THEY’RE CALLED THE ‘missing 1490’.
In 1857, these men and women were among the 5,000 who emigrated from Co Roscommon to escape the devastating grip of the Famine. This group left on four ships bound for Canada. Not all of them made it alive.
Up until this year, the destiny of those who did survive was unknown.
Now, a project run by the University of Maynooth has found out where a large number of these Irish people went, and uncovered their fate. A memorial to them will be unveiled next week.
The research is led by Dr Ciarán Reilly of the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates, NUI Maynooth in conjunction with Strokestown Park House.
He spoke to TheJournal.ie about the incredible – and potentially deadly – journey they took, and the lives he discovered they lived after arriving in Canada.
Much of the information he was able to glean from the Strokestown archive, a collection of more than 50,000 documents, the vast majority of which relate to the Great Irish Famine.
Why did they emigrate en masse?
In November 1845, Rev Maurice Mahon, third baron Hartland, was murdered.
After his death, Major Denis Mahon inherited his 11,000 acre Strokestown estate in county Roscommon.
But he wasn’t taking on a fully-functional estate. Instead, after years of neglect and mismanagement it was almost £30,000 in debt and suffering from gross overcrowding, subdivision issues and mounting arrears.
To try and solve these problems, John Ross Mahon, the land agent, came up with a scheme of assisted emigration.
It would cost over £11,000 annually to keep the people in the Roscommon workhouse.
However, a once-off emigration scheme would cost £5,800, saidReilly:
In May 1847 1,490 tenants left from the Strokestown estate for Quebec in British North America (Canada). They were accompanied on their walk to Dublin, by the Royal Canal footway, by the bailiff, John Robinson who was instructed to stay with them all the way to Liverpool and ensure that they boarded the ships.
They left Liverpool on four ships: the Virginius, Naomi, John Munn and the Erin’s Queen.
“The Mahon tenants were amongst the first to be characterised as sailing on coffin ships during the Famine,” said Reilly. “With Cholera and typhus rampant the emigrants were exposed to the ravages of disease.”
The Toronto Globe newspaper was amongst the first to highlight the problems encountered by the passengers on board the Virginius:
The Virginius from Liverpool, with 496 passengers, had lost 158 by death, nearly one third of the whole, and she had 180 sick; above one half the whole will never see their home in the new world.
The survivors were described as ‘ghastly, yellow-looking spectres, unshaven and hollow cheeked’, said Reilly.
On the ship Erin’s Queen, 78 passengers died and a further 104 were sick. The ship was abandoned by the crew and captain at the harbour as they feared for their lives.
On the ship John Munn, more than 100 were sick and 59 were dead, while on the Naomi 78 were dead.
Today, many of these people are remembered on the glass memorial wall in Grosse Île, which also records the deaths of 5,424 people in the summer of 1847.
While people were known for speaking out about mass evictions in Ireland, there was “no public outcry” towards the evictions in Strokestown, said Reilly.
“In other places there was uproar. There seems to be a breakdown as well of community bonds in the Famine,” he pointed out.
The subletting of land on Mahon’s estate had led to chronic overcrowding – by 1846 there were 11,500 people on 11,000 acres of land
“Strokestown mirrored Ireland at the time,” said Reilly.
To find out what happened to the people who left Strokestown, Reilly scoured census records, the Strokestown archives newspapers, obituaries, and many online archives such as the Library of Congress.
Once the Strokestown Irish landed in Canada, many were interviewed by Canadian newspapers, who were “very keen to pick up their story”.
Obituaries were particularly helpful, as the Irish communities in various countries tended to post “a lot of fairly informative obituaries” that often included the names of famine ships.
“They hold on to the memory of famine,” said Reilly.
Wall of names
On 11 May this year, a memorial wall will be unveiled containing the names of the 1,490 people who emigrated in 1847.
An exhibition, Emigrant Faces from County Roscommon, will run from 5-11 May at Strokestown, detailing the lives of more than 12 of the emigrants, such as Michaell Flynn, James Higgins and Thomas Fallon who fought in the American Civil War; Catherine O’Keefe, a Roscommon emigrant in Melbourne, Australia; and Patrick McNamara, a labourer on the construction of the Blue Ridge Mountain Railroad Tunnel.
Stories after the famine
Reilly discovered quite a bit about Strokestown emigrants during his research. Here are some of them:
- Michael Calhoun Dufficy
Dufficy eventually settled in Marin County, California. He did so well there that in 1904 he was listed as being one of the most notable people in California. He became a lawyer and justice of the peace.
- Edwin O’Byrne and Elijah Impey
These two cousins were both killed during the American Civil War.
- Daniel Tighe
Daniel Kelly took the trip with his mother and sister Catherine after his father died in Ireland. After arrival in Quebec, he was adopted by a family in Lotbiniere and took on the name Tighe. Curiously, Daniel’s surname name appears spelled differently on each of the five Canadian census returns he appears in (such as Tay, Thy and Tire). How does Reilly know it is him? His wife name and children’s names are the same, while the locations also tally. Daniel’s descendents still live in Lotbieniere, 150 years later.
- Mary Tarpey
Mary Tarpey had the distinction of being the oldest person in Long Island at one point. She left Strokestown at the age of 84 and lived to be 106. “She attributed her longevity to a daily glass of whiskey,” said Reilly.
- Michael Hayden
Hayden went to Washington, and claimed that he worked in a restaurant, where he said he became friendly with John Wilkes Boothe and companions and overheard them hatching their plan to kill Abraham Lincoln.
- Frank Coggins
Here’s a mysterious family: Frank Coggins, his wife and four children left for America in 1850. “We know they left, the records are there. We know they arrived but there’s no sight or sign of them after that,” said Reilly. He’s hoping that the name might jog some people’s memories. Perhaps the Coggins changed their names, but does the surname ring a bell? The family had spent time in a workhouse in Strokestown before going to America.
The Coggins’ don’t turn up in censuses, poorhouse, mental asylums… They just have vanished.
Source: Dr Ciarán Reilly
Workhouses and asylums
The famine took a huge toll on many people, not just physically but mentally. The long and arduous journey to the promised land of the United States did not mean escaping difficulty.
If anything, it could have led to more issues as people tried to set up a new life in an unfamiliar country.
“The ones that don’t adapt and don’t make it in America, you would find them in asylums,” said Reilly.
I found several in mental asylums within a year or two of reaching America. It’s obvious they have left scarred and totally can’t adapt. Others you find in almshouses.
The amount of immigrants landing on its shores meant that the population of Toronto doubled from 20,000 after 1847.
As part of the National Famine Commemoration 2014, a lecture series will take place from 5 May to 10 May at Strokestown Park House.
A memorial wall for the Strokestown emigrants will also be launched on 11 May.
If you want to find out more, or think that you recognise your family here, visit the Historic Irish Houses & Estates website for contact details.
In autumn 2014 Dr Reilly will publish Voices of the Great Irish Famine: The Strokestown archive revealed.