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This week, Northern Irelands' leading Genealogist Brian Mitchell takes us through the journey of some 9 million Irish Diaspora, now living in Great Britain, USA, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa who eimigrated via Derry. The city remained a major Irish emigration port through all significant phases of emigration from Ireland, from the 18th century outflow of Scots-Irish to colonial America, to pre-Famine, Famine and post-Famine emigration to North America. 

From Derry to Canada

From the late 1600s, in the age of the sailing ships, to the onset of the Second World War in 1939, when the last transatlantic steamer sailed from the port, Derry was one of the principal emigration ports in Ireland.She stood at the head of a virtually land-locked Lough Foyle, 24 miles long and only 2 miles wide at its head. The Lough was sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds by the Inishowen peninsula, thus making it, in the age of sail, a harbour of refuge, accessible and safe in all weathers. Owing to her westerly situation Derry was seen as being halfway between London and the American colonies; a Derry ship “is no sooner out of the river, but she is immediately in the open sea and has but one course.” Derry was, therefore, well placed to benefit from the emigration of Ulster people to North America.

Lough Foyle

A picture of Lough Foyle (Loch Foyle), the inlet of the River Foyle, located in Ireland.

Inishowen Peninsula

A picture of the Inishowen Peninsula, located at the north of County Donegal, Ireland.

18th Century Emigration and the Scots Irish

Between 1718 and the beginning of the War of American Independence in 1776, 250,000 Ulster-Scots – often referred to as Scotch-Irish or Scots-Irish in the USA (i.e. descendants of 17th century Scottish Presbyterian settlers in the nine counties of the Province of Ulster: Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone in Northern Ireland and Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland) – emigrated from Ireland through the ports of Belfast, Londonderry, Newry, Larne and Portrush for the British Colonies in North America. 


Irish in Philadelphia

In the 18th century few inducements were able to overturn the Irish emigrants’ preferred destination of Philadelphia. The 18th century Ulster emigrant tended to enter Colonial America through Philadelphia and then head for the frontier. Of 128 vessels advertised to sail from Derry between 1750 and 1775, 99 (77%) sailed for Philadelphia. 


Irish to Nova Scotia and South Carolina

In the 1760s, however, the activities of land promoters/businessmen, with Ulster connections, encouraged Irish emigrants to consider, if only briefly, two alternative destinations to Philadelphia; namely, Nova Scotia and the Carolinas. In the years 1750 to 1775, when 99 of 128 ships, departed Derry for Philadelphia, a further 10 ships were destined for Halifax (Nova Scotia) and another 10 for Charleston (South Carolina).  Through the activity of a Derry-born, land promoter Alexander McNutt very strenuous and enthusiastic attempts were made in the 1760s to persuade Irish emigrants to settle in Nova Scotia. 

The Acadians (i.e. descendants of the 17th-century French colonists who settled in Acadia, located in the Canadian Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) were expelled from Nova Scotia in 1755. Vigorous attempts now followed to settle the peninsula with more loyal subjects to protect the northern flank of the British possessions in America. A proclamation was issued inviting the settlement of the lands vacated by the Acadians. McNutt was granted land reservations totalling 817,000 acres in Nova Scotia, and in return he was expected to settle six hundred families on the lands within four years, each family receiving five hundred acres.

In 1761 McNutt proceeded to Derry and launched his campaign, with 11 of his 13 agents based in villages and towns in Counties Derry, Donegal or Tyrone, such as Ramelton, Letterkenny, Fahan, Raphoe, Convoy, Strabane, Omagh and Maghera. It is estimated that in 1761 and 1762 McNutt persuaded about 500 people from Northwest Ireland to emigrate to Nova Scotia.


19th Century Emigration in the Age of Sail

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 many small farmers, agricultural labourers and rural tradesmen in Ireland saw emigration as the only solution to their declining economic prospects. Emigration thus acted as a “safety valve,” enabling young men and women with little economic prospects to escape Ireland.

From 1815 to 1845 it is estimated that 1 million Irishmen and women crossed the Atlantic for North America. In this period Canada, not the USA, was the initial destination of these emigrants. It is estimated that 80% of passengers who sailed to North America from Irish ports landed in Canada, though perhaps half that total may have gone on to the United States. Prior to the Famine the cheapest way to get to the US was by way of Canada through St John’s, Newfoundland, Saint John, New Brunswick or Quebec.

