We are going to visit Canada this year. Yes, we will be visiting tourist haunts, do shopping, visit art galleries, etc. But a visit would not be complete if we did not also remember the influx of Irish people into Canada in one of its darkest times.
Although Irish immigration into the USA has traditionally received more attention, many Irish would move to Canada. Both countries were, of course, part of the British Empire until Irish independence. It was therefore much easier for someone in Ireland to move to Canada than it was to emigrate to the USA.
In our last magazine, we wrote about the Jeannie Johnston, a ship that transported people to Canada during the famine. It provided excellent care and is one of the few ships that did not have a single death during its voyages. Unlike many other ships, which caused these ships to be called “coffin ships”.
There were those that perished as a result of shipwrecks. We read a very interesting article on this here.
Most deaths were, however, the result of diseases. The deadly results were often exacerbated because crews would not let the passengers out on the deck, because they were afraid of becoming ill themselves. But of course, after delivering their human cargo into cities like Montreal, these diseases spread among the locals. To protect themselves, the Canadian authorities decided to create a quarantine station, at Grosse Isle, and island in the St. Lawrence river. We intend to visit this island during our visit to Canada.
The quarantining of immigrants would later also happen in the USA, where the Castle Garden Landing Depot, which is located on the island of Manhattan, was replaced by Ellis Island Immigration Station , which was on a separate island of the coast.
Grosse Isle predates this. It actually even predates the Great Famine! This famine has become very notorious and “overshadows” many other calamities. In fact, the quarantine station was created as a result of a major cholera outbreak in 1832. In the famine times of the 1840s, you can add of typhus, ship fever and starvation to the list. The station was however completely inadequate for the enormous numbers arriving as a result of the famine, starting in 1847.
Note: I have borrowed heavily from an article by Michael Quigley, who is a historian for Action Grosse Ile, an Irish Canadian lobby group for the below information.
“The Syria was the first ship to arrive [in 1847]. She sailed from Liverpool on 24 March carrying 241 passengers and anchored at Grosse Ile on 15 May. Six days later, 202 passengers from the Syria were ill. The quarantine hospital on the island, built for 150 patients, could barely accommodate 200, and was already filled to capacity.”
In May 1847, 40 ships with 12,500 starving passengers would lie waiting at Grosse Isle to “offload” their passengers. At that stage between 50 and 60 people would die every day!
A medical commission visited the island in June. There were then 21,000 emigrants at Grosse Ile and the death toll had tripled: 150 people were buried that day. They were very critical of the management of the quarantine station but were unable to offer anything beyond instructions to comply with the regulations — which was of course completely impossible: on 20 July 1847 more than 2,500 fever cases were housed in the island’s hospitals!
After this, however, it appears authorities got to grips with the influx. In September, there were still 14,000 people held in quarantine on board of ships at anchor off Grosse Ile. At the end of October, the Grosse Ile quarantine station closed for the winter.
Because the quarantine station was completely overwhelmed, it did not succeed in its intended aim. Many of the Irish immigrants who were “released” into the cities of Quebec and Montreal would later become sick. In these cities too, fever sheds were built, victims hastily segregated. It did not do much for the immigrants who would still die in their thousands.
And it did not protect their hosts either. Clergymen, Catholic priests, stewards, nurses, orderlies, cooks, policemen, and carters were infected and died. And it was not only them: John Mills, the Mayor of Montreal caught the fever at the sheds and died ad did Toronto’s first Catholic bishop, Michael Power.
In 1909 a fifteen-metre tall Celtic cross was erected on the highest point on the island, built by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
We will come back to the story of Grosse Isle after we have visited it later this year.
Sometimes only visiting the sites where your ancestors lived can give you that last bit of information. And provide the rich context of their lives. If you are not able to visit Ireland yourself, we can go and visit these sites for you and provide a report and especially pictures.
