Article by Dr. Naoise Cleary, Founder of Clare Heritage & Genealogy Centre

To all intents and purposes, emigration from Co. Clare began with the dreadful famine of 1822 which followed a disastrous harvest in 1821. To understand the background to this emigration, some statistics and changing circumstances should be noted. In 1821 the population of Co. Clare was 208,089 having doubled during the previous twenty years.

This explosion was a rural phenomenon and continued until the mid-1840s.

What sustained this dense rural population? Since 1792 vast tracts of mountain land were reclaimed. People felt that the potato on which they subsisted could never fail. A family of six persons could be maintained on less than one acre of ground.

With the rising population tenants, invariably without the consent of their landlords, sublet and subdivided their farms into two or three acre holdings which provided sustenance for landless sons and neighbours. The Napoleanic wars also inflated agricultural prices, which were good for landlord and tenant and provided employment for subtenants, cottiers and labourers. People had no apprehension of poverty. Consequently early marriages took place and children were regarded as being of little or no burden.

Scalp of Brian Connor, near Kilrush Union House
Scalp of Brian Connor, near Kilrush Union House

After the peace of 1815, rural Ireland underwent a transition period. The collapse of the war boom tumbled grain prices. Landlords were still demanding war rents after peace prices had returned. This led to conflict, tenants were unable to meet the demands being made on them. Many resident landlords were in dire economic straits. They sought a solution to their problems through consolidating the small farms into large tillage holdings or into pasture land for the grazing of cattle. This pushed thousands of families off the land and demolished their habitations.

The disastrous famine of 1882 was especially severe in Clare. Daniel O'Connell in a letter to his wife, dated 4th May 1882 states: 'All are actually starving in Co. Clare and nearly so in Kerry. The distress is extreme and the want spreading.' Any emigration resulting from this famine generally ended up on Merseyside, with Irish labourers building docks, water ways, public buildings and factories in Lancashire and beyond. It was not long however until English economists proclaimed that the swarming of Irish workers evicted from the land into English factories at reduced wages, threatened the standard of living of British workers and so in time the English Government established a Poor Law or 'workhouse' system for Ireland.

After 1822 emigration to Australia was more attractive than to America due to the fact that it was mainly aid-provided. Convict transportation from the county pre-1822 was insignificant amounting to only 82 people, 9 of whom were females. Between 1821 and 1840 however 636 Clare people were transported to NSW, principally for petty crime – stealing bread, butter, clothing, killing sheep for meat, all done in the name of survival. More serious crimes, including the stealing of cattle, earned life sentences. These convicts sent home word about the superior kind of life available in the colonies, which set the pattern for subsequent emigration especially from Tipperary, Clare and South East Galway evoking memories of Whiteboys, Terry Alts and Ribbonmen.

In the 1820s quite a number of free settlers with capital entered Australia. They were mostly the sons of landlords, of merchant and professional classes. Some commissioned officers at British Army outposts such as India, sold their commissions and for the money purchased ranches in Australia. For £1,000 one could purchase more than 2,000 acres of good land. They needed shepherds, stockmen, ploughmen, artisans, miners and they in turn came from amongst evicted tenants and others as 'indentured' labourers, whose passages were mostly paid for.

The deserted village of Moveen, parish of Moyarta, County Clare in 1849 - courtesy of the National Museum, Ireland
Bridget O'Donnel & children

'Improving' landlords such as Col. Wyndham offered free passage to tenants and their families to emigrate to Canada or Australia. Many families availed of the offer; the only alternative was eviction. The Poor Law was enacted in 1838 and the county was divided into Poor Law Unions each administered by a Board of Guardians. Originally there were only four unions in Clare – Ennis, Kilrush, Scariff and Ennistymon. Each had a workhouse which at Ennis and Kilrush could accommodate 800 inmates while Scariff and Ennistymon were expected to cater for 600.

Between 1850 and 1852 other workhouses were provided at Corofin, Ballyvaughan, Kildysart and Tulla. Most of the inmates were evicted tenants and orphans and others left destitute by the Great Famine. The Boards of Guardians discovered that it was cheaper to pay the passage to Australia for an able-bodied inmate than to maintain him in the workhouse and very many of those in receipt of poor law aid availed of such offers.

At that time also there was an imbalance in the colony between male and females and the governors were clamouring for greater female immigration. The Boards of Guardians in the Poor Law Unions considered that they should lessen the burden on their finances by offering free passage to Australia to orphan girl inmates between the ages 14 and 18 years. The workhouses during the period 1840-1862 were homes for the most destitute children in Ireland. One boat the Thomas Arbuthnot arrived into Sydney on the 3rd February 1850 with a cargo of orphans, including eighty two girls from Co. Clare workhouses. A number of wealthy citizens in Australia to-day are descendants of those girls.

