- Sending Out Ireland’s Poor: Assisted Emigration to North America in the Nineteenth Century
During the nineteenth century, most Irish emigrants were aided to leave their homeland, usually by relatives, already overseas, who sent remittances or prepaid passage tickets back to Ireland. However, perhaps as many as 300,000 Irishmen and -women (overwhelmingly Catholics and comprising between 5% and 10% of the total migration) had their fares to North America paid by Irish landlords, by the British treasury, by the Irish poor law unions, or by private philanthropists. It is these "assisted emigrants"—whom historian Gerard Moran calls "the forgotten Irish emigrants of the nineteenth century"—who are the subject of this study.
Moran's book is significant for several reasons. First, it combines his own research, primarily on assisted emigration from the West of Ireland in the 1880s, with data from a host of secondary sources to survey nearly all the assistance schemes, private and official, that were implemented between the early 1800s and the end of the nineteenth century. Second, Moran's work transcends the usual divisions between political, administrative, and social history, focusing equally on official British debates over whether or how to subsidize Irish emigration, on the practical implementation of the various schemes, on emigration's causes and the motives of those who provided assistance, and on its consequences for Irish and North American societies and for the assisted emigrants themselves. Finally, Moran's study is truly transnational in scope, concentrating on assisted emigrants to Canada (their primary initial destination) and to the United States, but also providing information about emigrant assistance to Australasia, South Africa, and England.
As a result, Sending Out Ireland's Poor is an important addition to the burgeoning literature on the Irish diaspora, illuminating an important aspect of Irish migration that is usually either neglected in general works or confined to studies focusing on only one host country or on a particular assisted emigration program. Indeed, one laudable feature of Moran's work is his attempt to compare the motivations, administrations, and results of the various schemes. Logically enough, he concludes that the most successful programs—particularly the one directed by Peter Robinson in 1823-25—were those that were officially and adequately financed and that involved close consultation among all interested parties: the British and colonial governments, Irish landlords, and the emigrants [End Page 784] themselves. By contrast, the least successful were those that occurred during the Great Famine of 1845-52 and that were enforced by landlords, often on unwilling and/or evicted tenants, and funded so inadequately that they generated tremendous—often lethal—hardships among the emigrants and public outrage and anti-Irish prejudice among beleagured natives of the host societies.
Despite its merits, this book has some problems. First, the author was ill-served by his editor or publisher, as errors of spelling, even grammar, are distressingly frequent, and some entries in his (otherwise valuable) bibliography are incomplete. Second, in terms of his interpretations of Irish rural society, of landlord or official British culpability for emigrant sufferings, and of the condition of the emigrants abroad, Dr. Moran appears uncertain whether to embrace the neo-liberal verities of "revisionist" scholars, such as David Fitzpatrick or Donald Akenson, or to cleave to what the latter condemn as "old-fashioned" nationalist interpretations—of the Irish emigrants as impoverished, homesick, embittered "exiles," for example, instead of fortunate "escapers" and eager proto-entrepreneurs. Frequently it appears that Dr. Moran wishes to have it both ways (although a remark in his Acknowledgements suggests that his personal sympathies may be "traditional"), and as a result there often seem to be tensions, discrepancies, even contradictions among his interpretions of these and other issues.
This may also be a reflection, however, of a third problem—not one of the author's making—namely, the contradictory or incomplete nature of the available evidence concerning the assisted emigrants' condition and character. For example, proponents of assistance schemes usually described the emigrants as hard-working and ambitious, whereas...