The Potato Famine (1845-1852), usually known in Ireland as The Great Famine, is unparalleled in Irish history and had a catastrophic impact on the country in the 1840s and 1850s, and for many decades after. The immediate impact saw the population decrease from about 8.2 million in 1841 to 6.7 million 10 years later due to death and emigration. Whole swathes of the Irish countryside went silent, and today there are numerous famine graveyards dotted around the country that contain tens of thousands of unknown victims.
One of the outcomes of this cataclysmic event was the creation of millions of records that document the Irish immigrants who fled to the United States and Canada. Many of these records are available for research on Ancestry®. Some of them are broad in scope and will give you a really great starting point for further research. Others are like hidden gems and may reveal one of the most hard-to-discover pieces of information about your Famine-era ancestors: where they were from in Ireland.
Research in Irish Records
If you do happen to know where your Famine-era ancestors are from in Ireland, you can follow the work of a local Famine Relief Committee from that county. Set up in 1847 and 1848 in response to the starvation and death that was occurring with increased frequency, the records primarily consist of letters from the local committee to government administrators in Dublin, and the responses they received. These records are on Ancestry in the Famine Relief Commission Papers database.
Consider Glanworth Civil Parish in north County Cork. The population dropped by an astonishing 48% from 1841 to 1851 The number of families in the parish similarly dropped by 46% in the same time period. The Famine started to have an impact in Glanworth by the summer of 1846. On 26 June of that year, the Cork Examiner newspaper noted subscriptions were being requested for the Glanworth Poor Relief Fund. By December 1846, things were getting much worse. Samuel Hayman, the local Anglican rector and member of the Glanworth Famine Relief Committee, wrote to the Famine Relief Commission in Dublin about “the extreme destitution pervading in their district” and how they were opening a soup shop to sell a quart for one penny.
The Journey to North America
Desperate arrivals fleeing the Famine had to make their way across the Atlantic Ocean to North America. New York was the main port that received them with over 400,000 people coming from Ireland between 1846 and 1851. The Irish Immigrant Arrival database documents every one of them. Individuals and families, young and old, made the journey, with the vast majority first getting a boat across the Irish Sea to Liverpool in England before making the long crossing to New York.
Something less well-known about the exodus from Ireland is that many went to Canadian ports and either stayed in Canada or made their way down to the United States. While very few passenger lists are available for Canadian ports before 1865, Ancestry has two collections for this type of research. Arrivals at Saint John, New Brunswick, 1841-1849 and Irish Canadian Emigration Records, 1823-1849 both cover the majority of the Famine years.
One of the most harrowing accounts of what life was like aboard what became known as the “coffin ships” was provided by Stephen De Vere, a landlord from County Limerick, Ireland, and member of the British parliament. He traveled from Limerick to Quebec in 1847 in the steerage section, which housed those fleeing the Famine. “Before the emigrant had been a week at sea he was an altered man. How could it be otherwise? Hundreds of poor people men, women, and children of all ages….huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart, the fevered patients lying between the sound in sleeping places so narrow as almost to deny them the power of indulging, by a change of position, the natural restlessness of the disease.”
Learning More About Your Ancestor After the Famine
Census records can tell us a lot about an ancestor, and there are four key collections for this era: the 1850 U.S. Federal Census, the 1851 Census of Canada, the 1855 New York State Census, and the 1855 Massachusetts State Census. Nuggets of information abound in these records.
The 1850 edition was the first federal census that recorded all members of a household, which will help you learn more about female ancestors. Some parts of the 1851 enumeration ask for the religious affiliation of those surveyed, which is useful as a next step for research in church records.
Many of the Famine-era immigrants settled in or stayed for a few years in New York and Massachusetts. The New York census asks about how long the respondent resided at their location, which can be a clue for when they came to the United States. Another question asks about naturalization status. The Massachusetts edition provided occupations, ages, and full names of family members.
Consider the family of Patrick and Mary Kennedy, who lived in Cohoes, Albany County, New York, in 1850. They were in their late 20s and their first two children, Mary and Ellen, were born in Ireland. Ellen was born in 1845 and their next child, John, was born in New York State in 1848. We can deduce from this record that the family left Ireland during the Famine, most likely between those years. Black ‘47, as 1847 has become known, was the worst year of the crisis, and this may have been when they came to the United States. They were a young family that saw no hope for themselves in Ireland, surrounded by starvation, disease, and death.
Finding Famine Immigrants in Newspapers
And what of those hidden gems? One fascinating and recurring feature of nineteenth-century newspapers was the “information wanted” or “missing friends” notices. Those who came to the United States and had lost track of family members and friends submitted short notices to newspapers that included very specific information about those they were trying to reunite with.
The largest collection of such notices for Irish immigrants was published in The Pilot, a Boston-based newspaper. A similar collection is available on Ancestry for notices from a New York City newspaper, The Irish American. People from all over the United States and Canada submitted notices to these newspapers, so they are key collections to study to locate an Irish place of origin.
Catherine O’Connor was one of the countless Famine arrivals in the United States. She lost track of her two brothers, Daniel and Michael, and by February 1848 she desperately needed to know what happened to them. She paid for a small newspaper notice since her brothers had arrived in New York in the spring of 1847 and she’d not heard from them. She only knew they were living in the Albany, New York, area. Her notice tells us that they were all natives of County Sligo, on the west coast of Ireland, and anybody with information was to write to her about them.
As we celebrate St. Patrick’s day, this is the perfect time to look in these potato famine records to see if your ancestor was seeking a family member, or was the one being sought by their family.
“Skibbereen by James Mahony, 1847,” Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org), accessed March 2023.
The Census of Ireland for the Year 1851 (Dublin, Ireland: Alexander Thom, 1856), p. 238-239; digital image, “Texts,” Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org), accessed October 2020.
Glanworth Famine Relief Committee (Glanworth, Cork, Ireland), Incoming Letters: Baronial Sub-series (RLFC3/2/105), Letter from Samuel Hayman dated 8 December 1846; digital image, “Ireland, Famine Relief Commission Papers, 1844-1847,” Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com), accessed March 2023.
Mark Holan, “Ireland’s Famine Children “Born at Sea”,” Prologue Magazine, Volume 49, no. 4 (2017-2018); “Genealogy Notes,” Prologue Magazine, National Archives and Records Administration (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2017/winter/irish-births), accessed March 2023.
Stephen De Vere, “Sailing in the Steerage of a Coffin ship,” Bearing Witness, Irish Famine Migration Stories in Ontario (https://irishfaminestories.ca/en/bearing_witness), accessed March 2023.
“Men, women, and children in bunks between decks on board an immigrant ship in the mid-19th century.,” Getty Images (https://www.gettyimages.com), accessed July 2021.
Harris, Ruth-Ann M., Donald M. Jacobs, and B. Emer O’Keeffe, editors. Searching for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in “The Boston Pilot 1831–1920”. Volume 1, p. 262, Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1989 digital image, “Searching for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in “The Boston Pilot,” 1831-1920,” Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com), accessed March 2023.