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“IN SEARCH OF THE PROMISED LAND”: THE CONNEMARA COLONIZATION SCHEME TO MINNESOTA, 1880* GERARD MORAN the nineteenth century witnessed large-scale destitution and distress in Ireland ; even after the Great Famine of 1845–50, want and starvation remained prevalent, particularly among the poor and marginally landed. The government was not prepared to implement measures that would relieve distress . It was largely left to individuals to put in place measures that would alleviate destitution. One of the most unusual of these proposals was the assisted emigration scheme of Rev. James Nugent, which was responsible for the transfer of 309 people from Connemara to Minnesota in 1880. This scheme did not achieve its aims, but such accounts of it have been written from an American viewpoint; no attempt has been made to examine it from an Irish perspective, however. It has been generally suggested that the scheme was ill-advised and did nothing to help those it was supposed to help. This article analyzes the resettlement scheme from the perspective of the migrants’ own social and economic background and experience and suggests that the reason for its failure was that the emigrants were unable to prosper under a hastily planned scheme that was inappropiate to the needs of destitute people. I Between 1879 and 1882, poverty and destitution could be found in practically every part of the west of Ireland, but it was especially severe in Connemara .1 A number of forces converged to create this crisis: the decline THE CONNEMARA COLONIZATION SCHEME TO MINNESOTA, 1880 130 *I wish to express my gratitude for the help provided by Prof. Gary Owens, Prof. Kerby Miller, Prof. James S. Donnelly, Dr. James Kelly, Bernadette Cunningham, and Julie Rodgers in the preparation of this article. 1 See Gerard Moran, “Famine and the Land War: Relief and Distress in Mayo, 1879–82” in Cathair na Mart, 5 & 6 (1985, 1986), 111–28, 54–67; James Hack Tuke: Irish Distress and in remittances from seasonal work in Scotland and England; the total collapse of the potato crop, which remained the principal food of the people; and the disintegration of the kelp industry, which had been crucial to the Connemara economy.2 While other western communities had experienced similar difficulties in the 1860s and 1870s, these had been overcome by successful appeals for help to the Irish at home and abroad.3 In 1879–80, J.H. Tuke, the English Quaker and philanthropist, estimated that out of a population of 2.5 million people along the west coast, one million needed relief, and that, of these, 124,000 were in County Galway , mainly in Connemara. Connemara differed from the rest of the country in that its population was constantly on the edge of destitution, and the slightest change in the people’s economic situation could upset their whole survival pattern. The fundamental cause of destitution in Connemara was the uneconomical size of the farms. Witnesses before the Bessborough Commission in 1880 suggested that fifteen acres was the minimum farm size that could support the average family.4 Yet 69 percent of farms in the Clifden poor law union, 51 percent in Oughterard, and 51 percent in Galway (the three unions that comprised the Connemara region) were below this size. Between 1861 and 1881, when farms in the rest of the country were being consolidated, the number of holdings under fifteen acres rose THE CONNEMARA COLONIZATION SCHEME TO MINNESOTA, 1880 131 its Remedies: A Visit to Donegal and Connaught in the Spring of 1880 (London, 1880); N.D. Palmer, The Irish Land League Crisis (rep. New York, 1978), chp iv & v; Catherine Jennings, “1880: a most distressful year in Connemara” in Journal of the Clifden and Connemara Heritage Group, 1 (1993) 37–47; T.P. O’Neill, “Minor famines and relief in County Galway, 1815–1925” in Galway: History and Society, ed. Gerard Moran (Dublin, 1996), 465–68. 2 Tuke, Irish Distress and its Remedies, 75; British Parliamentary Papers, Annual Report of the Local Government Board for Ireland being the Eighth Report under “The Local Government Board (Ireland) Act,” 1881, 48, [C 2926–1], 82, 84–85. The importance of kelp to Connemara can be noted in that during the mid...


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