Emigrant Stories

After our two days in Dublin, we rented a car and headed for parts further south. As George mentioned in his last post, I am doing most of the driving here in Ireland. I mostly wanted to give poor George a break from the harrowing nature of the experience, and I also wanted to add this life skill to my list. Our plans for Ireland included far flung places – well as far flung as you can get on such a small island – and a car was essential.

Just getting out of Dublin was a feat. We accidentally had the “avoid toll roads” option enabled on our GPS unit (called a Sat Nav in these parts) and it took me right through downtown Dublin. I figured if I did ok starting out with intense city traffic, I’d be fine in the country. I’ve done ok, but I wouldn’t call it “doing just fine.” When we finally got out of the city, we headed straight up into the Wicklow Mountains. It was an hour and 45 minutes before I got out of third gear!

The drive was studded with one gorgeous view after another. I can completely understand why they call it the Emerald Isle. One road we drove down was so lush and green, it almost felt like we were in the tropics. We stopped in the town of Glendalough (GLEN-da-lock, meaning valley of 2 lakes) with a beautiful, intact round bell tower and ruins from a 6th century monastic settlement. The two mile round-trip walk to the two lakes gave us a chance to stretch our legs and ogle more beautiful Irish scenery.

After several bizarre twists and turns that our “sat nav” insisted we take, we arrived at our gorgeous little cottage on an Irish farm near the town of New Ross (www.fruithill-cottages-ireland.com).  The cottage was utterly charming. It was raining and just over 40°F, but fortunately we had a wood burning stove. Instead of burning wood, though, they burn peat briquettes – a new smell to add to my olfactory memory. It smells earthy and interesting, but I still prefer the smell of a wood fire. Even though it was cool enough to have a fire every night of our stay, there was something very romantic about sitting in front of a peat fire, sipping tea, in Ireland.

We spent four days in the Waterford/Wexford area. On the first day we drove to New Ross and toured the Dunbrody Famine Ship. This is a replica of the ships that carried thousands of immigrants from Ireland to America during the mid-19th century.

At that time, the journey took 50 days. By 1900 the journey would be cut down to 5 days or so in steamer ships. During the Great Famine of 1847 – 1850, cargo ships sailing from Canada to America realized they could make some extra money by bringing people from Ireland to Canada or America on the westward journey. The conditions on these sailing ships were so bad that up to 50% of the passengers wouldn’t survive the journey and the ships became known as “coffin ships.”

On board the ship we saw the deck and the kitchen above board…

This captain is altogether too cheerful and modern

Then we were taken below deck to the cabins. There were 4 first-class rooms that held 2 people each. Passage for first class passengers cost £25 per berth. Then we were taken to the steerage quarters. Passage in steerage cost about £3.50 per person. A family of 7 could sail for £22. There were 32 beds (16 upper and 16 lower) about the size of a king size mattress. Sounds comfy until you understand that this room with its 32 beds housed 176 passengers on average, with some voyages squeezing in as many as 300 people.

People in steerage class were locked inside for 23 and a half hours a day, mostly in the dark. It was easy to imagine how the smell would have been overpoweringly horrific. Most of the passengers were already ill from “the hunger” and its attendant diseases (mostly typhus and cholera), but dysentery and seasickness added to the misery. They were allowed above deck only a half hour per day (in shifts) to cook food for their families. Hot food consisted of flour, oatmeal, or barley mixed with water and cooked over a fire above board. If it was too wet above board to light a fire, there was no hot food that day. Their only other rations would have been about 4 pounds of bread products per week for a family of 5. It’s incredible that any of them survived 50 days in those conditions.George’s grandmother (his father’s mother) came to America from the Cork area in the early 1900s. We were relieved to learn that the conditions improved dramatically by the time she made her journey. We visited the Heritage Center in the town we think she immigrated from, known variously as Cove, Queenstown, and Cobh (the Irish name for Cove and still pronounced Cove.) They had an excellent exhibit on Irish immigration as well which included information about the sailing ships and the eventual switch to steam powered vessels. By early 1900 the journey to America had been cut down to about 5 days on the fastest steamer ships. First class passengers were enjoying conditions that were downright posh, and even steerage passengers were comfortable and safe, though still cramped.

From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, Ireland was sending many of its prisoners to Australia. These were largely political prisoners and those convicted of petty crimes. This journey took up to 5 months depending on weather. Those who survived served out the remainder of their sentence doing hard labor. Some small percentage finished their sentences and went on to own land and make significant contributions to Australian society. There were several Irish rebellions in Australia, but none that made much of a difference.

Cobh was also the last port of call for the ill-fated Titanic. This year marked the 100th anniversary of the famous disaster, so exhibits and banners commemorating the event were all over town. The Lusitania, a passenger ship sunk by German U-boats during WWII also sailed from Cobh. Passage back and forth from this port town to America continued until the 1950s.

Ireland has seen so many of its citizens emigrate to other countries over the years that it is astonishing that 4.5 million people remain on the island today. Emigration out of Ireland slowed during the 20th century, but is on the rise again in the 21st century. Between 1995 and 2007, Ireland experienced tremendous economic growth. This period is known as the Celtic Tiger. When the market collapsed here, as everywhere, in 2008, emigration again started in earnest when educated job-seekers found it easier to find jobs outside of Ireland.

In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, friends and family would have a “wake” for those leaving the country since the assumption was that they would never see their loved ones again. It was a time of both sadness and excitement about finding a better life in a less harsh land. Irish music is filled with laments about leaving Ireland. At least those leaving today can hope for an upswing in the economy so that they can return to this beautiful island.


2 thoughts on “Emigrant Stories

    • We are loving Ireland, but I must admit I’m ready for some sunshine and warmth. In 10 days we move over to Croatia where it is currently in the mid 80s. It will be six months of summer starting June 29th. I’m trying to love the rain and the cool weather and just eat up all the gorgeous green scenery while we’re here. Miss you guys.

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