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Irish Emigration to America

How did the Irish emigrants travel from their town lands and rural villages to the most important ports in Ireland and England, and from there to the United States? What means of transport did they use on land and sea, and how had those vehicles changed with the technical advances of the 19th century? How expensive were the fares and how comfortable were the accommodations? Which were the most common emigrant ships to America and what were their usual travel patterns?

The real or perceived prospect of acquiring land was a powerful appeal to children of tenant farmers in Ireland, who would never have other means to climb the social ladder in Ireland.

Where previous histories have fostered an image of oppressed victims driven into exile from their native land, the emigrants were able and willing to make their own choices, weighing up future prospects against their own usually desperate situation. These emigrants were predominantly small farmers and their families that were able to accumulate sufficient capital to finance the trip and buy provisions for a year. They knew that by acquiring 160 acres in Wisconsin or Minnesota, they would be better off than renting a few acres in Ireland, if not for themselves, then certainly for the next generation.

Once they made the decision to emigrate to America, the preparation was very complex, and represented for the emigrants a detailed exercise of travel planning. Departing from the Midlands or from Co. Wexford, the usual road taken by the emigrants bound to America ended in Dublin. From there the emigrant crossed to Liverpool, and took a ship sailing to New York, Boston or Philadelphia. Occasionally, the ports of Dublin and Cork were used to sail directly to North America when ships were chartered to this purpose. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that after 1840 and until the 1880s the vast majority of emigrants used Liverpool as their port of departure due to the greater availability of shipping lines, frequencies, fares and accommodations. There is also circumstantial evidence that some of them have gone from the port of Southampton, but Liverpool was the preferred port during the nineteenth century.

The land distance from Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, to Dublin is 81 kilometres, and other ports are farther than Dublin: Cobh (220 km), Rosslare (200 km), Belfast (220 km) and Larne (130 Km). In order to reach Dublin, there were two major means of transport for the typical emigrants, canal barges towed by horses from 1806, and later, from 1848, the railway. Of course, poorer emigrants would use less expensive means or just walk to save the fare. But the greater part of the emigrants paid for their tickets. In 1806, the Royal Canal reached Mullingar from Dublin. The Longford branch was opened in January, 1830. In total, the Royal Canal had an extension of 145 km from Dublin to River Shannon, including 46 locks. [4]

Between 1806 and 1848, emigrants from counties Westmeath and Longford ‘would have travelled to Dublin by canal boat. The journey time from Mullingar to Dublin was around thirteen hours in the early years of the canal service. By the 1840s, faster boats (known as the ‘fly boats’) cut journey times to eight hours’ [Illingworth 2002]. Canal barges lumbered sedately at five or six kilometres per hour. For about thirty years following its completion the Royal Canal enjoyed modest success. Goods traffic ‘built up to 134,000 tons annually by 1833, but this was far short of the business which the Grand Canal was attracting. Traffic on the upper reaches of the Shannon was disappointing and the anticipated trade from Lough Allen did not materialise. However, a branch line to Longford town was completed in 1830 and hotels were built at Broadstone in Dublin and Moyvalley in Co. Kildare’ [O.P.W. Waterways 1996: 19].

The journey was relatively comfortable, even if the traveller had to sleep on deck. But as emigration increased during the Famine years, the boats were often overcrowded. In 1845, six passengers died when one boat capsized in Longford Harbour. Some emigrants would have also travelled by the Grand Canal, with a branch to Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath, which was older and busier than the Royal Canal.

Baggage used by the emigrants would have been trunks and boxes for well-off travellers and simple bags for the poor emigrants.

In October 1848, heralding the decline of the importance of the Royal Canal, the Midland Great Western Railway Company (MGWR) reached Mullingar and in August, 1851, the line extended to Athlone. The railway age ‘signalled the demise of the canal. In 1845 the railway company purchased the entire canal for £298,059, principally to use the property to lay a new railway. It was legally obliged to continue the canal business, but inevitably traffic fell into decline. Passenger business ceased totally within a few years and by the 1880s the annual goods tally was down to 30,000 tons’ [O.P.W. Waterways 1996: 19].

