National Famine Memorial in County Mayo

Exploring Irish Genealogy in the Aftermath of the Great Potato Famine

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The Great Famine, often referred to as the Irish Potato Famine, was a period of mass hunger and emigration from 1845 to 1851, and its effects were to be felt on the Irish population for the remainder of the 19th Century. Its initial cause was the failure of the potato crop, due to a disease called Blight. However, it was a combination of disastrous political actions and poor social structures that turned the crisis into a tragedy of unprecedented proportions. During its 6 years, an estimated 1 million people died, and 2.5 million people emigrated, leaving behind a population that was deeply scarred and utterly heartbroken. By the time of the 1911 census, there was half the amount of people living in Ireland as there had been 70 years earlier, in 1841.

A famine cottage in Athea, County Limerick as it stands today.

Young Irelanders Rebellion and Thomas Francis Meagher

Every year, there are many significant dates when the Irish Famine is commemorated, both in Ireland and by its Diaspora around the world, which is estimated to be around 70 million people. Today, July 29th, marks 170 years since the end of the short-lived Young Irelanders Rebellion, also known as The Rising of 1848.

Considered a defining moment in re-energizing the struggle to repeal the Union, the leaders of the rebellion were motivated by the Paris revolution of February 1848. However, with Ireland in the throes of the Great Famine, its severely weakened population was struggling to stay alive – facing starvation, disease, eviction, and death on a daily basis. With support on the ground difficult to harness, the armed revolt in County Tipperary was brief and largely ineffectual. However, it enabled its exiled leaders to re-ignite backing for Irish independence, and its political effects were felt far and wide.

Removal of one of the leaders of the rebellion to prison, following his trial. A death sentence was later changed to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.

Thomas Francis Meagher, one of the leaders of the rebellion, son of a politician, was educated in Ireland and England. When he returned to Dublin in 1843, he became involved in the Repeal Association, whose aim was to repeal the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. This lead to the Young Ireland movement. After leading the “Battle of Ballingarry”, Meagher was arrested, and sentenced to execution.

After an uproar over the sentence, Meagher was sent to Australia, and from there he traveled on to the United States in 1852.

Inside cover of Memoirs of Thomas Francis Meagher.

To learn more about Thomas Meagher, search through “The Memoirs of General Thomas Francis Meagher 1823-1867” found in MyHeritage SuperSearch™ or read his profile on Ireland XO.

Researching Irish Ancestry, outside of Ireland

The task of going so far back to discover family history, when the scale of emigration was immense, and the record-keeping was scant, can be daunting for anyone who is looking to trace their roots to the time of the Great Hunger. However, it is by no means impossible and every day, descendants of famine emigrants, sometimes as the first family members since the 1800s, are returning to visit the Irish villages their ancestors left.

So where do you start if you are a descendant of Irish famine emigrants? In the 19th century, people were more concerned about who was arriving in their country, as opposed to who was leaving. That’s why it’s a good idea to start your research in the country your ancestor emigrated to. Here we have highlighted some of our top foreign resources for researching people who left Ireland at the time of the Irish Famine.

U.S.A.

The vast majority of those that left Ireland, ended their journey in the USA, arriving either directly by boat or by traveling first to Canada and then crossing the border. Over the course of the Famine, around 650,000 Irish immigrants arrived in New York harbor and by 1850 U.S. immigration records show that 43% of the foreign-born population was Irish.

Depiction of Ship preparing to sail from Ireland to America during the Irish Famine

Ellis Island and Other Passenger Records Collection

Around 30 years before the Irish Famine, with the increased volume of immigrants arriving sick or having died in transit, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to limit the number of passengers on each ship. Beginning in 1820, the captain of each arriving ship prepared a Customs Passenger List and filed it with the collector of customs at the port of arrival. This marks the commencement of the systematic collection of data on immigration to the United States—and the starting point for the Castle Garden database. It contains and makes available eleven million records of immigrants who arrived at the Port of New York from 1820 – 1892. As a main port of entry for Irish immigrants during the Famine period, the Ellis Island and Other Passenger Records Collection is a fantastic resource and sometimes contains information not just on the emigrant, but also who was left behind in Ireland.

