How Could They Afford the Passage?

For the 150th anniversary of Ireland’s "Great Hunger" of the 1840s, the city of Philadelphia placed this Irish Memorial in a park.
(Click photo to enlarge / Source)

“The Irish Memorial, a national monument in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is dedicated to the memory of more than one million innocent men, women and children who perished during the years 1845 to 1850 and to the millions of Irish immigrants who found, here in the United States of America, the freedom, liberty and prosperity denied to their ancestors in Ireland.

The centerpiece of this project is a monumental bronze sculpture set in a 1.75 acre dedicated park. The artist who sculpted the memorial included 35 life-sized figures and the bronze work measures a spectacular 30 feet long by 12 feet wide and 12 feet high. The memorial depicts the cruel starvation which claimed one million Irish lives between 1845 [and] 1850; the harrowing journey to America taken by a million more; and the indomitable spirit of those who arrived safely and resolved to face the challenges of life in a new world.” (Source)


The Cost of Emigrating to the U.S. in the Mid-1800s

In the process of assembling our family history I found myself reflecting at length upon the circumstances that would have driven our ancestral Irish families – Michael and Bridget Grace Dunn, Edward and Mary Ellen Kavanaugh Nolan and John and Mary Delaney Ring – to leave their homes and families in Ireland (via England in the case of M & B).

Think about it. Poor Irish immigrants spent as long as three months traveling in horrible conditions on what were described as “coffin ships” to come to what was then an untamed wilderness. The research I’ve done helps me understand that these were extraordinary people – and people I’d like to have known, for they had to have been enormously courageous and very resourceful.

I've also found myself wondering how much the passage would have cost. Michael and Bridget Dunn were married in the village of Glossop in County Derbyshire, England, before emigrating to the U.S., and I came across this exchange on a Derbyshire genealogy message board
. (GBP = Great Britain Pound, the symbol of which is £.)

A person posted this question:
“Having found 2 families going to America in 1857 & 1887, can anyone tell me how much it would have cost? In both instances the males went first, followed a few months later by their families.”

A man by the name of John responded: “In 1887 the fare UK-US was GBP 4 (steerage). Sorry, I don't have values for 1857.” He later added, “My GBP 4 was taken from Drew Keeling's ‘The effects of the 1904 North Atlantic fare ware upon migration between Europe and the United States’ and is cited as deriving from Cunard Voyage Accounts.”

Another person responded as follows: “I have the minutes of a Fressingfield Suffolk Parish meeting in 1837 stating that the cost of passage and provisions was 4 pounds 10 shillings. So…John's 4 GBP would be a reasonable assumption for 1857 if no other firm data is found. Put the sum in context: Williamson's 'Research in Economic History – The Structure of Pay in Britain' found that the average annual pay for an Agricultural Labourer was £30.03 in 1835, £29.04 in 1851, £36.04 in 1861, £41.05 in 1871 and £41.52 in 1881.”

So, if a person earned about £36 in 1858 – when Michael and Bridget emigrated – and the cost for passage was £4, that’s about 13% of a year’s income. For someone earning $30,000 today, for example, that equates to about $3,900 in today’s U.S. dollars (as a percentage of income). Quite a lot of money in the poverty-stricken days of the Irish potato famine – when people were literally dying of starvation.

Once I realized how expensive it was to emigrate, I had another question: How on earth could the starving Irish peasants who wanted to emigrate possibly come up with the money? I then learned that some of them may not have had to pay for it themselves. In fact, they may not have even had a choice. Consider:

Irish Emigration: Departure, Crossing and Arrival

Under the heading of “Coffin Ships” in an online essay about the Irish famine, I found the following.

“The worst ships were those which brought emigrants sent out by their landlords, and of all the sufferings endured during the famine, none aroused such savage resentment, or left behind such hatred, as the landlord emigrations.

Before the famine, responsible landlords, for instance, Lord Bessborough and Lord Monteagle, advanced money and paid the cost of passages for tenants to emigrate. Lord Monteagle, in particular, believed that in emigration lay the solution of Ireland's population problem, and the Monteagle Papers contain a number of letters from grateful emigrants; he was also responsible for setting up the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Colonization, that is, emigration, in 1847.