By November 1855, the railway reached Longford. From 1848 onwards, the railway replaced the canal as the main mean of transport to Dublin. In the 1850s, emigrants travelling on the MGWR line had a choice of four trains daily to Dublin. The number of trains to the capital increased in the 1860s with the extension of the line to Galway and Sligo. Journey time to Dublin was around two hours. Those who travelled by third or fourth class would have had an uncomfortable journey: the 1850s fourth class carriages had neither heat nor sanitation, and were little better than cattle trucks, sometimes without seating.

In the Midland Great Western Railway line, the stations between Mullingar and Dublin were Killugan, Hill of Down, Moyvalley, Enfield, Ferns Lock, Kilcock, Maynooth, Leixlip, Luran, Clonsilla and Blanchardstown, with a total distance of 83 kilometres. A timetable sheet of December, 1853, includes six daily trains (arriving at Dublin 5.15 A.M., 9.45 A.M., 11.30 A.M, 2.00 P.M., 9.00 P.M., and 10 P.M.) and two Sunday trains (arriving at Dublin 5.15 A.M. and 10.00 P.M.). Fares were 8s (first class), 6s-6d (second), 4s-9d (third), and 3s (fourth). Most of the emigrants ‘would have purchased third of fourth class tickets to Dublin’ [Illingworth 2001].

In the 1850s, William Mulvihill of Ballymahon, Co. Longford, was the agent for the River Plate Steamship Company in the Midlands. [6] Prospective emigrants would buy their tickets from Mulvihill’s grocery store. From Mullingar, the emigrants could book a direct rail plus boat ticket to Liverpool for £2-2s. ‘The fact that emigrants [to South America] were advised to bring a revolver as well as a saddle may not have deterred farmers who had been forced to protect their stocks from starving labourers’ [O’Brien 1999: 55]. This would indicate that some of the emigrants bound to Argentina – who were able to pay a high fare to South America – were also able to ride a horse, a skill that would be very useful for them in the Argentine pampas.

Once in Dublin, emigrants would stay a night at a local hotel. The Broad Stone Hotel was the establishment of the Royal Canal Company in Dublin. In October 1807, under the management of John Rooney, the fare for one bed for one person in a room containing two or more beds was 2s-2d.

In order to cross the Irish Sea from Dublin to Liverpool, there were at least three boats daily and the journey took twelve to fourteen hours. There was a fully developed shipping trade between Ireland and Liverpool. The first quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed technological developments in the application of steam power to shipping which led to the strengthening of the connection between Ireland and England.

From the 1820s onward, ‘Liverpool was connected with all the main Irish ports by a fleet of relatively fast, cheap steam vessels, mainly paddle-driven but some screw-driven […]. The leading company of the Dublin-Liverpool trade was the Dublin and Liverpool Steam Packet Co. According to the company’s estimate, ‘they carried more than 100,000 passengers from June 1853 to June 1854’ [Préteseille 1999]. The crossing was a traumatic experience for passengers. There was little cabin accommodation. Moreover, ‘most ships were carrying animals below deck and they were usually taken better care of.’ William Watson, managing director of the Dublin and Liverpool Steam Packet Company gave evidence when he was questioned by a Parliamentary Committee:

– If you have both cattle and passengers you give the cattle preference?
– We cannot have them both in the same places.
– But the cattle would be sheltered, and deck passengers would not be sheltered?
– Yes [Préteseille 1999]

Few ships had steerage accommodations so most passengers had no shelter. They were therefore exposed to the weather and often arrived exhausted, scarcely able to walk. Most of the time, steamers – whose average tonnage was 500 to 700 – were overcrowded. Other emigrants bound to Liverpool sailed in boats headed to Holyhead, and then travelled by stagecoach to Liverpool (about 145 km).  

The Liverpool Experience

A dreadful experience awaited those disoriented Irish arriving in Liverpool in order to get a passage to South America. Indeed the arrival in Liverpool did not guarantee the next leg of the journey. Some of Liverpool residents were notorious for tricking the inexperienced travellers out of their passage money or even seducing women emigrants into employment in the city’s brothels. During the Famine period, ‘ma notorious for tricking the inexperienced travellers out of their passage money or even seducing women emigrants into employment in the city’s brothels. During the Famine period, ‘many rural emigrants never escaped the slums of Liverpool. The Irish now had to survive the streetwise con-men and racketeers’ [Préteseille 1999]. Before getting on board, emigrants had to deal with ship-brokers, runners, boarding-house keepers who overcharged them, keepers of spirit vaults and provision stores who sold them bad food and drink at high prices. They also had to pass a medical inspection.

