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Irish Immigration–Did Your Ancestors Leave the Emerald Isle?
If you’re doing Irish genealogical research and live in any country other than Ireland, you’ll probably eventually have to deal with the issue of Irish immigration. The Irish have been leaving Ireland to explore the world for centuries. Even as early as the Middle Ages, monks were venturing out far from home to bring their Christian message to the masses. Immigration to other countries has continued at varying paces throughout the past few hundred years, depending on the circumstances in Ireland at the time. Wars, famine, poverty, and simply a sense of adventure were all common reasons for the Irish to leave Ireland, either temporarily or for good.
The vast majority of Irish immigration at one time, however, happened in the 19th century. Massive numbers of Irish immigrants began entering the United States, England, Scotland, Australia, and Canada during the period between 1845 and 1852. This is when the infamous potato famine was at its peak. With the failure of the potato crop–which was a major source of food in Ireland at the time–starvation was rampant, and people left the country in droves in the hopes of finding a place where food was available. So many people left Ireland during this time that the population of the entire nation was reduced by approximately 25 percent!
It was the young adults who left first, and women emigrated alone just as often as men did. These young adults would typically go to their new nation and look for work, then send money home over a period of time, until other members of their family who had been left behind had enough money to buy passage to join their loved one in a new land. By the time the potato famine ended in 1854, nearly 2 million Irish had left their homeland.
Even after the famine was over, immigration continued, though in smaller numbers. The aftermath of the famine meant that poverty and disease were widespread at home for many decades to come, and immigration still seemed desirable to avoid these things and look for a better future. The tidal wave of Irish immigration in the 19th century culminated in the first two decades of the 20th century, ending with a huge wave of new arrivals from Ireland coming through the newly commissioned Ellis Island.
If you have Irish immigration in your family history, checking the Ellis Island website, the 1880 U.S. census (which indicated year of immigration for those of foreign birth), and the ship manifest records on Ancestry.com and The Origins Network to find out more about those who made the journey out of the home country. Depending on the record source you consult, you may find such things as point of departure, point of arrival, purpose of emigration, occupation, age, residence, and the names of other family members traveling with the main immigrant. These important pieces of data can be valuable clues in your continuing Irish family search, so be sure to make use of as many of these record sources as you can!