In hopeless circumstances at home, the Irish fled their homeland by the hundreds of thousands each year. From 1845-1855, nearly a quarter of the population emigrated, mostly from rural, Catholic, often Irish-speaking areas of Ireland. They fled to England, to Australia, and in greatest numbers to North America, seeking new homes in Canada and the United States. Thus began a pattern of emigration that would become a psychic trauma in Irish life for over a hundred years.
· At the height of the Hunger Migration, the five- to eight-week journey was especially perilous. The most desperate took unprecedented winter crossings to Canada on what came to be called "coffin ships" where fever and typhus became unwelcome shipmates. Many of those ships were cargo vessels used to bring lumber from Canadian forests to build English cities. Now Irish immigrants served as human ballast in the holds of these ships for the return trip. Thousands perished on the journey or in quarantine stations on arrival in the land they had hoped would save them. Historian Cecil Woodham-Smith writes, "The thousands who poured over the Atlantic in 1847 were fugitives, a helpless horde of the kind which flees from a bombed town." Despite the trauma of the journey, they continued to come and would do so for generations following The Great Hunger.
Right: Excerpts from a letter dated 1847, written in Ireland by Hannah Curtis Lynch, to her brother John Curtis, in Philadelphia. It describes the destitute conditions in their townland. Hannah pleaded with John to send money to allow her and other remaining family members to buy passage. Hannah's pleas did not go unheard. She and her husband migrated in 1848.
(excerpts from the letter are courtesy of The Balch Collections, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, The Curtis Family Papers, MSS072.)