Emigration from the Craigavon District

Vol. 8 No. 2 - 2003

Emigration from the Craigavon District

and the Irish Emigration Database Project

by Dr Patrick Fitzgerald

In September 2002 I had the great honour of being invited to present the Philip Wilson Memorial Lecture to the Craigavon Historical Society. Philip, in his work as a curator in Craigavon, had always been acutely aware of the many linkages which bound this corner of North Armagh to the outside world and it seemed entirely appropriate that emigration from the area should be my theme. In order to review the phenomenon of emigration from this locale I sought to present some of the documentary material held upon the Irish Emigration Database. In doing so I hoped to provide my listeners with a better idea of what the database held and at the same time cast light upon the experience of at least some of those emigrants who had cast their last glance of home upon Lurgan or Portadown.

The Irish Emigration Database (IED) was established in 1987 in order to provide a computerised research tool for those with an interest in the history of emigration from Ireland to North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Currently housed at the Centre for Migration Studies at the Ulster-American Folk Park, near Omagh, the database holds just over 30,000 records relating to this phenomenon, mostly transcribed from originals held in Belfast archives and libraries (PRONI, QUB, Linenhall, Central Library). Responding to demand and following some initial testing, it is planned to make the database fully accessible on line during 2003. Retrieval of data is based on the entry of a keyword and this allows a researcher with an interest in a local place, for example, to focus upon those documents which mention that place. Thus I was able to isolate material pertinent to Craigavon by entering placenames such as Lurgan, Portadown and other local parish and townland names. This facility helps staff in the Centre talk about emigration in a manner that is more specific and hopefully familiar to local historians.

Emigration agents in Portadown

One of the chapters into which the articles on the database are classified in entitled shipping advertisements and it is here that we find evidence of the emigration trade being active in the area during the eighteenth century. The Belfast Newsletter in late April 1792 carried an advertisement which proclaimed the impending departure from Belfast of the fine new ship Norfolk for Baltimore, Maryland. Those from North Armagh interested in securing a passage on this vessel were advised to apply to Mr. George Dickson of Portadown. The advertisers of this emigrant passage were sensitive to the concerns of readers and stressed the plenty of provision and water on board, the six feet head room between decks and the size of the vessel (600 tons). This latter figure was, in fact, almost certainly exaggerated.

Shifting our gaze forward over a century we find evidence of at least two Portadown agents now offering emigrant passages. An advertisement in The Armagh Guardian and South Tyrone News in March 1911 set out the forthcoming Atlantic crossings offered by the White Star Screw Steamers. Applicants could negotiate terms with either G.A. Locke, an auctioneer in the town or with the Livingstone Brothers. It is interesting to note that one of the vessels being advertised to intending emigrants was none other than the ill fated Titanic.

Passenger lists

One type of document on the database which is intensively used by visitors from North America undertaking family history research is the passenger list. These lists, which are uncommon prior to the Passenger Act of 1803, vary considerably in the information they record. They do serve, however, to give us an impression of the types of people who were departing during different periods. Let us, for example, examine the passenger list of a vessel such as the brig Sailor Boy which sailed for Philadelphia from Belfast in the summer of 1818. Here amongst those on board we find William and Joseph Steenson, apparently two brothers, recorded as farmers from County Armagh. They were accompanied by Mary Steenson, likely to be the wife of either William or Joseph and listed as a Spinster, a reference to her skill in spinning yarn rather than her marital status. Their son and four daughters apparently travelled with them. As a farming family traveling across the Atlantic together, the Steensons were probably fairly representative of many of those leaving Ulster in the period between the Union and the outbreak of the Great Famine in 1845.

If we select a shipping list from the immediate post-Famine period with Armagh passengers aboard, we find a somewhat different profile. The Ship Mermaid sailing for Philadelphia in September 1853, carried on board Mary Bryans, a 18 year old seamstress, Ann Conlon, a 19 year old servant and Mary Magee, a 13 year old servant. All were from Armagh but sailed now, like most trans-Atlantic Irish emigrants through Liverpool rather than directly from an Irish port. These three individuals are again broadly representative of those departing during the second half of the nineteenth century - young single adults, many of whom were young women in search of a better living and greater independence than they could find at home.

Money from America

Local newspapers carried a wealth of news about emigrants and emigration. One of the most significant features of Irish emigration after the Great Famine was the role of those who had gone in sending back capital, either to help those at home supplement the household income or invest in joining the emigrant pioneer abroad. It is thus interesting to note in the Portadown News and Armagh Advertiser of 25th June 1859 that the very first money order from the USA, serial no.1, issued 1 Jun 1859, was encashed at Portadown Post Office on Friday 24 Jun 1859. The local press also carried reports about the progress of local emigrants.

One particularly unfortunate emigrant was Mr. Moffat, a native of Lurgan or Portadown, who accidentally fell into the hold of the vessel he was intending to emigrate in, before it left Belfast for Quebec. The Armagh Guardian of April 27th 1847 carried the story and noted that his wife and family sailed on to the New World whilst Mr. Moffat was carried to the Hospital. Given the numerous and virulent contagious diseases circulating in the port in 'Black '47' this was considered the best strategy for the Moffats. We are reminded of the strong links which became established between Ulster and the American Presidency by a story carried in the Belfast Evening Telegraph in January 1879. Here the Telegraph correspondent wrote of the rousing reception afforded to General "Oliver Cromwell" Grant at Portadown Railway Station. The Orangemen of the county gathered in large numbers to roar their endorsement of Grant, who was visiting Portadown as part of his European tour. No doubt aware of his wife's roots in east Tyrone Grant walked up and down the platform acknowledging his admirers before passing on to Donaghmore for a second stop.