Thomas Mellon (1813-1908), entrepreneur and banker of Pittsburgh, USA recalls in his autobiography the family’s journey, in 1818, from Derry, via Canada, to USA. The family embarked on a ship belonging to a Mr Buchanan who was "the uncle of the late President of the United States", destined for Saint John, New Brunswick. The voyage to Saint John took ‘a trifle over twelve weeks’ and then a further 2 weeks was spent on a coasting ship which took them to Baltimore, and from there to their final destination, in a journey lasting three weeks, by Conestoga wagon to a still largely unpopulated Westmoreland County, 21 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Thomas Mellon

A metal plaque of Judge Thomas Mellon entrepreneur and banker of Pittsburgh, who emigrated from Derry to US through Canada, in Pittsburgh, Oakland.

Saint John, New Brunswick

Derry’s importance as an emigration port continued to grow in the 19th century; it was a profitable trade. Merchants in Derry soon became ship-owners as opposed to agents for American and British companies. An outward cargo of emigrants, a homeward cargo of timber or grain, together with two voyages per year, one in spring and one in the autumn, ensured a sizeable profit. By 1833 seven merchants in the city – Daniel Baird, James Corscaden, John Kelso, William McCorkell, James McCrea, John Munn and Joseph Young – owned fifteen vessels, all engaged in the North American emigrant trade. 

Saint John (New Brunswick) and Quebec in Canada, and New York and Philadelphia in the United States were the destination ports of emigrants departing from Derry in the first half of the 19th century. Of 38 emigrant ships advertised to sail from Derry in 1836: 12 were destined for Saint John (New Brunswick), 12 for Philadelphia, 7 for Quebec and 6 for New York.

Sholto Cooke in The Maiden City and The Western Ocean (Morris and Company, Dublin) described Saint John, New Brunswick as ‘the cradle of Derry trade with North America and destination of great numbers of emigrants for Canada or in transit to the United States. During the passenger season, one or more Derry ships usually lay at anchor in Saint John, either landing their passengers or loading deals for home. Saint John shipbuilders also had a good reputation in Derry and some of the finest and fastest ships owned in Derry were built in Saint John’.

By the 1870s sailing ships could no longer compete with the speed, comfort and reliability of the transatlantic passenger steamers. In 1873 the McCorkell Line’s Minnehaha made the last transatlantic passenger voyage by a Derry-owned ship to New York.

Emigration in the Age of Steam: In the late-19th and early-20th Century

From 1861 right through to 1939 ocean-going liners called at Moville, in the deeper waters of Lough Foyle, some 18 miles downstream from Derry, to pick up emigrants who were ferried from Derry in paddle tenders. During this period, at various times, four shipping lines – Anchor Line, Anchor-Donaldson Line, Allan Line and Dominion Line – made Derry a stage on the voyage from Liverpool or Glasgow to Canada or the United States. 

The Allan Line, or the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company, was contracted, in 1856, by the Canadian Government to provide a mail service between Quebec and Liverpool. In November 1859, the Canadian Postmaster General agreed to establish a weekly mail service that also included Ireland. 

Allan Line Fares List

A picture of Allan Line fares list from the 1890s.

Allan Line

A picture of SS Canadian of the Allan shipping line.

Allan Line Royal Mail Streamers

A picture of the Allan Line poster. Allan line was a Montreal (Canadian) ocean steamship company which also functioned as Royal mail steamers.

A picture of the Allan Line Royal mail poster.

Sidney Smith, the Canadian Postmaster General and Hugh Allan, owner of the shipping line, were hosted at a reception by the Mayor and Harbour Commissioners in Derry on 5 May 1860. Sidney Smith declared that ‘the Canadians had been the first to discover the plain geographical truth that Londonderry was the nearest port to the Canadian continent.’  

Sir Hugh Allan

A portrait of Sir Hugh Allan who was the owner of Allan shipping line and in 1854 launched the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company.

