Nobody went from Ireland to America

Nobody ever left Ireland just to go to America. Pat Naughton left Ballinasloe to go to his cousin John in Roxbury, Boston. James McCurdy went from Rathlin to Lubec, Maine, for a job promised by his mother’s uncle. Father Bud Sullivan brought rakes of other Sullivans out from Allihies to work for Marcus Daly in the copper mines of Butte, Montana.

Butte: the boys from Allihies dug this
Butte: the boys from Allihies dug this

It’s an exaggeration, of course, to say there was absolutely no blind mass migration.  In the hopeless years of the Famine and after, plenty of people fled, desperate to be anywhere but Ireland. And there have always been a few brave or reckless souls willing to throw themselves across the Atlantic just to see what happens.

But mass emigration, then as now,  was almost always part of the accumulation of tens of thousands of individual and family decisions. Identifying and unravelling those decisions can bridge centuries and oceans and re-knit extended families. And the painstaking micro-study of migration clusters is the way to do that.

There are some excellent individual works – Bruce Elliott’s Irish Migrants in the Canadas, A New Approach, (2nd ed. McGill-Queen’s University Press 2002), which details 775 Protestant smallholder families who migrated from North Tipperary to the Ottawa Valley, is the founder of the genre and still a shining example. Peter Murphy’s Together in Exile (New Brunswick, 1990), a superb reconstruction of migration from Carlingford to Saint John, New Brunswick, is not far behind.

As far as I’m aware, though, no central guide exists to the clustering of Irish migrant origins and destinations. Genealogical anecdotes certainly abound, with dozens of unlikely pairings: Abbeydorney to Westbury;


Kilskeery to Charlestown, Mass.; Dungarvan to Yonkers. But there is nothing systematic. Ireland Reaching Out has begun a series of migration stories, but there’s a long way to go.

In any case, if you want to have a go for your own locality, there are now some excellent online tools.

The wonderful Steve Morse ( allows precise reconstruction of Ellis Island origins and destinations – have a look at for the 2000 people from Athlone who passed through between 1892 and 1924.

For the mid-19th century, the Boston Pilot “Missing Friends” ads ( supply even more circumstantial detail.

And the Irish Emigration Database at is another excellent resource, even if heavily weighted towards Ulster.

The reason for bringing all this up is two upcoming conferences that I’ll be performing speaking at. The first is a free conference run by Galway County Council’s indefatigable Heritage Officer, Marie Mannion. Entitled ‘Emigration and Our Galway County Diaspora’, it takes place in the unique setting of the Clarenbridge Oyster Festival Marquee next Thursday September 8th. More information here.

The second conference is ‘The Diaspora of the Wild Atlantic Way’, organised by the Clare Roots Society and taking place  in Treacy’s West County Hotel in Ennis over two full days, September 23rd and 24th. (Brochure here)

As ever, the Society is punching well above its weight, bidding to make this the pre-eminent genealogical conference in Ireland, bringing in heavyweight international speakers and applying its usual dedication and attention to detail.

I’m certainly looking forward to it.

23 thoughts on “Nobody went from Ireland to America”

  1. Interesting thought about why come to North America other than for a family vacation. I have wondered for decades what brought the first Fermanagh Scotch-Irish to western Illinois after landing in Philadelphia in 1831 and then working his way west to Illinois by the end of that decade. Whatever the reason for his arrival there had to be some communication going back to Ireland due to the great influx of folks from the Clones and Galloon parishes of Fermanagh who mostly arrived by ship to New Orleans and then by river steamer up the Mississippi to Rock Island, Illinois, which was a better option than a cross county trip from the east coast. Six to eight surnames I’m familiar with settled in southern Rock Island, northern Mercer Counties and stories persist about new arrivals staying at the homes of those who proceeded them until new lodging was built. As most were workers of the land, they all had that trade in common as well as being from the same parishes. Nearly fifty years of digging and I still don’t have all the answers to the reasons for my ancestors actions.

  2. And then there were the Chelsea Pensioners who commuted their pensions for free land grants in Upper Canada c. 1830. My ancestors, extended family and neighbours, came to Simcoe County, Ontario, (Home District of Upper Canada) from Co. Armagh and Down.

  3. John is absolutely right about following micro history and tracing small groups of emigrants. Most genealogists are aware of chain migration. People go to places where they have family and friend who will help them get jobs and a place to live. If a researcher can discover the origins of one emigrant, they can focus on that area for other people.

  4. How do I find where my ancestors landed in America. They settled in Howard County, Maryland in the 1840’s. I do not have much about Thomas O’Neill as to where he embarked from in Ireland or his wife Bridget Delanny O’Neill. The only location in Ireland I have is Dublin, but family stories tell me that he was from somewhere near Mayo. As far as I know all their children were born in Howard County, Maryland . The town was Savage, Md.

