Following Irish Migrant Workers

Photo of the Irish countrysideHow did our Irish tenant ancestors earn the money they needed to pay their yearly rent? One possibility: they travelled to Great Britain to work for the summer.

A common occurrence in many parts of Ireland in the 1800s, the Irish harvest migration was a well-established means of earning a living. In the spring an Irish cottier would plant his potatoes, cut his turf, and possibly plant some oats. By late spring, little needed to be done on the farm until the fall harvest, giving the farmer time to take on supplementary work elsewhere. One option was to sail to Great Britain and find agricultural work for the summer. When the harvest was done in Britain, the farmer would return to Ireland for the fall, leaving enough time to bring in his potatoes and harvest any other crops. But most importantly, he would return home with cash to pay the landlord for his lease.

One study in 1834 looked at where in Ireland migrant workers could be found. This map illustrates that many of these workers came from the poorer parts of Ireland in the west or north, where travel to the ports of Londonderry and Belfast was relatively easy:1
Map showing locations of Irish migrant workers
Access to a port city was important for migrant workers at this time. Before railroads were available, most migrant workers traveled on foot. But once they arrived at a port, they could take advantage of the steamships which regularly sailed to Britain. One newspaper ad from 1845 stated that the steerage fare from Londonderry to Glasgow was 2 shillings and 6 pence, and the sea voyage generally took 12 to 14 hours.2 Similar ships left from Belfast, Dublin, and other larger ports.

Be aware that no passenger lists were kept for these steamship journeys. At the time, sailing between Ireland and Great Britain was considered internal domestic travel. Instead, you might want to search for British newspaper reports which mention “Irish agricultural labourers.” You may find stories of these migrant workers and the conditions they encountered.

Irish migrant work continued well into the 1900s. An account from Donegal in 1909 described a common situation for a newlywed Irish couple:

“[The] bridegroom goes off to Scotland, while the bride brings her sister or some other female relative to stay with her. All the summer and harvest the young [husband] toils in Scotland, and then comes home for a few months in the winter. In this way a young pair, who perhaps had not £5 when they got married, will live and rear a family of a dozen or more children . . . when the boys reach nine or ten years of age they hire out in the neighbourhood for herding, and then after the age of twelve or thirteen they hire out with farmers . . . later they go to Scotland with their father, if he is still alive, and about the age of twenty they marry like their parents, and thus life goes on.” 3

Do you think your Irish ancestors were migrant workers? I’d love to hear about them and their lives.



J.H. Johnson, Harvest Migration from Nineteenth-Century Ireland in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, No. 41 (Jun 1967), p. 100; JSTOR.

Coleraine Chronicle, 1 Mar 1845, p. 3, col. 6; “Irish Newspapers,” FindMyPast.

3 Varia in Béaloideas, No. 9 (Dec 1939), p 293; JSTOR.

About Pam Holland

Pam is a certificate holder from the Boston University Genealogical Research program and has researched family history for over 14 years. She has attended numerous genealogical institutes, including Samford University Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR) and Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG). She also has a B.A. from the College of Wooster and a M.S. from Northeastern University. Her areas of interest include New England, New York (both city and state), Ireland, Germany, Social History, and DNA.

5 thoughts on “Following Irish Migrant Workers

  1. This happened in Canada as well (and probably in the US too}. My great-grandfather owned property in eastern Ontario which my grandfather described as good for blueberries (and presumably not so much for anything else). Each fall my great-grandfather and his sons would take the “Harvest Train” to the Prairies to harvest crops there. This would have been in the late 19th century and the early years of the 20th. This wasn’t the life the sons wanted, so they became two lawyers, a doctor and a biologist.

  2. This is very interesting. One of my favorite sources- sometimes just to read! – is the Ordnance Survey: Memoirs of Ireland :Parishes of County Antrim 1831-5, 1837-8. Lots of interesting stuff about Ballymena, where my mother’s Guthries lived…

  3. My grandmother told me of her father, uncles and cousins traveling from County Galway to Derbyshire every year to work for the same farmer. At least one of the cousins married there. An Irish man marrying a Scots woman in England and then making home in Ireland.

  4. One’s religion determined land ownership in Ireland in 1800s. Roman Catholics were particularly restricted from buying land and attending school. Persecuted, this segment of society, not owners of land, emigrated, are my Irish ancestors.

  5. Agree with you Catherine Graham, my ancestors, like yours, emigrated because of appalling living conditions after the horrific decade 1840-50. Couldn’t practice their religion, couldn’t own land, and schools were closed. This went on for 300 years, The country the emigrated to welcomed them with open arms.its a long and extremely sad story that have not been told.

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