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To know why the Irish left Ireland, one must look at what was going on in Ireland from approximately 1815, a time before the famine began, to 1854 when the famine came to an end. Firstly, the Irish population had been steadily increasing from 2.8 million in 1712 until an estimated 8.5 million in 1841. This naturally led to harder times as families had more children to support. There also came a decline in agricultural prices, leading the average farmer’s income to decline as well. There was a legislation, as well, that was passed in 1816 and 1819 that decreased the cost of eviction, which led some of the landowners to evict their tenants to use the land for the purpose of grazing. This left those tenants without a place to live and a way to support themselves. As well, the Union with Great Britain in 1801, and the free trade that followed, ruined many of the forms of labour in Ireland at the time, including manufacturing and the products of artisans. This led many of the farmers and labourers to resort to begging, stealing and even starvation. This seemed to be enough of an incentive for people to start migrating overseas, and it is only common sense that those with the most money were able to leave first in 1815, these people mainly Protestant farmers. However, there was a reduction in fares in 1817 and that allowed some of the poorer classes, most usually were the Protestant counterparts, to finally migrate. During that period, many of the Irish immigrants came from the town of Ulster. This has been found to be due to the collapse of the linen industry there, which left the former employees unemployed. It seems apparent that in the decade prior to the Potato Famine, unemployment and a decline in the level of lifestyle were the major driving forces behind the first
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Another major force was indeed the infamous Potato Famine, which spanned the years from 1847 to 1854. It seems that in 1845 the potato crop of Ireland became infested with a fungal parasite, which caused a partial failure in the potato crop between 1845 and 1846, and to decline even further in 1847 and 1848. This caused most of the potato farms to be very unsuccessful which left the farmers and those who relied on potatoes, hungry and in poor spirits. In Ireland, potatoes were basically the staple of everyone’s diet and people depended on them to feed their families when there was little else that they could afford. Some people now took the potato infestation as a sign that it was time for them to leave Ireland. Between the years of 1840 to 1849 the yearly average of Irish immigrants rose to over 20000. Those who could not afford the fare by themselves had family members or friends who were already established in North America send them money to pay for their passage. This increase in passengers led captains to overcrowd their boats; sometimes the very same boats that were used for transporting raw materials to Ireland were used to transport people on the return trip. The captains did not care about the people they transported; being much more focused on the profit they could make on the panic of those wanting to leave. These boats led to extremely poor hygienic conditions and the boats were dubbed “coffin ships”. Most of those who traveled on these coffin ships were exposed to diseases and a number of people actually contracted cholera and typhus leading to their deaths on their way to North America or upon arrival. In fact, five thousand people, most of them being Irish, died on Grosse-Ile in 1847 alone.
An obvious question to ask would be: why would the Irish choose to go to Quebec? What made it so attractive that people would want to settle? The first reason was that the Quebec route was one of the cheaper ones to get to North America from Ireland in a time when people tried to save as much money as possible. That is until 1847, when the influx of Irish immigrants to Canada increased due to the incredibly diseased potato crop. However, until then the Quebec route was the most popular to those who had a more limited budget. As well, Quebec was of a basically agreeable climate, not severely different from the migrant’s homeland. For most, there was no good reason not to want to go there instead of New York, which was the other popular North American route. However, the increase in 1847 of Irish immigrants led the Canadian government to apply a new head tax to the fares to lessen the costs of caring for the diseased immigrants and Quebec hence was no longer the most popular route. However, right up until 1854, the end of the potato famine, Quebec still received a considerable amount of Irish immigrants. Between the years of 1850 to 1859 the figure of Irish immigrants to Canada dropped to approximately 10000. Grosse-Ile was the first stop on the Quebec route; it was in fact a quarantine station for thousands of immigrants before they were processed in Quebec City.. It also gave the migrants a taste of what Quebec would be like.
Another reason for settlement during the Potato Famine would be that those who had money sent to them from family members who had already settled in Quebec most often followed in their footsteps and settled in Quebec with them. It is only natural for people of the same family or with close bonds to want to settle in a foreign place together. This would make it less strange and overwhelming. At that time, as well, the English were not fond of the thought of the Irish coming to England, even before the English demonstrated fear of the Irish infecting their crops. Most of the Irish immigrants to England were Protestant in the beginning while those to Quebec were Catholic. The Protestants could afford Quebec even in the beginning, those who could not went to England. The English tried to discourage Irish migration to England in whatever ways they could, even though it was unnecessary as it was a well known fact that they were not fond of the Irish.
Irish immigration to Quebec from 1815 to 1854 was not due to one solitary factor. It is quite obvious that there were many external and internal forces that would persuade someone Irish to migrate to any new land. However, unemployment and eviction were the most common reasons for migrating between 1815 and 1845. After 1845 the potato crop infestation caused many inhabitants to rethink their situation in Ireland, and propelled them to decide to migrate as well. Quebec was one of two routes available and for a long time it was also the least expensive one. It only made sense that in a time where money was saved as much as possible, the cheapest route was the only option. However, one must not think it unusual for people to go to such lengths to escape what they believed to be difficult conditions. It is true that people have migrated for many reasons all over the world, and people will continue to do so. However, the Irish immigrants did not always migrate in good circumstances as shown during the period of 1815 to 1854.
Davies, Stephen. “Lessons of history: The great Irish famine.” Ideas on Liberty 9 (2001): 26-28.
Grace, Robert J. The Irish in Quebec: an introduction to the historiography. Quebec: Institut québéçois de recherche sur la culture, 1993.
“Irish history preserved on Grosse-Ile.” Catholic New Times 11 (1996): 10.
See, Scott W. “ “An unprecedented influx”: nativism and Irish famine immigration to Canada.” American Review of Canadian Studies. 4 (2000): 429-453.
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