    1. Look on free site run by the Irish government. You can search church and civil records. Some counties are well covered others not transferrred yet and some records but NOT all lost in various “troubles” – remember that there was a famine as well as wars over centuries. O’Neill is a famous name as The O’Neil was the High King in ancient times. Dublin is a county as well as a city. Make a family tree and then search backwards. Lots on various genealogy sites. Good luck.

    2. Hello Mary,

      There are lots of sources of birth/death/marriage records in the state of Maryland Archive in Annapolis. There are also land records, and probate records in the Archive as well. I have also found some records for my Maryland ancestors (who lived in Baltimore City) in the Archdiocese of Baltimore Archive (Catholic). I don’t know which church records would help you for Howard County, but you may find some if you look at the churches around where they lived and go backward from there to find where the records are held.

      As a source of free records, try the local Family History Center in Columbia, MD. They can help you to find some threads and records that could point you in the right direction. They are also working right now on indexing the records of the Maryland Archive so you may be able to see some online. (That is a multi-year project, though).

      Good luck!
      Amy Ryan Alexander
      Rockville, MD

  5. I grew up 45 miles from Butte, Montana. It wasn’t until my first trip to Ireland that I realized many of the slang and local sayings I grew up with and still use had their roots in Ireland. So when my sister and I travelled to Ireland we already knew what a few of the sayings meant. It made us feel right at home. Well, we would have anyway but it was a bit of a surreal experience. While I was growing up, Butte was sort of a rough and tumble town so my parents didn’t encourage us to hang out there. Since we ranched near Twin Bridges, Butte was one of the places we went to shop. Several of my best friends in my youth were from Butte and my mother spent her last days in a rest home there. If I still lived in the area I would take advantage of the cultural Irish festivals and classes they have. I still get home to the family ranch and have thought of planning trips around some of these events including Gaelic immersion classes. There are a lot of people of Irish descent still in Butte but that’s not where my people originally settled. Instead they came in through New Orleans to Henry, Illinois where many Irish settled to Montana where my grandmother and her sister homesteaded. This summer I had the chance to visit the Copper Coast of Ireland where some of the original Butte miners came from. While touring a large agricultural company in Dungarven, one of the managers there was telling me all about people going from there area to Butte. It was sort of funny…. he was telling me about my home area. It is interesting to read here of the Sullivans from Allihies. I grew up with a Sullivan family in my home town. I wonder if they were descendants of these Sullivans. As in true Irish fashion, all of this seems to tie together. In January I met several Canadians from the Ottowa Valley, one who sounded like he was from Ireland (currently). When I heard the pronunciation of potato I finally had to ask one of them if they were from Ireland!

  6. I have ancestors who migrated from Galway and Sligo, Caseys & Foleys, to Wolverhampton. I don’t see much mentioned about Irish emigration to England, although I understand that that it was considerable. I have read about the infamous Caribee Island in Wolverhampton and see many other Irish folks in the record. Any ideas out there for further research. I am trying to locate the Galway & Sligo parishes that they started out from.

    1. Hi Larry. Was your ancestor originally a McSharry from Sligo. My grandfather, b 1868, was one and he and all his siblings who emigrated in various years in the 1880s all independently changed their surname to Foley. When I looked at hiw town land of origin which was Mullanfad, I discovered that there were many McSharrys in the parish of Rossinver. It might be worth starting there. Good luck.

      1. Foal, a young horse is “searrach”, (pronounced shar-ach) in Irish. So you can see why they made it into Foley when trying to Anglicized it !

  7. Many of the copper miners at Allihies moved eastwards to Bonmahon Co. Waterford which had a thriving copper mine for much of the 1800s. That mine finally became exhausted c.1873 – just as the copper mine in Butte was opening up. So the exodus of miners and their families from Bunmahon to Butte included some whose migration had begun at Allihies maybe a generation earlier.
    Many of Bunmahon’s families have maintained a living connection between the new world and the old world right up to the present time.

  8. Migration to Liverpool is often overlooked. I often get the impression that Irish genealogists are looking past Liverpool (and England, Scotland and Wales) to the USA. The absence of a large Irish-born community in Liverpool these days probably has something to do with that with other parts of England attracting more modern-day Irish migrants.

    There is a myth about Liverpool that people settled here because they couldn’t get to the USA during the Famine years. Not true. By 1841 (pre-Famine) Liverpool had 49,639 Irish-born people, 17.3% of the population. Liverpool was a “diaspora place” for the Irish throughout the 19th century. Irish labour was vital to the success of the port of Liverpool.

