Should the Irish diaspora have remained at home to fight the good fight?

 Archbishop John Ireland - brought Irish emigrants from the slums of New York to Minnesota.

Archbishop John Ireland - brought Irish emigrants from the slums of New York to Minnesota.

Although assisted emigration was frowned upon by some bishops and by the Land League leaders Michael Davitt and Charles S Parnell, there were some assisted schemes that were carefully planned, and in many cases worked well. The schemes that worked best were those which helped Irish families to avoid settlement in the great eastern cities of America where large numbers were caught in huge, stinking slums where it could take a generation or two to escape from.

Following the Great famine of the 1840s, the Catholic Church was slow to recognise the plight of its people all along the west coast, leaving the field open to the Anglican Church Missions and the Quakers, the Society of Friends, who schooled, fed, and clothed thousands of poor people, teaching them new skills to find a better life.

Assisted emigration, known as the ‘Free Emigration’ in Connemara, were not the cynical moves by some landlords to clear their land of impoverished tenants, by paying their passage to America on ships which were barely sea-worthy. As far as possible these were carefully planned. Destinations were sourced, each passage was paid for, proper clothing was provided, and some money was given for onward railway fares.

The Society of Friends in Britain sent James Hack Tuke to access the situation in the west of Ireland. He was appalled by what he saw, and with William E Forster immediately began distributing relief in Galway and Connemara areas. He wrote frequently to the London Times, describing the scenes of distress, which no doubt shamed the government to subscribe to his relief efforts.

Believing that guided emigration was the best way to help families who were destitute, in 1880 he spent two months in the American mid-west, to ascertain the most suitable areas for migrants to settle. As the great transcontinental railways rolled westwards, and opened new territories, Tuke found plenty of opportunities for migrants to settle and earn good money. He also visited Canada where again the Canadian government offered good employment prospects and good wages.

Anxious to emigrate

Back in Clifden he found many of the local clergy sympathetic to his emigration plan. The medical officer told him that: ‘dozens of these unfortunate people, especially those recently evicted, have begged me to lay their case before you, those who depend solely on the pittance granted to them by the union, and the charity of their neighbours. They are only too anxious to emigrate, but have no means, not even the clothing needed.’

Within months of his arrival, on April 28 1882, 1,276 people, mainly from the Clifden area, but also a small group from Newport, Co Mayo, left on the SS Austrian, from Galway bay for Philadelphia at a combined cost of £1, 315 or £6/11/8 pence per person.

By 1884 Tuke had assisted 2,802 people to emigrate, including 966 from Belmullet and Newport, 769 from Oughterard, 594 from Swinford, 96 from Aranmore Island, and a further 374 from Clifden, at a combined cost £68,500, paid for by a government subsidy of £40,000, while the remainder was paid by the Society of Friends.*

Archbishop Ireland

Similarly appalled by the suffering of the people at the time, a Liverpool priest, Fr James Nugent, a man of great energy who devoted his life working to relieve child poverty in his native city, had visited the west of Ireland over a number of years, and saw the deteriorating circumstances of the people. He wrote to Archbishop John Ireland, the first Catholic archbishop of Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Bishop O’Connor of Nebraska and asked them to take 50 Connemara families each and place them in their recently opened colonies in their respective dioceses. Bishop O’Connor refused ‘to accept such destitute families’, while Archbishop Ireland, at first reluctant, agreed.

John Ireland was born in Co Kilkenny, and emigrated to America with his family in the middle of the Great Famine. They settled in St Paul where he became a priest. His rapid ascent through the clerical ranks reflect his work in education and his stand on behalf of the African-American community, demanding equal educational rights and representation in local public committees, a voice which created a stir throughout America.

But by far his greatest achievement was his organisation of the most successful rural colonisation programme ever sponsored by the Catholic Church in America. What he did amazingly, was working with western railroads and with the Minnesota state government, he brought more than 4,000 Catholic families from the slums of eastern urban areas, such as the Five Points New York, and settled them on 400,000 acres of farmland in rural Minnesota.

So it was no difficulty for the Archbishop to reserve 50 farms of 160 acres each on this land, on which would be built a small frame house; and that five acres of prairie sod was to be turned for immediate planting, and to await the Connemara settlers.

Wept bitterly

It was agreed that Fr Nugent would cover all the expenses of the 309 Connemara emigrants as far as Boston, and the railway companies agreed to transport them to Saint Paul free of charge. He also supplied clothes for the journey and arrival, and asked them to promise to pay the money back so he could sponsor further emigrants in the future.

The people going away were selected by the local clergy, and came from Carna, Killeen, and Clifden. Apart from the families, there were between 50 and 60 single men and women.

They all began to converge on Galway on June 10 1880, and the following day attended Mass together at the Pro Cathedral of St Nicholas, before going down to the docks to be ferried out to the SS Austrian. They were accompanied by Fr Dooley who, once on board, gave ‘a touching and eloquent speech in the Irish language. He said that parting from their own old country was akin to death, because sterile as the rocks and hills of Connemara were, every spot was dear to them. He begged them never to forget their old country and to continue to speak their own language’.

Fr James Nugent was also present, and he referred briefly to the many attacks on him made by those against his work, ‘as they were many in both Ireland and America who felt that tenants should stay and fight for the land, and not to be encouraged to abandon it’.

The Connacht Telegraph reported that the people seemed happy, but wept bitterly when parting from their clergy.

Next week: Arrival and disaster.

NOTES: *I am grateful to Catherine Jennings for some of the above information. There is a Diaspora Centre in Carna. Eileen Davis is the director, where efforts are being made to trace some of Tuke’s emigrants, in a few weeks time I will relate how they prospered. am grateful to a great publication, Mr Tuke’s fund, published by Galway County Council and Clifden Heritage.

I am leaning on Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill’s excellent Beyond The Twelve Bens for much of this week’s Diary; and ‘James Hack Tuke - assisted emigration from the West of Ireland’ by Gerard Moran, History Ireland May/June 2013.

Listen to Tom Kenny and Ronnie O'Gorman elaborating on topics they have covered in this week's paper and much more in this week's Old Galway Diary Podcast.

Listen to Tom Kenny and Ronnie O'Gorman elaborating on topics they have covered in this week's paper and much more in this week's Old Galway Diary Podcast.


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