Thousands are sailing

“Thousands are sailing / Across the western ocean / To a land of opportunity / That some of them will never see” (The Pogues, “Thousands are Sailing”).

By the time the Board of Trade began in 1890 to systematically collect details of all passengers on outward-bound long-haul sailings from Britain and Ireland – the records which now make up the BT27 passenger list record series – emigration from Ireland already had a long history. While emigration in the 1890s may have lacked the urgency of the famine years in the 1840s and 1850s, tens of thousands of ordinary Irish men, women and children were still leaving the country in the 1890s and 1900s. Most were bound for USA and were responding more to the “pull” of the New World rather than any “push” from the Old. Irish immigrants and their first and second generation descendants were making their fortunes and gaining positions of power in cities such as New York and Boston, and news of their success was constantly filtering back to family, friends and the wider community back in Ireland. Of course, numerically far more Irish immigrants in USA lived inner-city lives in poverty or on modest means than made it rich. As Shane MacGowan also sang on “Thousands are Sailing”: “Postcards we’re mailing / Of sky-blue skies and oceans / From rooms the daylight never sees”. However, it was the success stories which were heard and which continually re-stimulated emigration. Perhaps, after all, it is the hope of living with dignity, and the possibility, rather than any likelihood, of becoming wealthy, which provided the real draw.

To give an idea of the volume of Irish emigration, within the years from 1890 to 1909 inclusive, at present count there were 4,341 transatlantic sailings from the port of Queenstown (Cobh of Cork), 2,406 from Londonderry, 118 from Galway and 80 from Belfast.

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