When arriving at Liverpool, emigrants from Dublin and Wexford landed in Clarence Dock. Since most of the emigrants bound to Argentina would have already purchased their tickets in Ballymahon, Mullingar or Wexford town, their money was secured and just had to take care of their lodging until the boarding time. During the days of sailing ships, vessels were ‘expected any day now’ and, if the wind was against them, they could be up to three weeks late. From the many boarding-houses in Liverpool, those for poor emigrants were to be found in the neighbourhood of Waterloo Dock and northwards of the Clarence Dock, ‘more especially about Denison Street, Regent Street, Carlton Street, Porter Street, Stewart Street, and Great Howard Street’ [Préteseille 1999].

The two biggest boarding-houses were ran by Frederick Sabel (Union Hotel) and Frederick Marshall, at 28 Moorfield and at Clarence Dock, respectively. In the 1850s, Sabel’s charged one shilling a day for bed and three meals. Marshall’s charged four pence a night. Most emigrant boarding houses were of the filthiest kind. Emigrants sometimes even had to bed down in cellars that were as destitute of comfort and convenience as they were overcrowded, with the landlord making a profit on each warm body.

Most emigration vessels departed from the Waterloo dock, and ‘passengers where entitled to board the ship twenty-four hours before departure’ [Préteseille 1999]. However, since most of the emigrants bound to South America boarded cargo ships, their captains often did not allow the passengers to board until the last minute, when the cargo had finally been stowed in the hold. In fact, the captain often started to move his vessel before emigrants had time to get on board. When the captain was doing so or when the passengers arrived too late (which was quite common), that is to say after the gangplank was raised, then they went to the dock-gate.

The entrance of the dock was narrow and ships were detained there for a short time while other vessels were going out. During that time,

Men, women and children were scrambling up the sides of the ship. One could see hundreds of people confused, screaming. Luggage and boxes were flung aboard, followed by the passengers. When they or their luggage missed the ship and fell into the water there was usually a man in a rowing boat ready to rescue and get his reward. But sadly there was not always someone there to rescue and consequently a few people drowned. Those who did not manage to get onboard at the dock-gate had no choice but to hire a rowing boat to catch up the ship down the river Mersey. The boatmen would not do it for less than half a sovereign (10 shillings). Getting on board a ship was really rough, even for the cabin passengers [Préteseille 1999.

There were usually a large number of spectators at the dock-gates to witness the final departure of the ship. The sad scene of the departure was described in the Illustrated London News in 1850: ‘The most callous and indifferent can scarcely fail, at such a moment, to form cordial wishes for the pleasant voyage and safe arrival of the emigrants, and for their future prosperity in their new home. As the ship is towed out, hats are raised, handkerchiefs are waved, and a loud and long-continued shout of farewell is raised from the shore, and cordially responded to from the ship. It is then, if at any time, that the eyes of the emigrants begin to moisten’ [in: Préteseille 1999].  

Trans-Atlantic Crossing

Once the emigrants managed to get on board the ships, the following stage in the emigration process was to cross the Atlantic ocean. The Irish emigrants who departed from Liverpool, sailed back the way they had come, towards Ireland, with the winds dictating their routes: north around Mallin Head, or south by the Waterfront Estuary, Cove and Cape Clear. The sea crossing was not an easy voyage. It was long, taking between one and three months, and the sea was a strange environment to most emigrants, especially for those from rural areas in Longford and Westmeath. [7]

Aboard many ships bound to North America the risks were so great that there were numerous deaths, and these ships became known as ‘coffin ships’.

