Famine emigration

Emigration in panic was a common response to the Famine. The destitute swarmed around the ports desperate to get on ships, frequently begging for the fare or trying to stowaway. Small farmers whose crops failed wanted to sell up and get out with their families. But they had to find money for fares, suitable clothes, book their passage and make arrangements for getting to the port and for arrival at the other side, which was most likely to be North America.

A Roscommon woman with six children was arrested at a night shelter in Dublin in 1847. Having to account for the large sum of money in her possession, the following story emerged:

She lived in the County Roscommon and her husband held about ten acres of land but he died last Shrovetide; she had no means of sowing a crop and she gave up the place to a collector of poor rate who gave her £15 for it; she got £5 for a mare and £4 for a cow, 10s for a cart and harrow and more money for other things and this made up all she had; she was going to America, but she would not be taken with her children for less than £27.

When her eldest boy, a thirteen-year old corroborated her story, the magistrate deemed it evidently true and discharged her.
Cormac Ó Gráda, 'Making Irish famine history today' in Ireland's Famine, Dublin, 1995, p.45.

Local newspapers published advertisements for emigration agents and advised those who could afford it - and could read - on the kind of food that would hold well and supplement the scanty dried bread, rice and salt meat provided on board ship.

Oatmeal, treacle, corned beef, tea, buttered eggs, butter in a tin, white bread sliced and dried in an oven, no spirituous liquor, flour to bake, bacon and good red herring.
From King's County Chronicle, 22 Nov. 1848.

On his over-crowded and indebted estate at Strokestown Park, Co. Roscommon, Major Denis Mahon paid £4,000 to help 1,000 of his tenants to emigrate in 1847 but almost half died on the voyage from contagious diseases which spread rapidly in cramped steerage quarters and the survivors were in a dreadful condition on arrival in Canada.

Stephen de Vere, of comfortable gentry background, undertook a voyage to Canada as a steerage passenger in 1847. He wanted to find out what it was like to spend two months on an emigrant ship and he published his experiences:

Before the emigrant has been a week at sea, he is an altered man. How can it be otherwise? Hundreds of poor people ... [sleeping between decks] without light, without air, wallowing in filth ... fevered patients lying between the sound ... The supply of water, hardly enough for cooking and drinking, does not allow washing ... filthy beds ... a damp and fetid stench ... the ship, with her open fire grates upon deck ... was freighted with government [gun] powder for the garrison of Quebec.
Noel Kissane, The Irish famine, Dublin, 1995, p. 162.

Stephen de Vere's account embarrassed the British government into making stricter laws for trans-Atlantic passenger ships.


  1. What preparations did people have to make for emigration?
  2. Why was the Roscommon woman arrested in Dublin in 1847?
  3. Why did Major Denis Mahon help his tenants to emigrate in 1847?
  4. Why did so many of Mahon's emigrant tenants die?
  5. Describe in your own words the conditions on board the ship Stephen de Vere sailed on.
  6. What effect did Stephen de Vere wish to have on his readers?


  1. Role play a conversation between the Roscommon woman and another woman in the night shelter in 1847.
  2. Write an article for a newspaper or magazine about Major Mahon's emigrant tenants.
  3. Visit Strokestown Famine Museum, Co. Roscommon.
  4. Role play a television or radio interview with Stephen de Vere.
  5. Study Liverpool Mail in Documents at the end of this section.
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