Since the mass emigration of the Famine, Ireland’s poorest families were sent monies by their overseas relatives, says Evan Comerford
WHEN interviewed by the Irish Folklore Commission in 1955, an elderly Galway farmer recalled vividly the neighbours from his youth that lived on a tiny farm consisting of poor bogland next to his own home.
They had 10 children, seven of whom emigrated to the US and regularly sent money back home to Galway. Eventually, the family at home were able to use the money to purchase a better farm nearby and send the youngest son into the priesthood.
Such familiar anecdotes about the unique phenomenon of Irish emigration exist in the oral genealogy of families across the country.
The money that emigrants sent back to Ireland ensured the survival of family farms and often provided funds for other family members to emigrate themselves. These remittances became a routine part of the embedded process of emigration in 19th and 20th century Ireland.
The individual emigrants that sent money home did so at great personal sacrifice and in doing so provided a genuine lifeline against poverty to their families.
From the Great Famine onwards, those who could afford a passage ticket and who survived the journey to North America and beyond were hugely forthcoming when it came to sending part of their meagre earnings to their desperate relatives at home.
The flow of cash back to Ireland was so large that the British government began to gather statistics on Irish remittances in 1848 through money orders and bank drafts sent via financial institutions.
But even their figures underestimated the total sum, which included untraceable amounts of cash stuffed into envelopes or through pre-paid passage tickets for relatives.
The demand for facilitating remittance transfers was so high by 1850 that a group of enterprising Irish emigrants in New York established the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank to provide a reliable credit transfer system for emigrants who wished to get money back to Ireland.
They charged a low commission rate and even established an office in Dublin to complete the transactions. In 1860 alone, over $600,000 in remittances to Ireland passed through their books.
The donations of Irish-Americans to the cause of Irish nationalism has dominated the narrative of remittances in Irish history. But most cash remittances were sent in small amounts to individual families. Most frequently, they were received in advance of the “Gale Day” to help pay rent owed to landlords by tenant farmers. Rent was the single most important expense for rural farming families in 19th-century Ireland and paying it was the difference between keeping the land and losing it.
In 1908, the village of Clifden, Co Galway, received £10,000 in remittances, which was half the entire rent owed by the more than 3,000 inhabitants of the district. Irish patriots decried the reliance on “American money” for the simple fact that it ended up in the pockets of landlords. But for the families of tenant farmers, remittances from emigrant children had become an effective and reliable method of survival.
The need for immediate additional money was often the main reason why people left home in the first place. For example, rent records from the Clonbrock estate noted specific tenants who had emigrated to send home money on account of a farm animal dying.
Shopkeepers were known to supply credit to poorer families who had children in the US on the promise they would pay their tabs once remittances were received. Less frequently it was used to fund improvements to a family cottage or to purchase another farm.
It was also common practice for parish priests to collate names and addresses of locals who had emigrated in order to solicit them for additional funds to build a parish church. Nevertheless, the overwhelming need for remittances was clearly among the very poor with the aim of keeping the bailiff from the door.
IN post-independence Ireland, reliance on the wages of a family member abroad for survival continued unabated. National sovereignty was not a cure to Ireland’s social and economic ills, progress was slow in this regard and high levels of emigration continued, particularly in the post-war period when Britain needed rebuilding.
According to CSO estimates, the “mailboat” generation who left Ireland for the UK between 1940 and 1970 sent the equivalent of £4.8bn to Ireland. Even into the 1960s when Ireland was beginning to build a modern economy, remittances continued to flow into the rural economy at an astonishing rate.
In 1961 alone, an estimated £13.5m was sent to Ireland by emigrants in the UK, which almost equalled the entire education budget of £14m.
Throughout this period, the need to contribute financially to the family home remained a constant in the experience of the Irish emigrant.
While publicly the spiralling emigration rates of the 1950s were described by Irish politicians as a “national tragedy”, government departments continued to quietly recognise an unofficial pro-emigration policy.
High emigration solved what would otherwise have been crisis levels of unemployment for the government and remittances provided the poorer classes with a reliable income stream.
The report of the Commission on Emigration and other Population Problems, published in 1954, even admitted that “the ready outlet of emigration has provided the remaining population with a reasonably satisfying standard of living and this has been responsible for an acquiescence in conditions of under-development…”
The experience of Irish emigrants in their adopted homes was one of hardship, homesickness, and discrimination for a century after the Famine. While their employment was predominantly in low skilled jobs, it did offer them regular, reliable work that could not be obtained at home.
The available evidence suggests that the huge numbers of people who left Ireland contributed an equally enormous sum through remittances that played a big role in everyday life for many people.
Most of those transactions were not large, one-off payments to great national causes, but small amounts of cash in an envelope, sent when help was requested to relieve debts and ensure family survival.
In a rational sense, remittances were part of the economic safety valve of the Irish emigration process. However, this masks the great personal sacrifice made by Irish emigrants who were burdened with the need to send money home along with finding their way in a foreign land.
Historian David Fitzpatrick’s analysis of letters from 19th-century Australia to Ireland reveals a combination of longing and guilt among Irish emigrants there. Sending remittances was a way to establish a living, practical link with their homeland.
The individual amounts sent were small and left little in terms of historical records, but they weren’t small or insignificant to the people who sent and received them.
Perhaps it is the invisible nature of remittances that has allowed the impact they had and the generosity shown by the diaspora to have gone somewhat under appreciated.
Evan Comerford is a historian