A site visit is divided in a number of focus areas:
First, if you know in which cemetery your ancestor(s) are buried, we will go and look for their grave. Gravestones are often very informative on the people buried and/or give other names to research. Provided we find the grave, we will provide you with a detailed transcription and photos of the grave and surroundings. It should be noted though that especially the poor often did not have a gravestone. In this case we will make photos of the cemetery.
A second area is the village or townland where your ancestor(s) lived. We will provide background information on the village or townland. Some buildings that were relevant to your ancestor(s) might still exist, such as a church they likely attended or a school where they learned to read or write (like the 1907 school in the picture below). If their house still stands, we of course include that. And we will take photos of all of these.
Then there is the history of the local area. We are members of a local history society and have been published in their magazines. We will include research into the local area your ancestor(s) lived to provide an overview of how it would have looked and what was happening there in the time of your ancestors. Below is a picture of Blackrock train station, one of the oldest surviving stations in the world. The coming of railways impacted hugely on where people lived and worked and how villages developed.
Finally, we will bring together all documentation and findings of our research in a professional report and provide you with digital files containing all photos we have taken.
Earlier in the year we worked on a very special project with Sarah. Her wish was to present her father with his family history for a special birthday. It was a beautiful and loving project as it involved connecting with several branches of her relatives to get photos and bits of information. With this in hand, we then undertook our research to weave it all together into a beautifully presented book of over 140 pages bringing to life their family history.
“It was really fantastic!! So much my father didn’t know. Was quite emotional to watch him discover all the information you found. I will be in touch again as I want you to branch out further now on both sides.”
We cannot share Sarah’s book with you but can show you a booklet we did on Edward Smith. Edward had a difficult start in life as the “illegitimate” son of a single mother. Raised by his grandmother, he fought in The Great War, and became a successful policeman afterwards. You can download it via the link below the picture.
If you have a great story to tell about your ancestors, a family tree is not always be the best medium. A book(let) contains lots of detail, background information, pictures, newspaper clippings, etc. And of course all the genealogical information. It can focus on one particular ancestor – like Edward Smith – or several – like Sarah’s book.
Perhaps an idea for your next genealogy project or, like Sarah, you might want to give a book to a beloved family member or friend for a special occasion. Genealogy.ie will be happy to help!
“The floor of the repository is piled 10 to 20 feet high with twisted ironwork and debris and entry is impossible . . . In the vaults were deed boxes on iron racks. The racks were evidently softened by the great heat, and the weight of the boxes has bent them and drawn them forward; the lids of the boxes have fallen in, and the contents have been reduced in every case to a little white ash.”
This was a contemporary description of what as left of the Four Courts records after the shelling in 1922 by the Free State troops to end the occupation by the anti-treaty forces.
The Four Courts were the main repository of all public records in those days. The fire caused by the fighting meant a lot of records were lost forever:
However, there is also plenty that survived:
It does mean however that it is just that little more difficult to find your Irish ancestors. But not impossible. You will have to know however where to look and there are also alternative resources. Ever thought about checking the dog licence register?
You should start by looking through the resources that still survive. You can find advice on how to go about this on our website:
And if you do hit the famous brick wall, please feel free to Contact Us
The Irish Family History Society, established in 1984, is based in Ireland and has a worldwide membership. The Society is for those who are looking to trace their Irish roots. The IFHS is a voluntary, non profit making organisation. One of our objectives is to help members to do their own research through information and advice. You can visit their website here.
The IFHS is a constituent member of the Federation of Local History Societies and an associate member of the Federation of Family History Societies.
Every year the Society brings out a journal, full of informative articles. This year, in Volume 33, our own Jillian van Turnhout was asked to contribute an article. The title of the article – which has pride of place as the very first article – is:
John Fenton Hudson, 1932 Captain Royal Dublin Golf Club, The “Missing Photo” Challenge
In it, Jillian outlines the research she did on behalf of the Golf club to find a photograph of this previous Captain. All past Captains were remembered with a photo in a gallery at the club. However, John Fenton Hudson’s was missing. As he had been a life long bachelor, so there were no descendants to ask. After extensive investigations, Jillian was successful in finding a picture, which is now proudly hanging in the Captain’s gallery. You can read her entry here: “Missing Photo” Challenge
There are 32 counties in Ireland, 26 in the Republic and 6 in the North. We also often hear about the four provinces (Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connaught), especially in sports like Rugby.
