Compelling Reasons Why The Irish Emigrated

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Dunseverick Harbour - - 24159.jpg

Return to Ireland Emigration and Immigration page.

 Why The Irish Left Their Homeland

You see Dunseverick Harbour in the image above. Many local people began their long emigration trail during the 1800s, being rowed out to catch a passing schooner bound for Glasgow or Londonderry where they would embark on one of the many emigrant ships to Australia, New Zealand or the Americas.

If the 17th and 18th century Penal laws of the Royal Crown leveled at mostly Irish Catholic Society could be summed up in one word, the word "brutalisation" just might be the more accurate one to employ. From at least as early as the year 1603, laws then enacted, seemed to focus on their society perhaps as much as any non-parochial one in the whole realm. For example, imagine that family homesteads upon lands which prior to this time, were once held for several centuries, and were suddenly ripped out from undeneath your feet and families were forced out onto the 'street' in abject poverty almost overnight.

These and other intolerable conditions in Ireland forced Irish (especially Catholic) emigrants to leave the country.

Here is a more graphic view and perspective of four core reasons that motivated or forced our Irish ancestry to turn their backs on their homeland, in order to forge a new existence abroad:

Political Culture of Persecution

  • Austere taxation and tithes policies
  • Continual doctrine of ‘Conquer and divide’ policies enacted over centuries seized and evicted lands from native Irish Catholics
  • Cruel landlords (not all)
  • Sponsorship of land price increases ('rent-racking')--allowed to unbearable rate levels--tossed hoards of already poor families, ‘out onto the street’
  • Disallowance of land ownership for all Catholics


  • British government backed England’s grain exportations—but not Ireland’s; farmers emigrated
  • New farming techniques increased output, decreasing the need for agricultural laborers
  • Manufacturing industries sprang up, causing less emphasis in farming
  • Irish poor-law provided means by which vast numbers were granted mostly free passage to countries abroad

Social and Religious

Ireland Church Tower.jpg

A culture of social and religious persecution by the local Protestant-led and British Crown government was manifest in—

  • total distrust of Catholics’ loyalty to the Crown
  • Harsh Penal laws enacted by the Crown government from 1695, stripped many Nonconformists and all Catholics of their rights to—
  • vote
  • practice law
  • enter a profession
  • hold public office
  • receive an education
  • practice their own religion outside of the Protestant faith
  • serve as officers in British armed forces
  • teach in, or enroll in colleges
  • defend themselves with weapons
  • be employed or an employer in a trade or in commerce
  • build a church or live within 5 miles of the civil parish church
  • own a horse of greater value than five pounds
  • purchase nor lease land
  • hold a life annuity
  • buy or receive a gift of land from a Protestant
  • inherit land or moveables from a Protestant
  • rent any land that was worth more than thirty shillings a year
  • reap from his land any profit exceeding a third of the rent
  • be a guardian to a child
  • leave infant children under Catholic guardianship
  • accept a mortgage on land in security for a loan
  • attend Catholic worship
  • choose between attendance in a Catholic, or a Protestant place of worship
  • educate his child
  • be instructed by a local Catholic teacher nor be educated abroad

Crop Failures

  • Devastating crop failures—especially from 1846 to 1851 decimated or starved to death, nearly a million people
  • British government’s lack of food aid to Ireland during The Great Famine coerced nearly half the surviving population to leave Ireland
  • Famine brought abject poverty, severe malnutrition inducing poor health, and affected (to some--even death) 3-4 million Irish
  • During the Great Famine years: Grains out of Ireland, were exported to England, while Irish were dying from the famine

Further Reading

O hEithir, Breandan, A Pocket History of Ireland, The O'Brien Press, Dublin, Ireland, 1989

MacManus, Seamus, The Story of the Irish Race, The New York Irish Publishing Co., 1921