Another landlord, Mr. Spaight, of Limerick, a well-known ship broker, bought Deify Castle, in Tipperary, for £40,000 in 1844, and found 'a dead weight of paupers'. As he was engaged in the passenger trade, he offered free passage and provisions to those willing to emigrate, and the value of two pounds on landing, provided the tenants 'tumbled', that is, pulled down, their cabins.

He made the offer only to entire families, and said he had 'got rid of crime and distress for £3 10s. a head'. The first failure of the potato was followed by a number of landlord emigrations, and a total of more than a thousand tenants from various estates reached Quebec in 1846, those arriving early in the season being reasonably healthy and, on the whole, adequately provided for. [Because Canada was under English dominion and the U.S. was known to be anti-English at the time, many of the Irish who landed in Canada subsequently walked to the U.S. because of their own anti-English feelings.]

The fatal year 1847 brought a change. In January the Government announced that the whole destitute population was to be transferred to the Poor Law, to be maintained out of local [tax] rates at the expense of owners of property, and the only hope of solvency for landlords was to reduce the number of destitute on their estates.

Emigration began to be used as an alternative to eviction, and Sir Robert Gore Booth, a resident landlord, was accused by Mr. Perley, the Government emigration agent at St. John, New Brunswick, of 'exporting and shoveling out the helpless and infirm to the detriment of the colony'.

Sir Robert in reply put forward the landlord's point of view, declaring that emigration was the only humane method of putting properties in Ireland on a satisfactory footing. The country was overpopulated, and it was not right to evict and turn people out on the world. To emigrate them was the only solution.

Emigration also saved money; the cost of emigrating a pauper was generally about half the cost of maintaining him in the workhouse for one year, and once the ship had sailed the destitute were effectually got rid of, for they could return only with immense difficulty. In 1847, therefore, the temptation was strong to ship off as cheaply as possible those unfortunates who, through age, infirmity or the potato failure, had become useless and an apparently endless source of expense.” Source


Some Irish Were Sold as Slaves

Beyond all that, there are the twin issues of slavery and indentured servitude that occurred during that period of Irish history. Posted on another page of this blog, but also relevant here, a blogger I've come across has written the following:

"There are 80 million people of Irish descent living across the globe, on all the continents, largely as the result of having been forced out of their own country by the British genocidal ethnic cleansing, land theft, and brutal and barbaric laws which turned Ireland into nothing more than a slave colony for the benefit of England."

Another source says: “The Protestant English colonizers [in Ireland] saw them [the Irish] as savage, shiftless, and primitive. They wanted an Ireland to resemble a civilized England. The hatred brewed between the English and Irish until the English concluded that the Irish were 'wild,' or 'savage,' and that 'it was ‘no more a sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any other brute.' "

Henry Cromwell [Oliver's son]…said in the 1650s [that] the Irish needed to become more English - even if it took being sold into slavery to accomplish that." Source

Another site says, "...The Scots, the Irish, even British whites were sold into slavery in America..." and includes an illustration from the American publication, Harper's Magazine, showing recently freed slaves, both black and white. Presumably it was published after the emancipation of slaves in the U.S. after the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. (Source)

[Editor's note: Do an Internet search for “Irish slaves” to learn about the amazing story of Irish slavery - which even includes Irish being kidnapped off the streets to be sold as slaves by the British. ]


Indentured Servitude - Another Form of Slavery

Another site provides insight into what was called "indentured servitude".

“The arrogant disregard for the holocaust visited upon the poor and working class Whites of Britain [including the Irish] by the aristocracy continues in our time because the history of that epoch has been almost completely extirpated from our collective memory.

When White servitude is acknowledged as having existed in America, it is almost always termed as temporary 'indentured servitude' or part of the convict trade, which, after the Revolution of 1776, centered on Australia instead of America. The 'convicts' transported to America under the 1723 Waltham Act, perhaps numbered 100,000.

The indentured servants who served a tidy little period of 4 to 7 years polishing the master's silver and china and then taking their place in colonial high society, were a minuscule fraction of the great unsung hundreds of thousands of White slaves who were worked to death in this country from the early l7th century onward.

Up to one-half of all the arrivals in the American colonies were Whites slaves and they were America's first slaves. These Whites were slaves for life, long before Blacks ever were. This slavery was even hereditary. White children born to White slaves were enslaved too.