Births, marriages and deaths

A perusal of the births, deaths and marriages columns in local newspapers reveal the extent to which those within the local diaspora were not forgotten. The Armagh Guardian of 13th October 1882 carried, for example, a death notice for one William Byers who had recently died in New York City at the age of 68. It was noted that he was the eldest son of John Byers of Mullentine, near Portadown. His father would no doubt have been well known to the older generation as the man who had been the owner of the mail coaches between Armagh and Belfast before the coming of the railway. Information relating to emigration could often be passed on incidentally.

The same newspaper, for instance, in reporting the death of the retired local farmer Mr. Stanley Wright at Lurgan hospital in May 1950 noted that he was survived by two brothers. One, Henry was now in Winnipeg, Canada and the other, Norman, in Australia. Births were also noted. The Armagh Guardian of September 29th 1871 reported the recent arrival of a baby daughter to Mr. William Thompson, of Dundas, Ontario, Canada and formerly of Portadown. Apart from anything else these were short reminders of the strong migratory links between this area and the British Empire.

Letters home

For those in search of a deeper understanding of the emigrant experience there is little doubt that the significant body of emigrant correspondence held on the database offers a particularly rich source. Emigrant letters can give us some information about the journey itself. In November 1853, Andrew Collin wrote home to his parents in North Armagh from New Orleans, where he had recently arrived. Setting sail from Liverpool, Collin describes the difficulties of cooking on board with a stove damaged by high seas, but nonetheless reported favourable winds and general contentment among the passengers.

Only a few years after the era of the 'Coffin ships' it was obvious that those at home would harbour concerns but this young emigrant set his parents fears to rest. He recorded that there had only been one death "and that was an infant and we had two births on the voyage so we landed more numerous than we started". Clearly travelling as part of a larger group, Collin closed his first letter home by confirming that "we all landed in as good friendship as we met in at Portadown Station and it was so all the way".

William Montgomery's letters

One particularly interesting set of letters held on the database, having been transcribed from the originals which are held in the Public Record Office in Belfast, are those of William Montgomery. Montgomery had emigrated from Portadown to the United States at some juncture between 1831 and 1847. We find in his letters to Joseph Searight, his cousin, confidant and emigrant pioneer, insight into the plight of this migrant as he dealt with the prospect and then reality of return to his native Portadown. It is striking how few of the millions of post-Famine emigrants from ireland to America ever returned east across the Atlantic. Whilst te European average for remigration was something like one in three (significantly higher in Eastern Europe) the equivalent figur for Ireland was more like one in ten. Montgomery was far from the only emigrant who balked at the prospect of coming back to Ireland even if many others were less candid about their rejection of home.

The first suggestion of a lack of enthusiasm about remigration emerged in a letter written by Montgomery in September 1848 from Cincinnati to his cousin in Philadelphia. He complained that those at home had misconstrued his intentions from previous letters as reflecting some desire on his part "to give up all my ambitious views of future advancements and quietly return home and spend the remainder of my hither to chequered life in quietness in Portadown, Lurgan or Tandragee". Over a year later, in another letter to Joe Searight, we find the reluctant returnee in the vibrant and colourful port of New Orleans.

It is clear that the prospect of returning to an Ulster country town formed a no more appealing alternative for Montgomery. Considering the possibility of return across the Atlantic he expressed his belief that he should be more at ease, if he had to return, in the metropolitan world of London, Liverpool or even Belfastthan in Portadown. In reflective mood he confessed to his cousin that "the people in P/Down I do not like and sooner or later I would be at loggerheads with some of them or I am mistaken". By the following Spring Montgomery was telling Searight of his determination to go home in June of that year but again confirmed his resolve not to take up permanent residence in portadown, declaring that "I do not see any reason why I should condemn myself to the country". Eventually in July 1850 the correspondence recommenced with a letter to Searight in Philadelphia from Montgomery, who was now back in Portadown. His judgement of home, however, had mellowed little and he reported to his cousin as follows:

"If I may judge of my welcome by the numbers of visitors I had that evening, I ought to be well satisfied that my arrival is a source of gratification to my townspeople but 'all is not gold that glitters'. The country people all say they hope I will remain at home. I cannot see a change in the appearance of things here from the time I left, but I am told that many sorrowful scenes have been witnessed since then, that tight times, poverty, and starvation, have been matters of common occurrence, and that the country is but partially recovered. To my view however after living so long in a country where everything seems so animated by youthly vigour, and all around learns evidence of prosperity and comfort I must confess the signs of decay are much more abundant than those of recovery or vitality. Belfast is very much improved not only in appearance but in commerce, and it is the only place that looks like a city of the United States and where I feel at home. The Portadown folk are nothing changed except the changes that years make".

Montgomery, whilst clearly having had his differences with at least some of his townspeople before leaving portadown, found it very difficult to readjust to life on the banks of the Bann having sampled life on the banks of the Mississippi. The energy and prosperity he found in America cast a sharp contrast with an Irish countryside still recovering from the effects of the Great Famine. This perception of contast not only did much to keep Irish emigrants in America it served to ensure that they were joined there by thousands of young hopefuls attracted to the New World.

This short article only provides space to give a flavour of the articles contained within the Irish Emigration Database which relate to the process of emigration to North America from the area which today constitutes Craigavon. I hope, however, that I have been able to cast some light upon the evolution of a Craigavon diaspora and perhaps encouraged others to find out more.