Irish administrative divisions for the genealogist are unfortunately a lot more complicated than than. This page tries to help you make some sense of it!
Republic or Ireland and Northern Ireland
The island of Ireland is split into two parts: the independent “Republic of Ireland” and “Northern Ireland”, which is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The island measures 84,421 km², of which the Republic has 70,273 km². The latter has a population of 4,803,748; the North has 1,685,267 (2018 figures).
Dublin Castle, seat of power before Irish independence
The four provinces
The names of the four provinces of Ireland are derived from pre-Norman kingdoms. There were however a lot more than four kingdoms when the Normans invaded Ireland in 1171 under the leadership of Strongbow. This was really a private enterprise. The (Norman) kings of England followed quickly, to prevent Strongbow becoming a threat. They established four military districts, to aid the occupation. It was these that took the names of former kingdoms. The reason why we nowadays only hear about them in sports is because the provinces have no longer any official status.
The former royal houses of these four kingdoms were: Connacht in the West (O’Conor); Leinster in the East (MacMurrough); Munster in the South (O’Brien); and Ulster in the North (O’Neill).
The counties of the province of Connacht are: Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo. Its flag shows an eagle and a sword.
The counties of the province of Leinster are: Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow. Its flag is a harp set on a green background.
The counties of the province of Munster are: Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. Its flag shows three gold crowns on a blue background.
The counties of the province of Ulster are Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Derry/Londonderry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Monaghan and Tyrone. Its flag highlights a red hand on a shield set on a background of gold/orange with a red cross.
Antrim, Armagh, Derry (also called Londonderry), Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone are part of Northen Ireland, the other three are part of the Republic of Ireland.
Ruins of Cashel, old royal seat and later monastery
The 32 counties
As mentioned, there are 32 counties. In present day Ireland, it is these counties that most people identify themselves with. The counties were also a Norman invention. The first county to be established was Dublin, always the center of the occupier’s power. This was in the 12th Century, immediately following the invasion. The last county, Wicklow, was not established until 1606.
When doing your research, you should note that some counties have changed name over time. For obvious reasons Kings County (Offally) and Queens County (Laois) no longer have the names given to them by the English.
Baronies have been obsolete since 1898. Up to then however, land and property valuations were organised according the barony, so it is worth being able to identify the barony in which an ancestor’s townland (see below) was located.
There are ecclesiastical (church; and to make things more complicated,there are Catholic and Church of Ireland ones, both covering Ireland but of course with completely different boundaries) and civil parishes and they have nothing to do with each other. The civil parish is the one we deal with here. Each county is made up of a number of civil parishes. County Leitrim has only 17. However, many others have over 100 civil parishes. In total there are ca. 2,500 civii parishes in Ireland. In the past they were responsible for the maintenance of Irish land and property taxes and records.
Dundrum parish church
The townland is the smallest and most fundamental of all Irish land divisions. Townlands vary greatly in size and population, but they are all fairly small If you are able to find the townland from which your ancestors hail, you will get a pretty good idea of what life looked like for them. Townlands were the basis of census returns from 1821. You should note that some of them no longer exist, and others in name only.
If you are confused, you are not the only one! Hopefully this short explanation helps. And as always, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Castle Garden, the previous facility, was in New York itself. The number of immigrants was rising, which meant a bigger facility was required. But there was also a wish to better contain the immigrants, who often arrived sick and unhealthy.
In 1890, Congress approved a budget of $75,000 to build America’s first federal immigration station on Ellis Island.
The size of the Island was doubled to six acres, using fill material from incoming ships’ ballast and from the construction of New York City’s subway tunnels.