Census Records

The United States was the first country to call for a regular census. This makes the 1790 census the oldest national census in the world. The 1850 Census was the first to record the names of every person in a household and an individual’s place of birth. Previous efforts listed head of family only. This is particularly useful in identifying people who had arrived in the USA during the worst of the Irish Famine years. Review the complete set of USA Census Records from 1790 to 1940, totaling 650 million names.

Chronicling America

The Chronicling America Historical Collections offers many digitized newspapers which can be helpful when researching ancestors who settled in the U.S. Many of the death/obituary notices included in the newspapers give great clues about the deceased’s county or parish of origin, other family members and where they reside. This information was often lost between generations.

UNITED KINGDOM

Unlike in North America, there was no obligation to record the passengers on ships arriving from Ireland into the United Kingdom during the Irish Famine. Up until 1922, both islands were under British rule and therefore any movement of its people from one isle to the other was classified as internal migration. Seasonal migration was commonplace, with Irish people working in the United Kingdom for prolonged periods of the year to support their families still living in Ireland. During the famine years, the decision to remain in the UK rather than return to a scene of chaos and starvation would have been easy to make. Many people who did make the decision to move to the UK, did so only temporarily, earning enough money to pay the ship’s passage to further afield. This is what was known as Step Emigration.

Although there are no passenger lists to clearly identify who might have emigrated to the UK there are other excellent resources that we can turn to.
A simple search of the England and Wales Census of 1851 shows that in 1851, there were 466,000 people living there that were born in Ireland. This compares to just over 280,000 Irish-born residents recorded ten years earlier in the 1841 Census. The England and Wales Census of 1841 is the earliest census that has survived in its entirety.

The government recording of Births and Marriages from 1837- 2005 began in England and Wales a decade prior to the Irish famine. Compliance with the registration laws was very high and by 1875, 99% of all births were recorded. An index of these civil registrations from 1837 to 2005 also includes images of the index pages for 1837 to 1983.

CANADA

Almost 4.5 million Canadians claim to be of Irish descent, with many of those connections dating back to the time of the Irish famine. Passage to Canada was less expensive than passage to the United States, and Canada became the destination for some of the most poverty-stricken Irish. In 1847, the Port of Québec became so overwhelmed with ships arriving from Europe, that some vessels carrying over 14,000 Irish queued for days before landing. It is estimated that the delayed entry, worsened by disease and deplorable sanitary conditions on board the ships, caused the death of almost 5,000 Irish. The cemetery on the island of Grosse-Ile, where the immigration depot was located, is known to be the largest Irish burial site outside of Ireland.

The Library and Archives Canada is a free database and a wonderful resource for anyone with Canadian ancestry. It contains 19th-century census information, immigration information including Grosse-Ile quarantine records, naturalization records, land records and military records. It also is divided by place so that records can be searched by area or place. Canadiana is a free website contains a large database of materials with regard to Canadian culture and heritage. Some of the sources include newspapers, directories, books, historical studies and parliamentary papers. The ShipsList is a work in progress which documents many details about the ships that carried Irish emigrants to Canada. Searches can be made by ship name, port, passenger name. In addition, there is a special section on Famine Emigration. Although most passenger records concern Canadian arrivals, there are also records for ships that arrived in Australia, New Zealand, U.S.A and South Africa.

A poster advertising the sailing of the Superior from Derry to Quebec in July 1847

AUSTRALIA

Between 1848 and 1850, more than 10,000 Irish immigrants arrived in Sydney, Port Phillip and Moreton. The number of Irish famine refugees who choose to travel to Australia was much smaller compared to the mass exodus to the United States, happening around the same time. However, the arrival of what was considered the first ship of famine refugees in February 1848 had a significant impact on those who had traveled from Ireland to Australia as free emigrants, in the decades prior to the Great Hunger. Upon hearing first-hand of the suffering of the Irish people they were motivated to send remittances to those family members left at home, which resulted in many of their family having the financial means to follow them abroad.

