Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2022), Volume 30

By Fiona Fitzsimons



Historians have long maintained that one of the ways in which Irish immigrants to the US differed from others was the low rate of migrant return (Irish 6–10%; Scandinavians 20%; Italians 58%). In his last book, The Americanisation of Ireland, David Fitzpatrick revised these data. He suggested that between 1895 and 1911 the actual rate of migrants returning home was between five and eight times higher than previously thought. He drew on a range of sources, including digital copies of the 1901 and 1911 censuses and applications for US passports, 1914–25. Although widely known, the sheer volume of records in these collections had previously deterred researchers. Once digitised, however, these records could be searched by name, birthplace and—uniquely for the passports—details of citizenship, from which ethnicity could be deduced, as well as the applicants’ purpose in travelling.

Unfortunately, we don’t have comparable evidence for the years 1841–95. The census returns for 1841–91 were destroyed, and before the First World War passports were not an essential travel document. What records survive indicate that by the 1860s at least 20% of passengers from North America to Ireland and Britain were born in Ireland. This suggests that the rate of migrant return to Ireland started earlier than Fitzpatrick allowed, and continued to grow in the second half of the nineteenth century.



Above: Scene below deck of an emigrant ship. (Illustrated London News, 17 August 1850)

There were many reasons why migrant return to Ireland increased in the second half of the nineteenth century. Between 1845 and 1860, the huge numbers of Famine Irish—Catholic and indigent—entering the United States stirred up anti-Irish feeling. Irish immigrants in the US faced obstacles such as the Nativists, conscription after 1863 and an economic downturn in the late 1870s. Immigration control was at state level. The Poor Law authorities in some states, including Massachusetts, were known to have forcibly ‘returned’ some indigent Irish. By the 1860s steam ships had made transatlantic crossings cheaper, safer and faster than ever. The majority of Irish immigrants who went out as young single people could return home to visit or even to settle. Some returned because they were homesick for family and friends, others to care for relatives, and some to marry or for economic reasons—property and inheritance.

There are two main collections. Transatlantic migration from North America to Britain and Ireland, 1858–1870 is a collection of 800 ships’ passenger lists held in the National Archives of Ireland. These lists were compiled according to rules set out by the Passenger Act, 1855. Lists for 1858–67 are in the Chief Secretary’s Office Unregistered Papers, while lists for 1868–70 are in the main Registered collection. They are the earliest passenger lists for ships sailing from North America to Ireland and Great Britain. UK and Ireland incoming passengers lists 1878–1960 is an index to the Board of Trade’s passengers lists of ships arriving from foreign ports outside of Europe and the Mediterranean. Many of the lists from before 1890 were irregularly destroyed, and this should not be treated as a complete collection.


Both collections include the name, age or date of birth, occupation and marital status of all passengers. Some family relations are defined (wife, child, parent and some siblings). Most twentieth-century records document street/townland address and country of permanent residence. Other details include the type of ship (in the 1860s a surprising number of sailing-ships were still crossing the ocean), the number of other passengers and details of the voyage (date and port of departure, date and port of arrival).


Fiona Fitzsimons is a director of Eneclann, a Trinity campus company, and of findmypast Ireland.


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568