Patterns of Irish Emigration to America, 1783-1800

By Bric, Maurice J. | Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies, Spring-Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Patterns of Irish Emigration to America, 1783-1800


Bric, Maurice J., Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies


THE general features of Irish emigration to colonial America are clear and relatively undisputed: it was largely of Ulster origin; the majority sailed for the Hudson and Delaware valleys; and the departures peaked at three points: 1717-20, 1725-29, and during the nine years prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. (1) As such, when the passenger trade resumed after the Treaty of Paris (1783), it did so within structures that were well established and familiar as well as along shipping lanes that were managed by commercial networks and families that often spanned the Atlantic. But the later emigrants also sailed during a period of more coordinated passenger travel, while the agents who managed the business preferred to engage paying passengers rather than indentured servants. Thus American independence not only redefined political relationships between the old and new worlds, (1) but it also marked a reorganization of the passenger trade between Ireland and America.

I

After 1783, most Irish emigrants saw the new republic, in the words of one emigrant letter, as a "Plentifull Countery" [sic], which "before a year or two ... will be extremely enviable." (2) Despite the impact of such letters, the presentation and understanding of the emigration process were even more greatly influenced by the management and fortunes of Ireland's two major industries, linen and provisions. Also, the commercial structures of these industries, more often than not, determined the choice of one American destination over another and where the majority of Ireland's emigrants would actually land.

In the northern province of Ulster linen had long been central to the economy and, although Dublin remained its major port of export, most of the eighteenth-century product came from the northern part of the island. In the nature of things Ulster also emerged as a major market for American flaxseed, 96 percent of which originated in the two ports of New York and Philadelphia in 1766-67. Moreover, several Irish merchants, through either full or occasional partnerships with houses in America, owned much of the tonnage that sustained this flaxseed/linen roundabout and managed it through networks of personal, family, and church connections that were geographically split only by the Atlantic. For example, the Belfast firm of John & James Holmes sent its ship Barclay on at least one trip to the Delaware every year, principally because the Holmes's brother, Hugh, was a partner in the Philadelphia-based firms of Holmes & Ralston and Holmes & Rainey. In any event, both the Delaware and the Hudson were central to Ulster's external trade, and this was reflected in the region's shipping advertisements for America. Of the 442 sailings that were advertised in the provincial press between 1750 and 1775, 53.5 percent and 18.5 percent were for Philadelphia and New York, respectively. (3)

The corollary of these connections was that prior to the American Revolution the middle colonies became the major attraction for Ulster's emigrants, especially if they were servants. After all, the holds of the flaxseed vessels had to be filled for the return journey to America. John and Robert Ogle suggested to their Philadelphia correspondent in 1774 that servants and redemptioners "make an advantageous returning freight to vessels loaded from you to us, & is all paid down at Shipping." (4) Thus the management of servants was central to the cash flow of Ulster-American trade, and merchants and ship-captains as well as their agents traded in people as they would in any commodity. As a result, the networks that linked the weavers, brokers, and merchants of the linen industry were also used to promote emigration from Ulster, while on the other side of the Atlantic the central role of the middle colonies in both the importation and distribution of servants and other Irish immigrants was assured.

After 1783 Ireland's linen industry underwent a remarkable revival. …

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