Trove is an initiative of the National Library of Australia and contains a wealth of information from its digitized newspaper reports, which often give great details about families in particular areas. The Australian Cemeteries website contains the largest collection of graveyard information on one site and is free to search. Many of the headstone inscriptions include place of birth in Ireland and parents’ names. During the famine years, Ireland continued to sentence convicts to transportation to Australia and Convict Central is a free site that is useful for research regarding any ancestors that were transported as convicts during this time. The National Archives of Ireland features the Ireland-Australia transportation database, and this includes records of men and women who were sentenced to transportation for their crimes during the famine years.

The Irish Famine Memorial in Sydney is dedicated to the 4114 young Irish women who arrived in Australia from 1848 to 1850 under the Earl Grey assisted emigration scheme

Summary

The above list is by no means exhaustive, and there are countless other resources relating to the Irish Famine, such as the local Workhouse records that are today archived by the Department of Health and available to those who can prove descendancy. Every day, in every part of the world, documents are being discovered that bring more clarity to our history and the people that went before us.

Do you have Irish ancestry affected by the Great Famine? Share their stories in the comments below and be sure to check out Ireland Reaching Out to connect with your ancestors’ place of origin.

This guest post has been written by Ireland Reaching Out. Every year, Ireland Reaching Out helps thousands of people who are tracing their ancestors who immigrated during the Irish famine. The goal is to reconnect everyone of Irish heritage with their place of origin in Ireland and the community living there today. To learn more about Ireland Reaching Out, visit www.irelandxo.com.

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  • Robert Prager


    August 2, 2018

    I feel famous — the famine cottage photo is of the cottage in which my great-grandmother grew up! (I took that photo in 2015.)

    • Esther


      August 6, 2018

      And we just love the look of it! What’s your family’s history from that time period?

      Best, Esther

  • David Hollins


    August 15, 2018

    Slightly after the famine, but my great-great-granny was a Kennaway girl, a group of Irish girls, supposedly over 18, but granny was 16, who sailed aboard the ‘Lady Kennaway’ to South Africa in 1857. The records say the women from Dublin were obtained from “the usual sources”, which I take to be the workhouses. As the public births records for her name do not appear to fit, I think the workhouses are the next stop. I have been picking up Irish distant cousins on the DNA database, so there is probably a link from there (although her father-in-law had Irish parents from Sligo too). If anyone is interested in the Lady Kennaway girls, there is a site at eastlondon-labyrinth.com.

  • Betty wisner


    August 15, 2018

    Very interesting. My Irish Great Grandparents were devastated by this famine. As a result they came to the US.

  • M Sue P Baldwin-O’Dea


    August 15, 2018

    I would like to find more information about my Irish Ancestors who came before the Great Hunger. They started coming in the 17th and 18th Century. Some were Catholic and some I were protestant here but may have changed because of pressures from the Brits during the 17 and 18th Century. Any suggestions. I have the list of the following names: Bryan, Dunn, Graham, Marshall, McGraw, McKnight, Moore, O’Brien, Randall, Rice, Vaughn,Weekley, White.
    ( other names with possible Irish connections: Griffin,Granger,Cook,Morgan, Penn, Plunkett,Warren) Are there any records prior to the Great Hunger? sbodea43@gmail.com

  • Roy McGrath


    August 16, 2018

    It would have been great if there was a section on immigration to South Africa?

    • Esther


      August 19, 2018

      Hi Roy,

      Thanks for the suggestion!

      Best,
      Esther

  • Ian Weeks


    August 16, 2018

    My Great-great grandmother Mary Teresa Slattery was one of the famine victims who came to Australia as part of the Earl Grey emigration scheme at the age of 18. She was one of the famine survivors from the Kilkenny workhouse, where 970 others died in just over 4 years. She arrived in Melbourne on the Eliza Caroline in 1850. The following video tells her story towards the end –

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_29Cyf8WvQ

    She married my Great-great grandfather William Weeks in 1851. He was in his 40’s and a freed British convict who had been transported to Australia for life.

