining 7 children followed 2

months later. This family later settled in Troy, New York.

Like many of the above, families all over Ireland saw many loved ones emigrate to New York and later travel further to settle. Ellis Island and Castle Garden have played an important role in Irish emigrant journeys. 

Please consider creating an Ancestor Profile for one of your Ellis Island or Castle Garden emigrant ancestors.

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