Whites were auctioned on the block with children sold and separated from their parents and wives sold and separated from their husbands. Free Black property owners strutted the streets of northern and southern American cities while White slaves were worked to death in the sugar mills of Barbados and Jamaica and the plantations of Virginia.

The Establishment has created the misnomer of 'indentured servitude' to explain away and minimize the fact of White slavery. But bound Whites in early America called themselves slaves. Nine-tenths of the White slavery in America was conducted without indentures of any kind but according to the so-called 'custom of the country,' as it was known, which was lifetime slavery administered by the White slave merchants themselves.

In George Sandys laws for Virginia, Whites were enslaved 'forever.' The service of Whites bound to Berkeley's Hundred was deemed 'perpetual.' These accounts have been policed out of the much touted 'standard reference works' such as Abbott Emerson Smith's laughable whitewash, Colonists in Bondage.

I challenge any researcher to study 17th century colonial America, sifting the documents, the jargon and the statutes on both sides of the Atlantic and one will discover that White slavery was a far more extensive operation than Black enslavement. It is when we come to the 18th century that one begins to encounter more 'servitude' on the basis of a contract of indenture. But even in that period there was kidnapping of Anglo-Saxons into slavery as well as convict slavery.”


So What's the Answer - How Could They Afford the Passage?

As I’ve read and researched Irish-American history, I’ve learned that the question of how impoverished Irish peasants were able to find a way to cross the Atlantic to the New World - whether during the potato famine or in other years - has several possible answers:

■ "When, in the eighteenth century, the death penalty came to be regarded as
too severe for certain capital offences [which were often minor crimes such as petty theft], transportation [of Irish convicts] to North America...became popular as a mitigation of such sentences." (Source)

■ Later, some Irish convicts were sentenced to penal colonies in Australia and places like New South Wales and Tasmania. Some of those people were political dissidents and some were "transported", as it was called, after having been found guilty of such heinous crimes as stealing a meal, petty theft, or stealing a sheep to feed a starving family. However, some of these convicts escaped and made their way to America.

"...One of the most spectacular Irish escapes from imprisonment in Australia is called the Catalpa Affair... The Catalpa, changing its course from a Florida landing to New York harbor, reached New York in August 1876. Tammany Hall hosted a reception for the escapees and the streets were cleaned for a parade in lower Manhattan. There was no ticker tape, but we can assume that some politicians were present..."

■ Some Irish were shipped to North America and elsewhere by the English Lords who reportedly owned as much as 90% of the land in Ireland, i.e., the landlords. They did so because it cost the Lords less for passage on a ship than the cost of the taxes levied on them to support workhouses for the the poor who lived on their estates;

■ Some were simply kidnapped, sold as slaves, and sent to America and elsewhere because it was lucrative for the slave merchants – and the Brits saw it as a way to reduce the number of "surplus poor" they had to contend with;

■ Some Irish sold themselves and traded several years of their lives to work as indentured servants in exchange for passage to the New World. They did this because they perceived life in bondage in the New World as being less onerous than the grim future they faced in Ireland;

■ In some cases, regardless of how the initial passage was financed, one member of a family emigrated first, worked, saved money, and sent it back to Ireland so others in the family could follow.

"Money from America: This was a well known epigram throughout Ireland. Often the money was used to develop chain emigration; money sent home for another family member to move to America... In 1846, over $1,000,000 was remitted to Ireland in drafts for passages from the cities of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore; a huge amount of money sent home by people who had traveled...to America as laborers and servants."

■ Finally, I must acknowledge that not all Irish immigrants to the U.S. were poor. Thus, none of the above scenarios applied to those who had financial means. For example, I hope to soon have a story on this blog about the very wealthy Dunnes of Brittas, who emigrated from Ireland, landed in New York and made their way to California. There they established themselves as major property owners and became very influential people in their adopted country. Stay tuned.


We have no information about how our ancestral Irish families – the Dunns, Nolans and Rings – financed their voyages to the United States. However, it sure would be interesting to talk with them about it if we could do so!

Last updated 5/5/2010

1 comment:

  1. Of interest to you possibly. My "Ring" ancestors emigrated to Canada from Cork, through Quebec in 1846, classed as "destitute Immigrants" and were passed from Quebec by steamship "the Queen" to Kingston ON and on to Belleville where they remained to homestead.
    Jan Bruton