  • Susan Roberts


    August 16, 2018

    My 4th great grandmother , Eliza Ann Christy (Christie), was an Irish famine orphan who came to Australia on the ship ‘Diadem’. She later married John Fraser Jones who travelled on the same ship. The information we found on records shows : 1849 • Armagh, Ireland
    nursemaid, reads & writes; Armagh PLU PRONI BG2/G/2 (2141) 14 year old, Presbyterian Ballyards, 7 Towns, entered workhouse 9 Oct 1847, left 1 Nov 1847; BG2/G/3 (1517) 16 year old thinly clothed, Charlemont, Killalyn, entered 9 Jun 1849, left 4 Oct.1849
    We are uncertain of her parents. Her father may have been Robert Christy, a farmer, but we have been unable to find a birth record.

  • kevin doyle


    August 16, 2018

    My Gt. Grandparents William Dawson and Catherine Morton/Morgan only actually admitted to their Cork origins in the 1911 census of rural Hampshire.
    They had spent over 40 years on the Hampshire roads following the harvests, not settling until after 1901 in a village close by Basingstoke. William had earlier joined the Rifle Brigade in Winchester back in 1857 and had gone on to fight in the Great Mutiny in Bengal, India.
    Their life was hard and lived hand to mouth. Home was often a bender tent or barn and they became associated with the Romany travelling families of north Hampshire – in contrast to the majority of the post famine immigrant Irish who found their way into the industrial centres of England..
    They retained their Irish identity and awareness of that remains in the family today, but all contact with Ireland was lost long ago .I can only imagine that concealment of their Irish identity was part of their survival strategy during those times.

  • Martha Minarczik


    August 16, 2018

    One of the best articles. It has connected some dots in my search for an Irish great great grandmother (emigration date is uncertain but clearly around this time frame). I had hit a wall but now have more resources to search.

    • Esther


      August 21, 2018

      That’s fantastic! Let us know what you discover 🙂

  • Kathleen Endres


    August 17, 2018

    My ancestors were stonemasons who came to a small town in Wisconsin from Ireland in the 1850s to build a series of canals and locks which is now known as the fox locks. https//foxlocks.org

  • GeorgeAnn Wilson


    August 17, 2018

    I wonder if there is any list of the Irish immigrating to Scotland during the famine.

  • Bruce Hedquist


    August 18, 2018

    In late 1848, my great grandfather Peter McCluskey (or McCloskey as some say), as a young mid twenty year old laborer, emigrated alone from somewhere in Ireland to the USA, settling in Sutton, Massachusetts for awhile. We have no idea about his birth town nor his parentage! I will be in Ireland next month for a few weeks. Hopefully, I can find those family roots of ours!

  • Roger Cohn


    August 19, 2018

    Irish potato famine. There’s a misnomer. Most people do not realize the true cause (British) and why it happened. The shortage was because all of the potatoes went to England and left none for the Irish. But I will leave that to history to judge. Just a thought.

    • Talya


      August 21, 2018

      Hi Roger,

      Thanks for sharing as we always aim to be historically accurate. Please send over any sources you may have for us to review.

      Best,

      Talya

  • Roger Cohn


    August 19, 2018

    Today the famine cottages have been converted to different uses. One famine cottage out side Galway is a dinner show / music venue. Fun place and great traditional food with plenty to eat and drink.

    • Talya


      August 21, 2018

      Hi Roger,

      Thanks for sharing. It is always interesting to learn how buildings with important historical pasts can evolve over the years.

      Best,

      Talya

  • Anna


    August 20, 2018

    My Great, Great Grandparents, James McGroarty and Mary Ann Cassidy were born during the famine. They each came to America after the famine during different years. So looking for info on them has been a mystery when it comes to finding their families in Ireland. I haven’t fully given up but lost some hope in every finding out more about my ancestors from Ireland.

    • Talya


      August 21, 2018

      Hi Anna,

      Thanks for sharing your family history here. Have you already checked out SuperSearch™ at https://www.myheritage.com/research? Let us know what you find!