Conditions on board for the sail period can be reduced to three features: bad food and water, lack of space and hygiene, and poor medical care. On most journeys, the staple diet was ‘a concoction of water, barley, rye, and peas, which became saturated with moisture on board ship’ [Préteseille 1999]. Passengers had to do their own cooking on deck. Food was often either half-cooked or not cooked at all, since when the weather was bad they were not allowed on deck. In some ships, every crew member: got a pound of biscuits big coarse items called Water Biscuits, a day. These were known as blahs in Wexford but aboard the old sailing ships were called pantiles […]. These biscuits were as hard as rocks and full of maggots and weevils and every kind of insect. In order to eat the biscuits, they put them into a canvas bag and pounded them with an iron pin. Then they mixed the crumbs with whatever water could be spared from the daily ration and ate them that way. On the odd days that marmalade or jam was given out, it was mixed in. That was the sailors’ breakfast at about 7.30 A.M. along with a mug of coffee. Sometimes they baked the mashed biscuit and water; this was known as "dandyfunk". Each Friday a sailor was given either a pound of butter or a pound of marmalade but not both. For dinner at 12.30 each man got half a pound of boiled corned beef or corned pork. This menu alternated and on pork days pea soup was added. In the early days of a voyage potatoes would be served at dinner but when they ran out, which was quite rapidly, only the remains from the pound of blahs was eaten with the meat’ [Rossiter 1989: 17].

Routinely, steerage passengers had the same or worse food than crew members.

A sailing vessel, especially a square-rigged sailing vessel, ‘of course took the routes where the winds were most favorable because to do so was to save time and trouble in the end, even if it mean going thousands of miles out of the way’ [Greenhill & Giffard 1974: 20]. In 1834, a vessel of 420 tons, flush-decked and with three masts would have been mastered by a crew of about twenty persons: ‘the master, two mates and the steward […], the carpenter cooper and one apprentice […], the cook, ten seamen and three apprentices’ [Greenhill & Giffard 1974: 24].

Berths were simple spaces consisting of wooden bunks, usually six foot square and built into the ship’s timbers on either side of the hold, with a gangway down the middle. Each adult was usually allotted one quarter of a bunk, or 18 inches of bed space. There was no bedding, which is why passengers were often advised to get a mattress before going on board. Decency and comfort were almost impossible.

The living quarters were dark, cramped and dirty. They were never or very rarely cleaned. The fact that passengers had no means of changing their clothes or bedding, provided ideal condition for the spread of body lice and the typhus fever they carried. Typhus was the most deadly disease, and it was called ship fever. Most passengers tried to remain on the deck as much as possible to escape the lice and odors below but when there was a storm, they were forced back in steerage without fresh air as there was no ventilation. As doctors were seldom present on board, emigrants often had to doctor themselves and took their medicines, such as Holloway’s pills – which were widely advertised at the ports.

Every sailing vessel ‘was compelled to carry livestock. Cows and calves, sheep, goats, pigs and hens were carried in the larger vessels and the noises they made and the smells from their quarter did nothing to improve the conditions [Greenhill & Giffard 1974: 14]. Even the smallest vessels carried a few animals on voyages likely to be of any duration.

During the heat of the summer, the odors from the livestock combined with the stench from steerage were bad enough, but for most of the travelers, boredom and monotony were the most annoying aspects of the journey.

Cost of passage

With a regular wage for an Irish rural laborer at that time being 7½ shillings a week, he should have been forced to save during about an year to pay for the passage ticket.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, in order to reach Dublin, most of the Irish emigrants from the Midlands bound to Argentina used a combination of Bianconi coaches and Royal Canal barges. From Dublin, they took the steam-ship service to Liverpool. Emigrants from Co. Wexford would sail directly from Wexford town to Liverpool. After a short staying at Liverpool’s boarding houses, those emigrants bound for North America would take sailing vessels to New York, Boston or Philadelphia. Many ships also went to Canada and poorer emigrants took that route because fares were less.


1.      Bassett, George Henry (1885), Wexford County Guide and Directory: a Book for Manufacturers, Merchants, Traders, Landowners, Farmers, Tourists, Anglers, and Sportsmen Generally (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers & Walker). Reprinted Dublin: Hibernian Imprints, 1991.

2.      Bonsor, N. R. P. (1983), South Atlantic Seaway (Jersey Channel Islands: Brookside Publications)

3.      British Parliamentary Papers (1889), XXXII, Correspondence respecting Emigration to the Argentine Republic (London: Harrison & Sons), quoted as PP.

