Emigration from the City
The Blight of Emigration
Derry City has a long history of emigration, playing a key role as the main departure point from the North-West for those heading to the New World.
The first major wave of emigration saw many Presbyterians leaving Ulster to head for a new life in North America. Disappointment and disillusionment with their treatment under the Penal Laws in the aftermath of the siege and the ‘War of the Two Kings’ made Northern Ireland a sometimes hostile place for Presbyterians to live.
Among the first of these transatlantic emigrants was a party led by reverend James McGregor of Aghadowey in County Derry. Reverend McGregor had fought in the siege. He took most of his congregation with him, comparing their departure, on the eve of their journey, with the story of Moses leading the promised tribes to the promised land. They arrived in Boston early in August 1718 and eventually settled in what became the towns of Derry and Londonderry in the state of New Hampshire. Several other shiploads of emigrants left for America from the port of Derry that summer, beginning a tradition of emigration which was to last.
Most of the eighteenth-century emigrants came from the Ulster Presbyterian community. They would become known in America as the Ulster Scots. Paradoxically, they brought with them a tradition of ‘republicanism’ and played a very important role in the struggle for American Independence. They provided the new republic with many of its early presidents, as well as other leaders.
During the eighteenth century Derry was probably the premier Irish port for Transatlantic emigration. The emigrating ships landed at many different American ports but most particularly at Philadelphia. Most of the ships used in Derry were owned by local business men and the ‘emigration trade’ became a major element in the city’s economy, as it continued to be in the nineteenth century.
An advertisement for the ship ‘Hopewell’, set to leave from Derry in the summer of 1766, gives a flavour of what the emigrants hoped to gain by their departure: It would swell the advertisement to too great a length to enumerate all the blessings those people enjoy who have already removed from this country to said province. It may suffice to say, that from tenants they are become landlords, from working for others they now work for themselves and enjoy the fruits of their own industry.
However, many of the emigrants had to finance their passage by signing on as indentured servants, thereby mortgaging their future work and earnings.
’Derry Kay’ [quay], as the point of embarkation for many who set sail for the New World, entered the imagination of thousands of people on both sides of the Atlantic and was commemorated in hundreds of ballads and stories. At first, Irish emigrants travelled in American trading vessels. By about 1815 Derry merchants entered the trade themselves by investing in small, Canadian-built sailing vessels of up to three hundred tonnes.
By the 1840s these smaller vessels had disappeared to be replaced by a Derry-owned fleet of larger ships. Bigger ships meant that fewer merchants were involved and eventually the business passed into the hands of just two local companies: J & JL Cooke and William McCorkell & Company. Many of the ships in the McCorkell fleet were named after characters in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, ‘The Song of Hiawatha’, including one of the best-loved Derry ships, the ‘Minehaha’.
During the American Civil War steamships were introduced onto the Atlantic crossing. The Derry sailing vessels became increasingly marginalised and although they held on until the 1890s by diversifying and sailing to the less-developed ports on the east and west coasts of south America (and even occasionally up to San Francisco), they were inevitably put out of business.
Most of the nineteenth-century emigrants, particularly after the Great famine of the 1840s were Catholics. The famine reaped its grim effects on the countryside in the hinterland of Derry and many destitute and frightened people flocked to the city in search of relief, despite the fact that the municipal authorities made it clear that refugees were not welcome. Some of these, however, did manage to get into the recently opened workhouse, while those with some resources were able to leave on the emigrant ships.