In 1861, the Allan Line introduced weekly steamship sailings from Liverpool, calling at Moville, to Quebec and Montreal during the summer and to Halifax, Nova Scotia and Portland, Maine during the winter. This service, from Liverpool via Moville to Canada continued until the First World War.  

In Derry Almanac and Directory of 1861, the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company was advertising “All the Year Round, Every Friday from Londonderry to America” the “Cheapest and Shortest Sea Passage by Steam.”  By 1890 the Allan Line advertised that the average passage time from ‘Londonderry to Canada Direct Every Friday’ was seven days.

Derry now became the major emigration port for the northern half of Ireland. Annual Emigration Reports from the Port of Londonderry published in the Londonderry Sentinel show that between 1877 and 1897 inclusive 193,887 passengers embarked at Moville for North America; with 153,886 destined for USA and 40,001 to Canada. In one year, 1883, 15,217 emigrants boarded 154 steamers calling at Moville, with 10,496 destined for the United States and 4,721 for Canada. 

Pier 21, a new integrated ocean liner and railway facility, opened in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 8 March 1928. Between 1928 and 1971 Pier 21, Halifax was the gateway to Canada for one million immigrants. Special immigrant passenger trains would take passengers from Pier 21 to their new towns across Canada. Today Pier 21 hosts the Canadian Museum of Immigration; Atlantic Canada’s only national museum (

Pier 21

A picture of Pier 21 an ocean liner in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Today the Canadian Museum of Immigration is located at Pier 21.


Image 1: ‘Londonderry’ from an original sketch by John Nixon. This image of Derry dates back to just before the construction of its first bridge in 1790. The ferry boat, carrying two horses and five passengers is making its way across the River Foyle, and the elegant spire of St. Columb’s Cathedral dominates the skyline. The larger ship in the foreground could well be destined for America.

Allan Line Poster

Image 2 : Allan Line poster c. 1880. In 1854, Sir Hugh Allan, a Scottish-Canadian shipping magnate launched the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company as part of the Allan Shipping Line. The Allan Line of Royal Mail Steamers had a fleet of 20 steamships, all built in the 1870s, ranging from 3,000 to 4,500 tons in size, that operated on its North American service in the 1880s. The Allan Line was now the world’s largest privately owned shipping concern and it linked Liverpool (via Moville) with Quebec in the summer and Halifax in the winter. Apart from the funnel the early steamships just looked like a sailing ship.


Image 3: Anchor Line’s paddle tender Seamore, under full head of steam, departs Derry quay with over 300 emigrants and heads downstream to connect with a transatlantic liner, anchored off Moville, in the deeper waters of Lough Foyle, some 18 miles downstream from Derry, that left weekly for USA and Canada. In May 1928, the Anchor Line had acquired the Clyde Shipping Company’s tug-tender America and renamed her Seamore. Until 1939, when transatlantic liners ceased calling in Lough Foyle, the Seamore ferried passengers, emigrants and tourists between Derry and Moville. (Bigger and McDonald Collection, POR 12-14, Libraries NI)

Family portrait of Monteith family of Castlederg

Image 4: Family portrait of Monteith family of Castlederg, County Tyrone on board tender Seamore on Saturday 13 April 1929 as they head from Derry to Moville to connect with Anchor Line ship California, destined for Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The Monteith family settled at Peterborough in Central Ontario, Canada. (Bigger and McDonald Collection, POR 14-9, Libraries NI)

Passenger List of Tuscania

Image 5: Passenger List of Tuscania. Manifests listing passengers who departed Derry, at Moville, for USA and Canada between 1890 and 1939 are held in the records of the Board of Trade. An extensive rail network that converged on Derry now carried intending emigrants, from the northern half of Ireland, towards Derry, not just from its traditional catchment areas of Derry, Donegal and Tyrone. These lists, from 1922, record the address in Ireland of all embarking passengers; prior to this the only clue to family origin was either ‘Nationality’ or ‘Country of Last Permanent Residence’.

This article was kindly written by Brian Mitchell, Northern Ireland’s leading genealogist. He has spent years compiling sources on Derry, in particular, and on emigration from Northern Ireland in general.  He is also the author of the celebrated New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland, and two critical guidebooks on parish records and graveyards for all of Ireland. 

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