The ‘American Wake’ was often the final time that many nineteenth century Irish emigrants saw their parents in-person. But as they waved goodbye at crossroads, train stations or harbours across Ireland, the young emigrants would have been acutely aware that there was an expectation on them to send money home at the earliest opportunity. Since the Great Famine of the 1840s up until the 1960s, the reliance on support from emigrants overseas was a reality of the domestic small farm economy in rural Ireland. Historian David Fitzpatrick put it that ‘Rearing for emigration was thus a form of insurance, with the parent qualifying for a pension or lump payment from his grateful offspring, shortly after their emigration…’
Whether it was used to pay rent to the landlord, provide a passage ticket for a sibling or contribute towards the cause for Irish independence, Irish emigrants displayed an extraordinary commitment to meeting their financial obligations towards their homeland. After the huge Famine exodus, emigration became normalised and a steady stream of people left the island each year throughout the nineteenth century. Between 1854 and 1923 monetary aid to Ireland was in the region of $5 million annually. In today’s money it’s estimated that at least £4.9 (GBP) billion was sent back to Ireland from emigrants in North America between 1848 and 1900. A referendum on voting rights will likely bring further examination of Ireland’s relationship with the diaspora and in that context it's important that we acknowledge the huge financial contribution our emigrants made over such a long period.
The reliance on subsistence agriculture and a lack of economic development in Ireland meant that emigration continued unabated well into the twentieth century under the new Irish Free State. The bulk of prospective post-war migrants crossed the Irish Sea to the industrial cities of the United Kingdom, with roughly three out of five children born in the 1930s leaving Ireland at some point. The need for remittances continued and another £4.8 billion was sent back by Irish emigrants in the UK between 1940 and 1970. Some of that generation of emigrants built good lives in the UK, others would also later return to Ireland. But many of those Irish who relied on casual construction work in cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester never felt at home in Britain and sadly drifted into poverty and homelessness. They lost contact with home as the years went on and relatives passed away; the contribution they made to Ireland through their remittances was largely forgotten.
There were a myriad of reasons and motivations for emigrants to send money home to Ireland. During times of political or social upheaval, the Irish abroad were a useful and reliable source of funding for causes at home. The Fenian movement was the first to successfully capitalise on the huge Irish-born population in North America in the 1860s for purposes of fundraising. In the late 1880s the total remitted from the United States during the Land War, gathered mostly by the Irish National Land League of America and Irish American newspapers, was over $600,000. The pre-existing networks and experience of Irish American nationalist organisations in fundraising for Irish causes, like John Devoy’s Clann na nGael, was crucial during the 1916-1921 period in funding Ireland’s fight for Independence from Britain.
Most of the money sent back by the Irish was in the form of personal remittances. It was a couple of dollars in an envelope or a bank/postal order, sent as frequently as the emigrant could manage or when requested by letter during times of crisis. Most frequently, they were received in advance of the “Gale Day” to help the family pay their rent to the landlord. In 1908, the village of Clifden, Co. Galway received £10,000 in remittances, which was half the entire rent owed by the over 3,000 inhabitants of the district.
The demand for facilitating remittance transfers in America 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.
40% of personal remittances came in the form of passage tickets, a practice which itself solidified the practice of ‘chain’ migration that characterised Irish emigration for so long and probably financed up to 75% of all emigration in the fifty years after the Famine. One family member would travel alone to the new destination and upon obtaining work and accommodation, would save and send a pre-paid ticket back to Ireland for the next family member to join them. In 1850 a dairymaid in county Meath wrote to her cousin in Kentucky saying
‘I have a great wish for going to America ….in your letter you said you would pay the passage of any of your friends that liked to go there. . . . If you would be so good as to pay my passage till such time as I could earn i t . . . I’d retume [sic] it with many thanks.
It was no small burden on the arriving emigrant to save up and send this money back either. Usually the emigrant sent remittances most frequently during the initial years in their new home and gradually this decreased over time as they were joined by more siblings or as parents passed away. Although this wasn’t always the case, in his memoir Nineteen Acres, John Healy recalled arriving at his Aunt Mary’s tiny apartment in 1950s New York and his realisation that his Aunt had saved up social security cheques to send back to Mayo as remittances, despite having emigrated several decades previously.
The individual amounts sent to Ireland as remittances were small, but they were hugely important to the people who received them. They prevented many from falling on hard times in the days before the modern welfare state could step in, particularly on the farm. A Galway woman recalled her father’s delight during her childhood when he opened a letter from his sister Gracie in America that contained $20 to buy a new horse for the farm. Shopkeepers supplied credit to poorer families who had children abroad on the promise that they were due an ‘American Letter’.
Even during the 1950s, emigrants remittances continued to make up a staggering 3% of total national income in Ireland. Many communities in Western counties like Mayo and Donegal were reliant on the wages sent back by seasonal workers who migrated to Scotland to pick the potato crop.
The invisible nature of remittances has perhaps allowed the impact they had and the generosity shown by the diaspora to have gone somewhat under appreciated in Ireland. Economically, remittances were about survival, further emigration of family members and bolstering of the small farm economy. But they were also part of the emigrant’s emotional bond to their homeland, a sense of duty to look after their parents and a desire to project the image that they had ‘done well’ abroad. A great personal sacrifice was made by many Irish emigrants, who were burdened with the need to send money home along with finding their way in a foreign land.