      Best,

      Talya

  • Elizabeth Lawson


    August 20, 2018

    I am Irish born and raised from Belfast, North Ireland. Recently, a DNA test which I had done, showed, to my amazement, almost a thousand relatives in the US with my maternal DNA. Much fewer relatives – fewer than twenty, appeared from Ireland and the UK. This may be a function of the number of people who have not taken a DNA test. My maiden name is Rafferty, my mother’s name, O’carroll. We also have Kelly, McGuigan, Hughes and other family names. To learn of the vast number of relatives in the US., Australia, etc., made me feel both amazed – and sad. Those poor people must have had a perfectly dreadful time.

  • Elizabeth Thorne Bynon


    August 20, 2018

    I had my DNA test done and I was very surprised to see I am 47 % Irish. Since most of my family came here to America from England or Wales I was confused until I read about the Irish potato famine, but of course, I don’t know that yet. Any help or information would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you ,
    Elizabeth Thorne Bynon.

    A few surnames: Powell, Morgan, Thomas, Williams, Davis/Davies, Davidson/Davison, Thorne/Thorn, Phelps, Western, Newick, Sanders, Morse, Needs, and more.

  • Mrs M Schooling (Tuohy).


    August 21, 2018

    Hi Amazing to see & read. My fathers family are from Ireland & i know they went through a lot of hard times.

  • Harry McCabe


    August 23, 2018

    I found the article very interesting. My family, along other families actually went to Dundee, Scotlan. They settled in a suburb called Lockheed. They were the Mccabe’s; the Muhollands and, the McKeirny’s. I an find my Great, great, great grandfather Charles McCabe in 1850 but not much more info the Muhollands and the McKeirny

  • mae murray


    August 23, 2018

    iam very interested in history

  • Sandra Bale


    August 25, 2018

    My great grandfather came to Australia at age 12with his brother who was aged 16 in the 1840s after leaving Tipperary and sailed from Wales. I have just commenced looking for their parents in Ireland but not sure that I have the right people yet. My great grandfathers name was Edmund Leahy & from whatI have found his fathers name was John Leahy

  • Rosaleen


    August 25, 2018

    The Irish Potato Famine was so-called because the potatoes that most people lived on, were destroyed by blight several years in a row. This made them inedible. Potatoes were not exported but other crops were, leading to food riots.

  • Anthony P.


    September 5, 2018

    My great great grandfather (last name/Moran) was from Ireland and migrated to Puerto Rico during the Potato Famine. According to Wikipedia there was a considerable amount of Irish immigration from 16th to 19th century. Many of my cousins have a tint of tan with green or hazel eyes. My daughter, even has auburn hair, hazel eyes and freckles. Many people don’t believe her when she says she is Puerto Rican. lol Our DNA showed a high percentage of Scandanavian which is a whole other story with the Viking Age migration to Ireland. Below is an interesting link.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_immigration_to_Puerto_Rico

  • Pamela (Reese) Stamper born Lewis


    September 9, 2018

    My great grandmother was French CanadiannIndian born on or near a reservation near Montreal. The records were kept in a church that burnt down. She came to the U.S. but because of language issues her last name was misspelled and so was her husbands. I seem to be hitting a brick wall.

  • Rose


    November 3, 2018

    We are Maher’s/Meagher’s from Tipperary. I’m still searching for church records, Edward b.~1835, immigrated to U.S. before 1853 when he married Mary Sheedy.

  • Glenda Walker


    November 5, 2018

    My ancestor Mary Jane Kirkwood Was an orphan of the Potato Famine and came to Australia on board the Earl Grey ship. Her name is in the Irish Famine Memorial in Sydney. I would so love to be a ble to trace her family more.

  • MICHAEL R MACFADEN


    November 5, 2018

    For a more complete overview see Historian Finn Dwyer’s series on “The Great Famine”
    https://irishhistorypodcast.ie/category/podcast/
    which as Gaeilge was called litteraly
    An Droch Saol — The bad life
    An Gorta Mór — the big hurt

    Which had the chilling effect of almost ending the native language of the country.

  • Michael Taaffe-Finn (husband)


    March 17, 2020

    Very interesting reading. I have always been interested in tracking my family name and would be interested if you could give me a push in the right direction. I believe the family ordinate from County Silgo.