The first building was a three-story wooden structure. It opened on 1st January 1892 and already on that first day, three large ships with 700 immigrants passed through. That year, it processed almost 450,000 immigrants .
A few years later, on the 15th June 1897, a fire of unknown origin, completely destroyed the building.
Thankfully there was no loss of life reported. On the negative side, it meant that all immigration records going back to 1855 were destroyed.
Between opening and the fire, the station had processed 1.5 million people.
A new station was build, this time from stone. It opened on 17th December 1900. Almost immediately however, it turned out to be too small to handle the enormous numbers of immigrants. It was therefore quickly expanded.
When it closed on 12th November 1954 it has processed 12 million immigrants. Despite the fire, many records are still available and new collections have recently come on line. However, you should be aware that most records only contain basic information.
Early immigrants from Ireland were fishermen from Cork, Wexford and Waterford to the island of Newfoundland. This happened in 1536! The numbers were however very small.
Real Irish immigration to Canada only started late in the eighteenth century, After the independence of the United States, the government of “British North America” wanted to ensure their survival vis-a-vis its much bigger southern neighbor. It lifted any restrictions on Catholic immigration and even started offering free land to immigrants (with promises of 200 acres per family). This was helped by shipping companies looking for “cargo” for their journeys back from Europe, where they had delivered the foodstuffs that were the main export at that stage. Settlers fitted the bill nicely.
This turned out to be a big success, even before the Great Famine. The Famine did however, as in the United States, swell the numbers enormously.
Between 1825 and 1845, 60% of all immigrants to Canada were Irish, a total of approx. 600,000 people.
Most of them settled in Upper Canada (Ontario), Lower Canada (Quebec) and the maritime colonies of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Not all remained however, with many using Canada as a staging post on their way to the United States.
A large number of Irish Catholics arrived in Grosse Isle, an island in Quebec in the St. Lawrence River, which housed the immigration reception station. It would become a source of a tragedy. In 1847 over 80,000 people (of all nationalities) arrived here, more than double the number of the year before. 70% of these people were Irish. Many were sick after a long voyage on board of a so called “coffin ship”. These got this name, because it is thought that almost 1 out of every 6 passengers died during or immediately after the trip, mostly of typhus.
Before 1847, these sick were housed for a quarantine period in sheds. However, because of the huge influx of that year, the facility was overwhelmed and soon thousands of people carrying the disease started to arrive in Montreal, spreading it to the local population (including – it is said – the mayor of the city).
For this reason, so-called fever sheds were set up at Windmill Point. To care for, but especially isolate the sick. In 1847 and 1848 it is estimated that up to 6,000 Irish died here from “ship fever”. Their remains were discovered in 1859 by workers building the Victoria Bridge., who erected the Black Rock memorial in their honor. Its inscription reads:
Over 40 million Americans can claim Irish ancestry. Some know their family roots into detail, but many others only have some vague family stories or perhaps even only their name to remind them.
Emigration from Ireland started in earnest in the second half of the seventeenth century. It is thought that of the early colonial settlers around half came from the Irish province of Ulster while the other half came from the other three provinces of Ireland. Most of these were from families who had only a few generations before emigrated from Scotland and England to the new “plantations”. According to some sources, only 20,000 of the 250,000 people who emigrated from Ireland to the colonies (i.e. before independence) were Catholics.
These plantations were initiated by the English government as a scheme to tighten their grip on Ireland. Although first conquered centuries before, English power in Ireland was often threatened by a hostile population and its leaders. The plantation schemes simply were about replacing the population by more loyal subjects from England and later Scotland.
The first such schemes date from the middle of the sixteenth century but were not a success. The Ulster scheme, from the start of the seventeenth, attracted more “settlers”. Still, living among a hostile population did not turn out to be what the newcomers had dreamed about.
And then the new colonies of North America beckoned. Particular popular among these early Irish was New England, but groups also settled in the the Appalachian Mountain region.
