Wednesday, August 17, 2022

More About Irish "Population Clearance"


Perhaps our doomed "Goldilocks" research review yesterday didn't do full justice to the topic of assisted emigration schemes during the many famine years in Ireland. Let's take a closer look today—but this time, we'll look specifically from the point of view of the county from which my husband's second great-grandfather John Stevens emigrated: County Mayo in the northwest of Ireland.

An academic paper published in 2005 by the British Agricultural History Society in their journal, The Agricultural Review, provided much-needed background information on what author Desmond Norton described as "population clearance" in Ireland during famine years. In his article, "On landlord-assisted emigration from some Irish estates in the 1840s," Norton reviewed the discovery of letters and business records from the land agency firm of James Robert Stewart and Joseph Kincaid.

Most of the letters were from landlords, tenants, or the firm's local agents or partners, providing a specialized glimpse of the workings behind the assisted emigration schemes available during famine years in Ireland. While the information in the Norton paper is useful in a general sense, I need to examine any dynamics which might apply more specifically to John Stevens' case in County Mayo.

As it turns out, information from a website in County Mayo helped provide a more localized picture of how our John Stevens might have left his homeland.

Though part of our Goldilocks research foray yesterday—the part which turned out to be "too late"—mentioned the Tuke Assisted Emigration Schemes, it was interesting to discover that James Hack Tuke did travel specifically to County Mayo, where he observed the destitute condition of the population there, developed philanthropic projects, and organize opportunities for local residents to leave Ireland. All told, over three thousand people from County Mayo took up his offer, sailing from Blacksod Bay in northern County Mayo for either the United States or Canada.

Though in County Mayo the potato was the sole source of nutrition for nine-tenths of the population, the blight did not completely hit crops in that northern region in the first year of famine. The next year—1846—was a different matter. With the county now in the full throes of the famine, Mayo newspaper reports of the time painted a dire picture.

In the face of such desperation, local residents left on ships sailing from the small ports right in County Mayo, including the ill-fated vessel, The Elizabeth and Sarah. Not a lone example of the hazards encountered by those in County Mayo fleeing starvation, conditions in many other vessels crossing the Atlantic brought horrific tales to light. 

In considering the dire straits faced by the emigrating Irish, it is perhaps difficult to simply point a finger at those devising "assisted emigration schemes." True, some of those financiers behind paid passage opportunities had hidden motives—"population clearance" perhaps being one of them. But when you consider that it might take an unskilled laborer upwards of six months to earn enough money to pay for his own passage, it becomes clear that those who needed help the most had no other option.

In this exploration of conditions specific to County Mayo during famine years, one additional detail became apparent: not all Irish emigrants had to make the long journey to ports like Dublin or Queenstown (Cobh) in order to leave in hopes of a better life elsewhere. Desperate people left when they could and where they could, including from ports in County Mayo itself. While this may in one way seem to be good news for a researcher, in other ways it introduces a research problem. Since John Stevens undoubtedly left his homeland for America due to famine conditions, from which port did he sail? And which set of records might reveal this information?

Complicating matters is the port to which he headed, once leaving his homeland: the port of New Orleans. Tomorrow, let's examine what can be found of passenger records in that location.


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