14 The substantial increase in emigration during and after the famine is certainly note-worthy; however it is important to look at other factors influencing the increase in and pattern of emigration during the 19th Century. An international trend of migration was under way, primarily as a result of European colonialism. The British government, in an effort to settle her colonies actively encouraged emigration. Subsidised emigration to Australasia and Canada is a prime example of this.
Subsidised emigration had the effect of making emigration a genuine option to those who would have otherwise been unable to afford it, and influenced the pattern of Irish emigration by encouraging settlement in certain places. Another factor that emerged which encouraged emigration was the improvement of transport technology. The development of steam powered ships, and better ship design, cut down the length of the journeys that migrants undertook, and made emigration increasingly feasible.
The first steam packet linked Belfast with Glasgow in 1818, and it was only a short while longer for ferry services to run from Dublin and cork to Liverpool, the main port for trans-Atlantic crossings. The commercialisation of the transport industry was also to play a role. Competing companies drove down the cost of transport, not only making the trips more affordable, but the possibility of a return trip home more plausible. 15 Thus quicker and cheaper transport opportunities were available for emigrants. Furthermore, the ‘pull’ factors overseas, and ‘push’ factors in Ireland were inherent even before the famine.
The growth of population, the decline of domestic industry, the commercialisation of agriculture, and proto-industrialisation all served as ‘push’ factors. In particular, the commercialisation of agriculture witnessed the increasing conversion of arable land to pasture, which led to growing dependence on the potato for subsistence; an increased rate of farm consolidation, which added many smallholders and cottiers to the ranks of landless labourers; and the application of new farming techniques, which made agriculture less labour intensive and contributed to under employment and unemployment.
16 The predominant ‘pull’ factor can certainly be considered the increased desire for material well-being, which was seen as a relatively remote possibility if one were to stay in Ireland. Much Irish emigration resulted from the prospect of relatively well paid employment in the industrialised economies of Britain and America. Furthermore, America had the additional attraction of being free from British rule.
17 Emigration was clearly well under way before the famine, however, the mass exodus of impoverished and starving Irish during the years of the famine was unprecedented, and devastated population growth, with massive social, economic, and psychological consequences on Irish life for years following the famine. Nevertheless, it was the quantity, rather than the fundamental pattern of emigration that was changing. The change in Irish attitudes was where the real transformation took place. Before the famine emigration was seen by many as the path to exile.
18 This is sometimes evidenced by the fact the in the Gaelic language there is no corresponding word to describe the idea of emigration (choosing to leave one’s homeland for another) the closest word being ‘exile’. The largely agrarian nature of Ireland also encouraged a strong sense of bond to the land amongst many Irish, and consequently saw them reluctant to leave. Thus Irish attitudes to emigration were largely negative. The Great famine certainly saw a marked change in these attitudes; emigration became a welcome and necessary escape route.
19 Emigration success stories of wealth and prestige over shadowed the stories of continued poverty, hardship and discrimination suffered by migrants. Even the horrifying stories of death on the ‘coffin ships’ did little to discourage the new found fascination with emigration. 20 It became an expected part of life, like marriage for many Irish. One consequence of this was that married Irish couples were able to maintain high levels of fertility (in contrast to the rest of Europe), because they might reasonably presume that children who were unable to find work in Ireland could simply leave.
21 Emigration effectively provided a ‘safety valve’ for the Irish population. 22 David Fitzpatrick argues that attitudes towards emigration had changed so much by the 1860’s, that those who failed to leave Ireland were often stigmatised as indolent incapable of deformed. 23 Janet Nolan, in discussing Irish women’s emigration, further disbands the notion of exile by describing it as an unprecedented opportunity, rather than a forced expulsion. 24 The change in Irish attitudes towards emigration as a result of the famine certainly opened up the way for emigration to increase.
With its less negative connotations, and perhaps even positive connotations, emigration became a more viable option for those facing hardship in Ireland, and hoping for a chance of betterment elsewhere. Perhaps it even became a ‘palliative drug to which Irish society had grown dangerously addicted’. 25 Whether this quote is an exaggeration or not, the fact remains that the attitudes towards emigration by the Irish had certainly changed by the end of the 19th Century, overwhelmingly as a consequence of the famine.
Emigration has played a hugely important role in Irish history. It is a tradition that was well underway before the Great Famine, and so to call the famine ‘a fundamental transformation in the pattern of Irish emigration’ is to well overstate the case. The famine did cause an unprecedented increase in emigration, and the mass emigration of Irish fleeing starvation and poverty left gaping holes in a ravaged society and had lasting consequences for Ireland. Despite this, it was more a matter of building on existing frameworks, than a transformation of emigration patterns.
Further, changing conditions, internationally as well as locally, should also be considered when discussing the perpetuating levels of emigration. European colonialism which sponsored emigration, technological advancement and the commercialisation of transport allowed the potential pre-famine ‘push and pull factors’ to play themselves out. It was Irish attitudes towards emigration that saw the greatest change, perhaps even ‘transformation’ as a result of the famine.
Emigration was no longer viewed as exile, a last resort for the destitute, but a real and desirable alternative to life in Ireland. This transformation in attitudes encouraged the continued emigration of Irish after the Great Famine along the same patterns of emigration that had been laid out in the early 19th Century. Moreover, it was one of the contributing factors which led to what is certainly the most remarkable aspect of Irish history in the 19th Century; the fact that Ireland lost nearly half her population as a result of emigration.
26 1 Alvin Jackson, Ireland: 1798-1998, Oxford, 1999, p. 82. 2 Roger Swift, ‘The historiography of the Irish in nineteenth-century Britain’, in Patrick O’Sullivan (ed. ), The Irish in the new communities, London, 1992, p. 53. 3 Tim Pat Coogan, Wherever Green is worn: The story of the Irish Diaspora, London, 2000, p. xiii. 4 ibid. , p. xi. 5 Ibid. , p. xii. 6 Jackson, p. 83. 7 ibid,. p. 83. 8Christine Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology and rebellion, Basingstoke, p. 32. 9 ibid. , p. 32. 10 Coogan, p.
xii. 11 Jackson, p. 69. 12 Coogan, p. xii. 13 Roger Swift, p. 54. 14 Jackson, p. 83. 15 Roger Swift, p. 54. 16ibid. , p. 53. 17ibid. , p. 54. 18 Jackson, p. 83. 19 Jackson, p. 83. 20 Christine Kinealy, p. 58-9. 21 David Fitzpatrick, ‘Irish Emigration in the later Nineteenth Century’, Irish Historical Studies XXII, September, 1980, p. 127. 22 ibid. , p. 127. 23ibid. , p. 126. 24 Janet A. Nolan, Ourselves Alone: Women’s emigration from Ireland 1885-1920, Kentucky, 1989, p. 85. 25David Fitzpatrick, p. 127.