Despite often appalling living conditions, Irish of old Irish ancestry did at this stage not emigrate in large numbers. Emigrating to another continent was not what it is now. It was a complete break from family, culture and language. And the possibility of death on the way. Not something that anyone would undertake without good reason.
Apart from this, emigration of Catholics to the colonies was actually outlawed by the English government. This only changed after independence when the colonies became the United States of America. In 1790, only a few years later, the USA’s Irish immigrant population numbered 447,000 and two-thirds originated from Ulster.
Catholic emigration only started to pick up after 1820. Part of the reason was the buoyant labour market in the USA, with plenty of work in in canal building, lumbering, and civil construction works in the Northeast.
However, as is well known, the pace really picked up as a result of the Great Famine. This famine was not caused by a food shortage. As a matter of fact, Ireland exported food, esp. grain, throughout the famine. The problem was that this grain was produced on large estates, owned by the English landlords, for export to England. Most Irish lived in abject poverty and survived almost completely on a very nutritious staple food: potatoes.
In the 1840’s there was however a recurring and increasingly severe failure of crops due to a potato decease, called blight. This disease caused the potato to rot before it could be harvested.
Massive numbers of Irish started to starve. At first there was no response from the English government, as they believed that they should not interfere with market forces. Only after a huge and worldwide outcry, and many private initiatives to give aid, did the English government belatedly start to help. But even then, it was based on a system where the Irish people were obliged to work for any assistance. This was the time that many desperate Irish emigrated, and also the time of the infamous coffin ships: by some estimated 1 out of every 6 passengers died during or shortly after the voyage.
Most of these immigrants arrived and stayed – at least initially – in the big cities of the Eastern United States.
The population of Ireland is thought to have numbered around 8 million before the Great Famine. This was almost halved by 1900. About a million people died between 1845 and 1849 as a direct result of the famine. The rest emigrated.
What is not always understood is that these people did not always emigrate during the famine. Many did, with the UK and the USA being the most popular destinations. As a result, Irish communities were formed in these countries. And once these were formed, it became much easier for next generations to follow, which they continued and continue to do.
It is estimated that eight million people emigrated between 1801 and 1921. That is equal to the entire population before the famine! The majority of these – then and now – were between 18 and 30 years old.
|Irish immigration to the United States (1820–2004)|
|Total : 4,787,580|
As mentioned, the big Eastern cities were the main destinations for the Irish. However, not all remained in these cities. Countless others were part of the westward expansion. of the United States. They were enticed by tales of gold, and by the increasing opportunities for work and land. Kansas City for example is one city that was built by Irish immigrants and a large number of its population today is of Irish descent.
The Irish were having a huge impact on America as a whole. In 1910, there were more people in New York City of Irish ancestry than Dublin’s whole population, and even today, many cities still retain a substantial Irish American community.
During the mid-1900s Irish immigration to the United States began to decrease. However, to this day, the United States is a popular destination for Irish people seeking a better life somewhere else.
Genealogy.ie has just been published for the second time in “Your Genealogy Today“, a leading genealogical magazine in North America.
“Your Genealogy Today” is a resource guide to successful genealogical research. Whether you are a beginner, or an experienced genealogist, each issue provides you with proven techniques and sources for discovering your ancestors. With regular columns on: “Genealogy Tourism”, “DNA & Your Genealogy”, and “Advice from the Pros”. In each case, the columns will be authored on a rotational basis by contributors who are experts in their respective fields. It is published six times a year.
It can be bought in Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million in the USA and Chapters book stores in Canada.
Our article in the January/February issue is about “Avoiding Common Mistakes”. It gives advice on how to prevent research errors by using the guidelines of the Genealogical Proof Standard, that we in Genealogy.ie rigorously adhere to.
This article joins a growing collection of contributions that Genealogy.ie is making to various magazines in North America and Ireland. You can read about the periodicals and download our articles from our website, by clicking the button below. (Note: our latest article is not available for download yet as it is only just published).
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