4.      Caserley, H. C. (1974), Outline of Irish Railway History (Newton Abbot)

5.      Clarke, Peter (1992), The Royal Canal (Dublin: Elo Publications)

6.      Coghlan, Eduardo A. (1982), El Aporte de los Irlandeses a la Formación de la Nación Argentina (Buenos Aires)

7.      Coghlan, Eduardo A. (1987), Los Irlandeses en Argentina: su Actuación y Descendencia (Buenos Aires)

8.      Delany, Ruth (1992), Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789-1992 (Dublin: Lilliput Press)

9.      Delany, Ruth (1973), The Grand Canal of Ireland (Dublin)

10. Delany, Ruth (1986), Ireland's Inland Waterways (London: Appletree Press)

11. Geraghty, Michael John (1999), Argentina: Land of Broken Promises in: The Buenos Aires Herald (17 March 1999)

12. Greenhill, Basil, and Ann Giffard (1974), Travelling by Sea in the Nineteenth Century: Interior Design in Victorian Passenger Ships (New York: Hastings House)

13. Howat, Jeremy N. T. (1984), South American Packets 1808-1880 (York: Postal History Society, William Session Ltd.)

14. Illingworth, Ruth, ed. (1998), When the Train Came to Mullingar (Mullingar: Westmeath Examiner)

15. Illingworth, Ruth (2002), private correspondence (April-May, 2002)

16. Kirby, Peadar (1992), Ireland and Latin America, Links and Lessons (Dublin: Trócaire)

17. Leahy, David (1990), County Longford and its People: and Index to the 1901 Census for County Longford (Glenageary, Co. Dublin: Flyleaf Press)

18. Leahy, David (1996), County Longford Survivors of the Great Famine: a Complete Index to Griffith’s Primary Valuation (1854) (Raheen, Co. Limerick: Derryvrin Press)

19. McCann, William (1971), Two Thousand Miles’ Ride through the Argentine Provinces (London: 1853; reprint New York: AMS Press)

20. McGoey, Cathal (1996), The Canal – A Journey Through Time quoting William Bulfin’s Rambles in Erin in: Program of the Abbeyshrule Royal Canal Amenity Group for the Official Opening of the Abbeyshrule Harbour, Sunday 9th June, 1996 (Abbeyshrule)

21. McKenna, Patrick (1992), Irish Migration to Argentina in: O’Sullivan, Patrick (ed.) ‘The Irish World Wide: History, Heritage, Identity’ Vol. 1 (London and Washington: Leicester University Press)

22. McKenna (1994), Nineteenth Century Irish Emigration to, and Settlement in, Argentina (St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, Co. Kildare: MA Geography Thesis)

23. McNeill, D. B. (1971), Irish Passenger Steamship Services, Vol. 2 ‘South of Ireland’ (Neton Abbot)

24. Mulhall, Michael George & Edward Thomas Mulhall (1892), Handbook of the River Plate, Comprising Buenos Ayres, The Upper Provinces, Banda Oriental, and Paraguay (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co.)

25. Mulligan, Fergus (1983), One Hundred and Fifty Years of Irish Railways (Belfast)

26. Murphy, Emily (ca 1909), Memoirs of my Father John Murphy in: Mary Anglim's private collection (Kilmore, Co. Wexford)

27. Murphy, John James, Letters from Salto, Buenos Aires, to Martin Murphy in Haysland, Kilrane, Co. Wexford 1864-1866 in: Mary Anglim's private collection (Kilmore, Co. Wexford)

28. Murray, Edmundo (2004), Devenir irlandés: Narrativas íntimas de la emigración irlandesa a la Argentina (Buenos Aires: Eudeba)

29. Murray, Thomas (1919), The Story of the Irish in Argentina (New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons)

30. Nevin, Kathleen (1946), You'll Never Go Back (Maynooth: The Cardinal Press, 1999). Original edition by Bruce Humphries (Boston, 1946). 

31. Nolan, Kevin B., ed. (1993), Travel and Transport in Ireland (Dublin)

32. O’Brien, Seamus (1999), Famine and Community in Mullingar Poor Law Union 1845-1849 (Dublin)

33. Robbins, Edward (1860), Memoirs 1802-1853, in: Julia McInerny's private collection (San Pedro, Buenos Aires)

34. Rossiter, Nicholas (1989), Wexford Port: a History (Wexford: Wexford Council of Trade Unions).

35. Cserley, H. C. (1974), Outline of Irish Railway History (Newton Abbot)

36. Clarke, Peter (1992), The Royal Canal (Dublin: Elo Publications

Murray, Edmundo, The Irish Road to South America, Nineteenth Century Travel Patterns to River Plate




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