Ballyhalbert History

Emigrating To America

The following reply was posted on the original Ballyhalbert MSN Group in reply to a request for information on the family tree for Magowan / Orr.  Unfortunately due to limited space it is not possible to reproduce it on the message boards in full so it has been given its own page as others may find the information of interest.

Hi Pat,

Your letter about your ancestors from the vicinity of Ballyhalbert was very interesting and informative. The names of your ancestors suggest that they were of English/Scottish stock as well as  Irish. The"troubled times" of the latter 1840's when your ancestors emigrated to the United States of America, is no doubt a reference to the Potato Blight and the Famine which cleared rural areas of Ireland of about 4 million peasants. The potato famine was a disaster waiting to happen. Millions of Irish people lived for a century or more on an acre of land growing lumper potatoes. This was all these people had to live on but remember this was from choice. They could have gone to other parts of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada or the United States in search of a better life. One of the factors in their lives that stopped them, was that the were not English speaking but spoke a language that had belonged to a tribal system and not of a rapidly growing industrial society. The land was sub - let by other small farmers who rented the land in the first place from the Anglo - Irish Aristocracy many of whom lived in England. The business affairs in Ireland were looked after by land agents whose role was to collect the rents. The charges against the Anglo - Irish  that they were absentee landlords and that they didn't modernise the agricultural industry in Ireland. The majority of land lords were indeed absentee who lived off the rents and did little to improve farming techniques. One must ask the question, how was agriculture to be improved in Ireland with out putting millions of people off the land? A century previously the Highlands of Scotland were cleared of the clans at bayonet point by English soldiers at the behest of the Scottish ruling class who wanted the land to be commercially productive i.e. profitable and not worked for mere subsistence of thousands of families.

Nothing like this had ever happened in Ireland because of the political power of the Anglo Irish Aristocracy who were content with the rents, and the millions of Irish people paying the rents were also  happy to vegetate on the land speaking a tongue that was irrelevant to the rest of the world. Why should the the Anglo Irish Aristocracy clear the lands, they were not business minded in a commercial sense, they cared nothing for science or technology. They were content with living of the rent in their parasitical way. There was no strong class of industrialists and bankers in Ireland to challenge their power, as there had been in Scotland, or was  soon to be in America against the slave owning aristocracy. 

When the potato blight struck in 1845 the only help these subsistence farmers could get was from parish relief. There were no elaborate Social Security systems in those days, this was the period of laizze faire capitalism (neo liberal economics today) when it was almost taboo for the government to interfere in economic issues and the pending disaster in Ireland, was just that. When the news of the the potato blight was reported, charitable organizations through out the United Kingdom  swung into action collecting generous amounts of money for the Famine Relief. In Irish Nationalist circles it is an article of faith that Queen Victoria insulted the Irish victims by publicly donating 5 pounds Sterling (then about $20) and a handsome sum of money then. The reason she donated that sum was to encourage the middle classes to donate the same. 

1845 and '46 saw large donations of money from charities help the victims. In 1847 the blight went away and there was a normal potato harvest that year and the charitable aid closed down. The following year 1848 the blight struck once more but there was no charitable aid.The British Government (Whig) was forced to pass an Act of Parliament to bring about help for victims of the Famine. The MP for Dublin North, Sir William Gregory (husband of Lady Gregory who was to later play a part in bringing about the Gaelic Revival) was instrumental in getting a clause inserted into the Act for people holding four acres of land or less to forfeit their smallholdings in return for Famine Relief.  Again in Irish Nationalist circles it is an Article of Faith that it was iniquitous Englishmen who did this. It was during this period that the deaths from the famine began to rise dramatically and emigration to English speaking countries began by the Catholic Irish. Prior to this emigration from Ireland consisted of what the Americans call Scots Irish, people like your Ballyhalbert ancestors who were probably  Church of Ireland (Episcopalian) and of Scottish and some English stock as well as Irish. 

While smallholders of ten acres or less were either dying or forced to emigrate another factor of enforced evictions came into play. Tenant farmers who had larger landholdings and produced cash crops for market, made deals with the land agents to pay the rent of their neighbours who were in default. The rich farmer would pay the agent the back rent in return for the eviction of the errant tenant and the  possession of his smallholding. Nationalists believe it was cruel English Landlords who evicted the poor tenants;  it was their more go ahead Catholic neighbours who did the deed.

Not all the Landlords were absentee and living in England, there were still some Anglo Irish aristocrats living in Ireland. Many of these people bankrupted themselves trying to alleviate the suffering of their poorer tenants.

You mention John Mitchel who led a band of what only can be described as adventurers in County Cork and were involved in a skirmish with some police and soldiers in some oul' doll's (a woman of mature years) back yard in 1848. Mitchel fled to America and there fought for the Confederacy .

Your ancestors went westward in a covered wagon, no Catholic Irish ever did that. When the victims of the Famine began to emigrate to America they were accompanied by Priests who corralled them into the slums of New York, Boston and Philadelphia and forebade them to leave, even though there was a chance of a better life westwards. 

You appear Pat, to confuse  the Scots Irish as being the same as the  Irish Americans. They are not the same, the Scots Irish arrived in the Thirteen British Colonies from the early 18th Century onwards and made a big contribution to the development and expansion of America. At the same time many Episcopalians from Ireland emigrated to the Thirteen Colonies, many had Irish surnames just like your ancestors. In the 16th Century mainly in the eastern half of Ireland the Reformation took hold. This is something Nationalists deny but that area was under English law so would have been affected by the Reformation. The areas to the west that were ruled by the Clan Chieftans were not transformed by the Reformation because the social system that existed there was archaic.

In the early 17th Century in the North of Ireland (excluding counties Antrim and Down) a planned Plantation took place with people from England, lowland  Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man moving into the region. The region had been under the control of the O'Neills, Celtic Anglicised aristrocrats who were the Earls of Tyrone . O'Neill egged on by the Jesuits and a promise to make him the King of Ireland tried to forment a rebellion against England and was trounced at Kinsale alongside his Spanish allies. O'Neill with some other Clan Chieftans fled Ireland to the continent. The clan system that prevailed in the north quickly broke down and lawlessness took over. To bring order to the region and not rely on any Celtic Chieftans or Aristocrats to do the job, James I drew up the plan for the Plantation. The McKittrick side of your Ancestors would have been amongst the Planters brought in from Scotland. From amongst these Planters would have come the Scots Irish, Presbyterians from lowland Scotland who later emigrated to America. More of them went to America than the Catholic Irish, and made a larger contribution to your country.

I hope this has been of some interest to you Pat. Sorry I can't tell you more about your ancestors other than put them into a historical context.

                                                                            Cheers

                                                                                 Skiboo