The colonial bounty system to aid would-be immigrants came into being in 1837 but was revised in 1840. It granted pecuniary aid under certain conditions to persons bringing into NSW from the UK (including Ireland) agricultural labourers, shepherds, tradesmen, female domestics and farm servants. The sum of £38 would be paid as a bounty for any married man of the above description and his wife, neither of whose ages on embarkation to exceed forty years; £5 for each child between 1 and 7 years; £10 for each child between 7 and 15 years; £19 would be allowed for every unmarried female domestic or farm servant not below 15 nor above 30 years, coming out under the protection of a married couple as part of a family.

Miss Kennedy distributing clothing at Kilrush
Miss Kennedy distributing clothing at Kilrush

The Gold Rush of the 1850s brought thousands of emigrants almost overnight into Victoria. In the year 1856, 278 emigrants from Clare arrived on assisted passages into Victoria; Tipperary was next with 206 emigrants and it is remarkable that all Leinster including Dublin City only provided 222. Large concentrations of Clare people settled at Ballarat and Bendigo.

Emigration to South Australia only began in the 1840s and was much encouraged by Charles Bagot, land agent for Bindon Blood who lived at Rockforest, Kilkeedy and who was supervisor of the Burren road system. He chartered a boat, The Birman, which arrived into Adelaide in 1840! His son doscovered copper at Kapunda. Several North Clare families, probably prompted by Bagot, settled in the district – Kerin, Canny, Linnane, Davoren etc. and all have descendants there to-day. Dr. Blood, first medical doctor in Kapunda and first Mayor of the town, emigrated from Corofin in 1844. Part of the town of Clare, in the nearby Clare Valley, the great wine-producing area in South Australia is called Inchiquin. One sees 'Inchiquin Port Wine' in every bar in South Australia.

Very many Clare people attained eminence in the professional and business life of Australia. An account of all of them would make a substantial volume. We shall mention but a few. Michael Durack and his family from Magherareagh, in the parish of Iniscaltra, arrived as a 'indentured labourer' into NSW in May 1853. His son Patsy Durack extended his ownership of land over thousands of square miles. Dame Mary Durack now living in Perth, wrote Kings in Grass Castles describing in detail the fabulous achievements of the Duracks.

Paddy Hannon born at Gurteen, Quin on the 24th April 1840, son of John Hannon and Bridget Lynch, discovered two nuggets of gold north of Coolgardie on the 15th June 1893 and this was the beginning of the fabulous 'Golden Mile'. A statue of him stands on the main street of Kalgoorlie and a bust of him is to be seen in the De Valera Library in Ennis which was presented to Clare Co. Council in 1988 by the Corporation of Kalgoorlie. A Clareman Patrick Lynch owned two hotels in Kalgoorlie in the last century and was an ardent supporter of Home Rule for Ireland. Captain Charles Fitzgerald, born at Kilkee in 1791, was Governor of Western Australia from 1848 to 1855. He is buried at Kilkee.

Now we shall turn our attention to Irish emigration to America. This really began before migration to Australia, but for the same causes. The Erie Canal started in 1817 was completed in 1825; it covered a distance of 350 miles across NY state from Albany on the Hudson to Buffalo on the Lake Erie. Fifty thousand people almost entirely Irish lived along the route. The Irish Catholic emigrant settled in cities and towns rather than in the open country.

The deserted village of Moveen, parish of Moyarta, County Clare in 1849 - courtesy of the National Museum, Ireland
The deserted village of Moveen, parish of Moyarta, County Clare in 1849 - courtesy of the National Museum, Ireland

The Catholic Irish who landed in America before the mid 1850s arrived on sailing ships. April and May were the recommended months for the emigrant to take passage. July and August were to be avoided as the prevalence of south-west winds made for a tedious journey. Those travelling to the US depended almost entirely on their own devices, relations already in America frequently providing passage money.

There are records of girls in domestic employment, walking more than 25 miles to New York to send passage money home to Ireland, or make a booking with a shipping agent. Migrants generally bought tickets at an agency in the nearest town and there could be a delay of weeks waiting to obtain a passage, meanwhile living as best they could in the overcrowded seaports. Each migrant had to have sufficient provisions to last the journey, which usually took from 50-70 days. Those early migrants were much to be pitied. What a traumatic experience it was for people who had not been more than fifteen miles away from home and who could not read nor write, (in 1841, 61% of all Clare people over 5 years were illiterate).

The Irish peasant's knowledge of life ahead of him was often fragmentary and fanciful. Many Irish emigrants availed of cheap passages out of Liverpool on outgoing cotton ships and so we find that New Orleans, in the Cotton Belt, was second to New York in its reception of migrants. Boston, the new home of so many Clare people, held only third place. The extent of emigration from Ireland to Australia was very great up to 1870, which is reflected to-day in the fact that one in every three Australians has Irish roots-over five million in a population of 16 million. Enumeration of emigrants began in 1851. We can only speculate on the extent of emigration before that date. However between 1st May 1851 and 31st March 1881, 100,496 Clare men and women left Ireland for foreign parts and remarkably males led females by exactly only 100 souls. The highest year for emigration was 1851 the figure 9,499-averaging 180 people per week, leaving the county.

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