  9. I have heard that the Irish coal miners in Pennsylvania were recruited in Ireland to bring mining technology to Pennsylvania. The coal mines in Ireland were in Castlecomber. From their children’s baptism records I know my Irish ancestors came from Counties Laos (Queen’s) and Kilkenny. I would love to get my hands on any recruitment documentation.

  10. Yes the Flemings and Lindsay’s wrote to each other having come from Ireland to USA. The same migration pattern happened for those coming to Australia as well. Letters may have been sent back to Tyrone from my Griffith lines and more related families came out around the same time and on the same ships. The Marshall Mount Community in Kangaroo Valley seems to be all related families?Griffiths, Flemings, Hamiltons, Osbornes, Lindsay and Marshall and Sommerville that were probably all from the same church or parish community. Seems they were thick as thieves in Ireland and probably the same connections and families in Scotland a few generations earlier with the plantations into Ireland. Arriving in Australia there are then many more kissing cousins what with even more intermarriage back into families already related who had previously come to Australia either as a free man or convict. I am thinking of those sponsored by migration schemes which govs promoted in which a whole community or specific church congregations chose to move to another country in masse. Many were related to each other in some way from earliest years in Scotland then on to Ireland and then the colonies.

  11. We have Fleming surname and Flemish tribe DNA projects at FTDNA. Also our private Fleming and Flemish DNA Facebook Groups. I am on Facebook as Janet Flandrensis so befriend me if you would like to find and meet your genetic cousins from around the planet including some of those families mentioned in my previous post. If you have had y or mtdna tests upload to the web sites ysearch or mitosearch or for FTDNA Family Finder or the Equivalent Autosomal test at Ancestry upload raw data files to GEDMATCH to find even more cousins.

  12. Thank you, John,
    You are so right. I always knew that my 2x gr, grandfather and his brother and their families traveled together to Minnesota. What I did not suspect until now it that there may have been others from their communities in Ireland that traveled with them and settled here. Our family has recently connected, thru Dna samples, with a woman in England who is our cousin, descended from the sister of my Gr gr Grandfather. She and her husband were to have traveled to America with them, but did not and stayed in London for generations. Our cousin in England mentioned several other families that lived in the small town where my family did, leading me to believe that they may have all come here together. Blessings to you. Christy

  13. I would love to be able to attend the Ennis conference. But not in my lucky cards this time. I am trying to learn more about a cluster immigration as I believe one being from the Listowel, Kerry area to Ottawa, Illinois. My great grandfather being part of it. The locals calling the area the “Kerry Patch.” Recently found this newspaper article talking about the virtual colony of Woulfe relatives that made this happen I think. I believe my relatives worked for/with these horse races at Ballyeigh. (Source Newspaper article from the Kerryman, December 10, 1927…Death of Mr. Richard Woulfe).

  14. I have met a “brick wall” trying to find any origin records for my Y ancestor John Curtis. He settled in New York just after 1850 and then moved to Brooklyn with his large family in 1880. However, John’s blog got me thinking. Does anyone know what area of Ireland generated emigrants to Jersey City, New Jersey? Hints keep coming up in my U.S. Research that first daughter might have been born there in 1852 and that possibly Mother, Ellen, died there. Also that first daughter married a man from Jersey City and moved there with her large family after her parents, with whom they’d always lived, had died. So maybe if anybody knows, this would lead me past my wall. Most probable origins are Clare/Cork/other nearby Mayo counties or Dublin. Monaghan is also a possibility because Ellen’s maiden name was McMahon. Thanks if anyone has any kind of idea.

  15. John Ridge, President of the New York Irish History Roundtable, has done research into where people from various counties settled in New York City. For example, there is a section in north Brooklyn known as Vinegar Hill, near the Navy Yards, where many Wexford people settled. Many from Co. Kerry ended up in the Bronx.

  16. I have been able to trace my gg-grandparents to around 1830 arriving in the Quebec City Canada area. Bartholomew Kelly and his wife Margaret McDevitt and daughter Susan arrived around that time and became successful farmers in the St. Basile(Portneuf) Quebec. As far as I have been able to find they did not have any relatives/friends in the area. I have not been able to find where they came from in Ireland although it is marked clearly on baptism registrations here in Quebec of their other children that they hailed from Ireland. Thus I am wondering why they would have come to that area which was French speaking at the time and how they were able to obtain their land. One story I was given when I visited the town of St. Basile it that the British government at that time was looking for settlers to help develop the land and immigrants from Scotland and Ireland were sent to these areas to do just that. Have you heard this and if not why would a young Irish couple decide to come to this part of Canada. Any ideas would be helpful.

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