Why Did Our Ancestors Leave Ireland?

The National Flag of Ireland

The green stripe represents those of native Irish descent (see the
Green Flag), the orange stripe represents the descendants of 17th-century British colonists (a group which supported William of Orange in the War of the Two Kings, 1689-91), and the white stripe represents the hope for peace between the two groups. (Click here to see detailed information about flags of Ireland.)

What Life Was Like In Ireland In the Mid-1800s

In assembling information about our family history I’ve found it interesting to learn about the conditions our Irish ancestors would have experienced in Ireland that motivated them to emigrate to the U.S. and elsewhere. Here’s a small portion of a much larger and very interesting Irish history (1).

Farmers and Cottiers
It was a very unbalanced social structure [in Ireland in that era]. The farmers rented the land they worked, [often from the absentee English lords who owned huge estates] and those who could afford to rent large farms would break up some of the land into smaller plots. These were leased to "cottiers" or small farmers, under a system called "conacre."

Nobody had security or tenure, and rents were high. Very little cash was used in the economy. The cottier paid his rent by working for his landlord, and he could rear a pig to sell for the small amount of cash he might need to buy clothes or other necessary goods.

There was also a large population of agricultural laborers who traveled around looking for work. They were very badly off because not many Irish farmers could afford to hire them. In 1835…over two million people [about 25% of the population] were without regular employment of any kind. Under the Irish Poor Law of 1838, workhouses were built in all parts of the country and financed by local taxpayers.

Potato Blight
This rickety system held together only because the rural peasants had a cheap and plentiful source of food. The potato, introduced to Ireland about 1590, could grow in the poorest conditions, with very little labor. This was important because laborers had to give most of their time to the farmers they worked for, and had very little time for their own crops.

The actual cause of [potato crop] failure was phytophthora infestans - potato blight. The spores of the blight were carried by wind, rain and insects and came to Ireland from Britain and the European continent. A fungus affected the potato plants, producing black spots and a white mould on the leaves, soon rotting the potato into a pulp.

By the summer of 1847, over three million people were being fed by government soup kitchens and [others] organized by Quakers. So many people died in so short [a] time that mass graves were provided.

During the worst months of the famine, in the winter of 1846-47, tens of thousands of tenants fell in arrears of rent and were evicted from their homes. "A nationwide system of ousting the peasantry began to set in, with absentee landlords, and some resident landlords as well, more determined than ever to rid Ireland of its 'surplus' Irish."

With potato cultivation over because of the blight, tenants could pay no rents. Sheep and cattle could pay rent, so landlords decided to give the land over to them. "In 1850, over 104,000 people were evicted."

(1) Source


Thus, based upon the information I’ve collected, it appears that Pierce Dunn was, in all likelihood, a peasant farmer in Ireland who, with his son Michael, was displaced to England in the mid-1800s as a result of the potato blight and resulting famine that devastated Ireland.

Because Great Britain is so close to Ireland, emigrating to England would have been relatively easy for our ancestral family as they looked for an alternative to starvation. That’s the good news. However, with their migration to England, they would be confronted by some very bad news.

Racism in England (2)
The bad news? Racism. Anti-Irish prejudice is a very old theme in English culture. The written record begins with Gerald of Wales, whose family was deeply involved in the Norman invasion of Ireland. In his 12th-century History and Topography of Ireland Gerald wrote contemptuously of the people, portraying them as inferior to the Normans in every respect:

"They live on beasts only, and live like beasts. They have not progressed at all from the habits of pastoral living." He condemned their customs, dress, and "flowing hair and beards" as examples of their "barbarity". He also vilified the religious practices and marriage customs of the people: "This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice. Of all peoples it is the least instructed in the rudiments of the faith. They do not yet pay tithes or first fruits or contract marriages. They do not avoid incest."


[British historian Thomas] Carlyle visited Ireland soon after the famine and filled his journal with tirades against what he called "this brawling unreasonable people". Ireland, he wrote, was a "human swinery", "an abomination of desolation" and "a black howling Babel of superstitious savages".

Irish Chimpanzees
In the 1860s, the debate among scientists about the relationship of humans to animals prompted British racists to make frequent comparisons between Irish people, [b]lack people and apes. The Cambridge historian Charles Kingsley wrote to his wife from Ireland in 1860: "I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country...to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours."

[The Irish as] “The Missing Link”
In 1860 the first live adult gorilla arrived at the London Zoo just after Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species had been published. Victorians flocked to see it
and debate the relationship of humans to animals.

In 1862 the British magazine Punch published "The Missing Link" - a satire attacking Irish immigrants: "A gulf certainly, does appear to yawn between the Gorilla and the Negro. The woods and wilds of Africa do not exhibit an example of any intermediate animal. But in this, as in many other cases, philosophers go vainly searching abroad for that which they could readily find if they sought for it at home.

A creature manifestly between the Gorilla and the Negro is to be met with in some of the lowest districts of London and Liverpool by adventurous explorers. It comes from Ireland, whence it has contrived to migrate; it belongs in fact to a tribe of Irish savages: the lowest species of Irish Yahoo. When conversing with its kind it talks a sort of gibberish. It is, moreover, a climbing animal, and may sometimes be seen ascending a ladder ladden with a hod of bricks."

The British historian Edward Freeman visited the United States in 1881. His obituary states that "he gloried in the Germanic origin of the English nation." On his return from America, he wrote: "This would be a grand land if only every Irishman would kill a Negro, and be hanged for it. I find this sentiment generally approved - sometimes with the qualification that they want Irish and Negroes for servants, not being able to get any other."


Is it any wonder that Michael and Bridget Grace Dunn - as well as our ancestors in the Nolan and Ring lines - were willing to leave family and friends behind to board a “coffin ship” bound for the U.S? In the case of Michael and Bridget it was in 1858, coincidentally the same year in which Pierce apparently died, so he may have been their last tie to Ireland.

(2) Source


Irish Slavery

Michael and Bridget's grandson, Eugene Michael Dunn, married Hazel Loretta Nolan. Her paternal grandmother was Mary Ellen Kavenaugh Nolan and I ran across an article that touches on the Kavenaugh name. Because of that I read it - and was astounded!

Did you realize that the Irish were at one time a large portion of the inventory of slaves being sold by England during the era when slavery flourished? I sure hadn't heard that before!

Below are quotes from the article. Although I have no information that suggests Irish slavery directly involved our ancestral family, I find the subject to be of much interest. An Internet search for “Irish Slavery in America” turned up several links to other sources if you'd like to learn more about this issue.


"In fact, more Irish were sold as slaves to the American colonies and plantations from 1651 to 1660 than the total existing free population of the Americas!"


"Although it was not a crime to kill any Irish, and soldiers were encouraged to do so, the slave trade proved too profitable to kill off the source of the product."


"Few people today realize that from 1600 to 1699, far more Irish were sold as slaves than Africans."


"However, from 1625 onward the Irish were sold, pure and simple as slaves."


"There was no racial consideration or discrimination, you were either a freeman or a slave, but there was aggressive religious discrimination, with the Pope considered by all English Protestants to be the enemy of God and civilization, and all Catholics heathens and hated."


"Planters then began to breed Irish women with African men to produce more slaves who had lighter skin and brought a higher price. The practice became so widespread that in 1681, legislation was passed forbidding the practice of mating Irish slave women to African slave men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale."


"England shipped tens of thousands of Irish prisoners after the 1798 Irish Rebellion to be sold as slaves in the Colonies and Australia."

Last updated 2/6/2010

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