Irish Family History: The Other ‘Hungers’

Last Saturday here in the Northeast was cold, rainy and windy; not charming. Fortunately I was warm, dry and inside, listening to a day of  lectures on Irish family history at Emigrants and Exiles: An Irish Family History Symposium at Drew University in Madison, NJ. Among them was Professor Christine Kinealy’s talk on why Irish people left Ireland and why, as she said, “the Famine is only part of the story.”

Co-sponsored by Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies and the Genealogical Society of New Jersey, this conference contained an ideal mix of individual case histories and broader historical perspectives. And the talk by Kinealy, who teaches at Drew, was a great example in the second category.

Kinealy is actually an expert on the Great Hunger of 1845-52, so the title of her talk was intriguing. A key point was that the Great Hunger, while certainly the biggest, was just one of many disasters to hit Ireland over the years. In the 18th century alone, for instance:

1717-18: Drought.

1725-29: Generalized economic downturn; “poverty, wretchedness, misery and want” force a wave of Scots-Irish emigration from Ulster.

1740-41: Famine (concurrent with a “Little Ice Age”).

1754: Another drought.

1771-75: More poverty and evictions, resulting in between 25,000-30,000 emigrations, mostly Presbyterians.

These dates are particularly important  for descendants of Irish families (like my husband’s) who emigrated prior to the 19th century. As a couple of the lecturers mentioned, if your Irish left Ireland in the 18th century, there’s a good bet they were Scots-Irish. Within a hundred years of the era in which the British established Protestant “plantations” in Ireland, economic and agricultural downturns forced many of these families’ descendants to emigrate, mainly to North America.

As researcher Clare Keenan Agthe noted, there’s a rule-of-thumb emigrant timeline drawn from patterns noted by Irish researchers, to wit:

1600s: Native Irish

1700s and early 1800s: Scots-Irish

Mid-1800s: Native Irish

It’s only a general guideline, of course. However, for those just starting out on their Irish adventures, these lesser-known timelines are worth keeping in mind. It’s easy to assume our people left in the Great Famine years because, so often, it’s true — how could it not be, with such a massive population shift? But it’s also possible that they left at other times, for other reasons.

Irish history is like that.

(I’ll be posting other tips from this conference as I go through my notes. There was so much great information and — by the way — Megan Smolyenak dropped by to show everybody how to give a great genealogy lecture and be funny while you’re at it!)


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