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Emigration

Emigration has been one of the central features of Irish life over the last 300 years. Tens of thousands of people have left from the Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough areas to seek a new and hopefully better life in Britain, North America, Australasia and elsewhere. The ports of Londonderry, Newry and Warrenpoint were important conduits of these migrations. Emigration in the eighteenth century is usually associated with the departure of Presbyterians, usually of Scottish descent, from Ulster, while in the nineteenth century it is generally related to the exodus as a result of the Great Famine.

Emigration from Derry

Over the centuries thousands of people have used the port of Derry to travel overseas in search of a new life. In the eighteenth century Derry was one of, if not the, most important Ulster port in the emigration trade. In July 1729 one Derry merchant reported that 25 ships had left the port that summer already, each carrying 140 passengers. Not only did ships sail from Derry to Colonial America, some also sailed to Canada, docking in Nova Scotia. Emigration to America was closely linked to the flaxseed trade, itself crucial to Ulster’s economy. Ships bringing flaxseed to the province were refitted to carry migrants back across the Atlantic. Other ships brought timber or cotton to Ireland and Great Britain before returning with migrants. In the early nineteenth century there were several shipping companies operating a passenger service out of Derry. By the late 1830s ships from Derry were also sailing to Australia.

In the years leading up to the Famine the Cooke brothers, John and Joseph, established a small trading fleet between Derry and North America. On ships sailing out of Derry emigrants were carried; on the return voyages the cargo was timber. As a result of the Famine the numbers emigrating rocketed. In 1847 over 12,000 people left Derry, over 5,000 on ships owned or chartered by J. & J. Cooke. After 1847 the numbers emigrating declined quite dramatically. Another important shipping company at this time was the McCorkell Line, founded by William McCorkell and continued by his son Barry. The catchment area for the port of Derry included nearly all of counties Donegal, Londonderry and Tyrone. A small number came from even further a field, including some from counties Fermanagh, Antrim, Roscommon and Leitrim. The Derry shipping companies were eventually forced out of the passenger trade by the steamships operating out of Glasgow and elsewhere. The last passenger voyage by a Derry-owned ship to New York was made in 1873. Those wishing to travel to North America were now carried down the Foyle in paddle tenders to Moville where they were transferred to the transatlantic steamships.

Emigration from Newry and Warrenpoint

Newry was also an important port in transatlantic trade and many thousands emigrated from here to America and elsewhere. Its catchment area included much of south Down, south Armagh, Louth and Monaghan. Like Derry, Newry was an important port in the eighteenth century for individuals and families emigrating to Colonial America. In 1765 the Britannia, due to sail between Newry and Philadelphia, was advertised as having ‘a large cabin, six state rooms, with air ports to each state room, large quarter galleries, with everything elegantly complete as a London trader’. The fact that there was a space of six feet between decks was considered spacious. The journey across the Atlantic was hazardous. Sickness was always a very real danger in the cramped conditions below deck, especially when insufficient supplies of food and water were onboard. It was reported in 1774 that many of the passengers had died of illness on two of the ships to have left Newry for America that year.

Warrenpoint was also developing as an important port with sailings to North America. In 1847 the Lady Caroline was advertised as sailing from Warrenpoint to St John, New Brunswick. Those interested in sailing on her were to contact Francis Carvill, an emigration agent based in Newry. While some of the ships sailed directly to North America, it was more usual for the ships to go via Liverpool. Bassett’s County Down Directory of 1886 stated that Warrenpoint possessed a ‘first-rate quay with mooring accommodation for a considerable number of vessels’. Over 500 vessels had docked in it that year. Many thousands of people used Newry and Warrenpoint as exit points in travelling to Britain looking for work. Tony Canavan’s book on Newry, Frontier Town, includes a photograph of the Iveagh, one of the last ships to run a regular passenger service to Liverpool. It carried 12 passengers as well as a range of goods.

Centre for Migration Studies

Located at the Ulster American Folk Park, near Omagh, County Tyrone, the Centre for Migration Studies (CMS) has the best collection of material relating to emigration in Ireland. Its Irish Emigration Database contains over 30,000 items. The Irish Emigration Database (IED) is a computerised collection of primary source documents relating to Irish emigration. It contains a variety of original material including emigrant letters, newspaper articles, shipping advertisements, shipping news, passenger lists, official government reports, family papers, births deaths and marriages and extracts from books and periodicals. There is an extensive library of some 10,000 volumes at the CMS which is open to the public. For opening hours and other details you should consult the website of the CMS (www.qub.ac.uk/cms).

Further reading:
•Toy Canavan, Frontier Town: an illustrated history of Newry(1989)
•R. J. Dickson, Ulster emigration to colonial America(Belfast, 1966)
•Brian Mitchell(ed.), Irish Passenger Lists, 1847-1871. Lists of passengers sailing from Londonderry to America on the ships of the J. & J. Cooke Line and the McCorkell Line(Baltimore, 1988)
•Brian Mitchell, ‘Sources for the study of emigration’ in G. O’Brien (ed.), Derry & Londonderry: History and Society (Dublin, 1999)