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History of emigration from County Longford

(Adapted from Aidan O’Hara’s essay ‘Emigration from County Longford in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.’

– published in Longford, History & Society, 2010.) 

In 1841 County Longford, with an estimated area of 270,000 statute acres, had a recorded population of 115,491, which began declining at the time of the Great Famine [1845-1852] continuing until 2006 when it was 34,391, a decrease of approximately 60 percent.

In the mid- to late – 1700s Longford enjoyed a degree of relative prosperity from its successful linen trade, but early in the nineteenth century it suffered from a dramatic decline so that the county could no longer support its relatively high population.

It must be remembered that internal migration and emigration played a major part in determining the pattern of population change from Famine times. North America was the destination of the great majority of emigrants but some, including people from Longford, were attracted by opportunities in Australia.

Few of the thousands who left Longford in this period (pre 1845) have left any written record of their migration story. One who did was Patrick Wynne, son of Michael Wynne, a small tenant farmer from Abbeyshrule, County Longford. Patrick, who was born on 28 October 1828 and died in 1909, emigrated with his family to America in 1842, and wrote A short history of the life of Patrick Wynne, in his seventieth year in 1898. Basing his account no doubt on what his father had told him he wrote:

The times seemed to be getting worse, so in the spring of 1842 having had a notice to quit and give up his little farm, paid up his rent, sold all his personal effects and on the 29th day of April 1842 took shipping at the city of Dublin for New York.

Patrick observed that there was little money left after his father had paid for ‘our outfit for the voyage (and passage was paid)’ for himself, his wife, Patrick and his sister.

One of the most unusual transatlantic migrations from Ireland was the small but significant movement of people from three midland counties [Westmeath, Offaly and Longford] and Wexford in the southeast to Argentina. While Spanish documents record that there were Farrells in Argentina in the 1500s, the beginnings of Irish settlement in that country originated with individuals and small groups of Irish, usually from the ranks of those fighting for independence from Spanish rule. But the majority of Argentinians with Longford roots emigrated in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The decline in Longford’s population led to farm consolidation, the agricultural economy was reshaped, and dry stock family steadily increased. Over sixty years ago Michael Kilemade of Ferefad, recalled for the Irish Folklore Commission what he had heard about these changes:

Soon after the Great Famine, a large tract of land, upwards of 350 Irish acres the property of Lord Longford, was completed cleared of tenant farmers in this locality. The land thus cleared was given to a Protestant who was a bailiff to Lord Longford. The landlord paid the passage money for all who desired to go to the USA. There was no ill feeling felt by tenants towards the landlord, they seemed anxious to leave the stricken country.*

Between 1841 and 1851, Longford’s population fell from a high of 115,491 to 82,348, a decrease of 29 per cent. The decrease nationally was 20 per cent.

The Longford people who had to flee Ireland, generation after generation since the Great Famine, were making room, so to speak, for those who remained. In the years following, the natural increase that should normally have occurred in the population through marriages and births was more than offset for a hundred years and more by constant emigration. For young men who had no land, and young women who had no dowry, it meant no marriage and no prospects. The problem was handled in a manner that was pragmatic, if harsh since there was nothing for them at home, they had to emigrate. While those who married continued to have large families, the number of marriages fell to an all time low.

The publication of T.K. Whitaker’s (First) Programme for economic expansion in 1958 marked the end of Ireland’s traditional policy of economic isolationism and this marked the beginning of the modernisation of the economy. But it would take almost a quarter of a century for Ireland to reach a level of development that would place it on a par with other developed European countries. During the years of the Celtic Tiger many Longford emigrants returned home to participate in the boom times.

 

* Cathal Póirtéir, Famine echoes (Dublin, 1995); IFC 1071:290-306, p. 242.