Ireland 1800s

After the two Acts of Union in 1800 & 1801 which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, British governments grappled with the problems of governing a country which had, as Benjamin Disraeli put it in 1844, "a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world." One historian calculated that between 1801 and 1845, there had been 114 commissions and 61 special committees enquiring into the state of Ireland and that "without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her laborers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low."

The Great Famine of the mid-18th Century documents a period of Irish history between 1845 and 1852 during which time the population of Ireland was reduced by 20 to 25 percent caused from a potato disease commonly known as late blight. Although blight ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s, the impact and human cost in Ireland – where a third of the population was entirely dependent on the potato for food – was exacerbated by a host of political, social and economic factors which remain the subject of historical debate .

Landlords were responsible for paying the rates of every tenant who paid less than £4 in yearly rent. Landlords whose land was crowded with poorer tenants were now faced with large bills. They began clearing the poor tenants from their small plots, and letting the land in larger plots for over £4 which then reduced their debts. In 1846, there had been some clearances, but the great mass of evictions came in 1847, landlords turning out thousands of families and demolishing their derisory cabins. It was only in 1849 that the police began to keep a count, and they recorded a total of almost 250,000 persons as officially evicted between 1849 and 1854. In some cases, tenants were persuaded to accept a small sum of money to leave their homes, cheated into believing the workhouse would take them in. 

The deserted village of Moveen, Clare 184

Famine was responsible for a significant increase in emigration from Ireland aboard what became known as Famine Ships; 250 thousand people in one year alone. Coffin Ships is also used to refer to the ships that carried Irish immigrants escaping the famine; they were generally crowded and disease-ridden, with poor access to food and water. It was said that sharks could be seen following the ships, because so many bodies were thrown overboard. Emigration during the years of 1845-1850 were to England, Scotland, the US, Canada, and Australia.

The famine years produced as many transportees from Ireland as the preceding half century.

No Work
Unemployment was an endemic problem in Clare for decades before the famine, bringing about the term 'ordinary labourer' which was used to describe the unemployed rather than those who worked regularly. Many of them were willing to risk the criminal way of stock rustling rather than suffer the indignity of the workhouse.

The majority of people made their exodus during the 1850-60s; from western Ireland, more than any other part. Families did not migrate en masse but younger members of families did. So much so that emigration almost became a rite of passage, as evidenced by the data that show that, unlike similar emigration throughout world history, women emigrated just as often, just as early, and in the same numbers as men. The emigrant started a new life in a new land, sent remittances back to his/her family in Ireland which, in turn, allowed another member of the family to emigrate. 

Gold Fever
Between 1851 and 1860 roughly 101,540 Irish came to Australia, mainly struck with gold fever. Unlike their Welsh, Scottish and English neighbours, most of the Irish lacked mining skills. In the early stages this wasn’t a significant problem as alluvial mining, which required little expertise, predominated. However, as surface deposits of gold ran out, and alluvial mining gave way to deep lead mining, ‘to go it alone’ meant relevant skills were essential. Lacking these, the numerous Irish on the goldfields became a ready source of unskilled labour for the large-scale mining concerns that were developing. Although for some of the Irish their golden dream became a reality, for the vast majority a short, fruitless stint as a miner soon gave way to one of the mundane, but more profitable, professions available in colonial life. 

A Good Life
The abundance of available work, fueled by the needs of the diggers, meant that many of the Irish enjoyed a standard of living well beyond that they had left behind in Ireland. Reporting on the Daisy Hill diggings near Castlemaine, the Cork Examiner informed readers that:
“Young Irish Orphan girls who scarcely knew the luxury of a shoe until they put their feet on the soil of Victoria lavish money on white satin at 10/- or 12/- a yard for their bridal dresses and flout out of the shop slamming the door because the unfortunate shop keeper does not have the real shawls at ten guineas a piece.”

Crossing the Bridge of Tears in Donegal
A plaque commemorating The Bridge of Tears, reads, "Fad leis seo a thagadh cairde agus lucht gaoil an té a bhí ag imeacht chun na coigrithe. B'anseo an scaradh. Seo Droichead na nDeor". 

The Bridge in West Donegal, Ireland

Plaque commemorating those who separated at the bridge
"This all came with friends and relatives and the person who was going to the coigrithe. B'anseo the separation. This Bridge of Tears".

Family and friends of the person leaving for foreign lands would come this far. Here was the separation. This is the Bridge of Tears. A plaque now commemorates their passage. The Bridge of Tears (Droichead na nDeor in Irish) in West Donegal, Ireland. Family and friends of emigrants would accompany them as far as the bridge before saying goodbye, while the emigrants would continue on to Londonderry Port.