Jeanie Johnston Logo
Jeanie Johnston Logo

The story of the Irish emigrants that were paid to emigrate

During the Great Famine, around 1.8 million emigrants left Ireland to start new lives in North America. Thanks to increased trade between there and the UK, the cost of passage had dropped. It made financial sense for ships to carry cargo both ways – and one of Ireland’s biggest exports at the time was its people.

Despite this, the cost of passage from Kerry to Quebec on the Jeanie Johnston was still £3 10 shillings. According to the Kerry County Museum, it would take an unskilled labourer roughly six months to earn this much money. This meant the cost of passage was still out of reach for many.

Travelling to the US cost even more. In 1849, when the Jeanie Johnston sailed to Baltimore, tickets cost £4 4 shillings. So how did so many manage to emigrate to North America at this time?

In March 1864, a writer for the Mayo Constitution suggested that no more than 5% of the emigrants who left Mayo paid for their own passage. Many received help from family members, the state and even their landlords.

Chain migration

Many emigrants left Ireland alone and then sent their wages back to pay for the passage of family members. Letters home were often accompanied by remittances, money transfers and boat tickets.

According to the National Museum of Ireland, a massive $19 million dollars was sent back to Ireland between 1845 and 1854 – when the famine was at its worst. Much of it came in the form of prepaid tickets.

In 1850, The Irish Emigrant Society of New York even set up a savings bank to make it easier for Irish migrants to send remittances homeward.


Irish Emigrant Society building, New York City (via Wikimedia Commons)

This trend continued right up until the 1900s, with an estimated $260 million being sent to Ireland in the second half of the century.

Assisted migration schemes

However, in many cases, boat passenger lists show that whole families left Ireland together. The poorest of these families often received assistance from landlords, local workhouses and the government.

The first state-supported assisted migration took place early in the 1800s – shortly after the Napoleonic Wars. But, after the famine, it became more prevalent.

Led by the Crown

At first, the British government was reluctant to sponsor assisted emigration because of the costs involved. But it did give tenants of estates owned by the British monarch tickets and financial support to leave for North America.

According to historian Hidetaka Hirota, after struggling tenants from two ‘Crown estates’ in Galway called for public work projects, they were instead provided with passage to Quebec.

In June 1848, 253 of them departed from Galway port. They were quickly followed by another 158 emigrants. The following year, 119 tenants from the Kingwilliamstown Crown estate in Cork received passage to New York too. They were soon followed by another 72 tenants.

According to Hirota, emigrants from Kingwilliamstown came from a list made up of those who volunteered to leave. As well as those whose compulsory removal was necessary for the estate’s “improvement”.

Landlord assisted schemes

Other landlords began to follow the process laid down by the Crown estates. While passage to North America wasn’t cheap, many decided it would cost less than maintaining tenants who couldnt pay their rent.

At the Strokestown Park estate in Roscommon, landlord Denis Mahon ran an assisted emigration scheme. In 1847 to clear some of the 12,000 tenants there.

As well as receiving passage to North America, participants had their arrears settled and were paid for the crops they left behind. However, one letter from the Strokestown Famine Archive highlights Mahon’s disappointment. That “many of those applying are of the better sort of tenant and if possible should be kept at home”.


Major Denis Mahon (

In the end, 1,490 tenants signed up. However, to board the ship to Quebec, they all had to walk 165km to Dublin’s docklands on foot. Later that year, Denis Mahon was the first Irish landlord to be assassinated during the famine.

An emigrants view from the coffin ship

While plenty of paperwork about these assisted schemes still exists, very few sources come from the emigrants themselves. However, one writer did take a coffin ship from Dublin to Quebec to provide a firsthand account of the experience.

On the topic of assisted emigration, Robert Whyte’s 1847 Famine Ship Diary states: “Many… were sent out at the expense of their landlords. These were consequently the poorest and most abject of the whole and suffered most.

“No doubt the motives of some landlords were benevolent but all they did was to pay for the emigrants’ passage – this done, these gentlemen washed their hands of all accountability… That unwarrantable inducements were held out to many I am aware, causing some to leave their home who would not otherwise have done so.”

Emptying workhouses

In 1838, the Irish Poor Law Act introduced local workhouses to help relieve poverty. The Board of Guardians, which was elected by taxpayers in each of Ireland’s 130 districts, funded these workhouses.

However, with the consent of local taxpayers, this act also allowed for the introduction of a levy to fund the emigration of those who’d been in a workhouse for three months or more. This helped officials reduce ongoing costs.

However, by 1847, the workhouses were full. So the act was extended to allow for the assisted emigration of those outside workhouses too. However, only the wealthiest areas could afford to do this. So, in 1849, another change was made to further facilitate emigration. The Board of Guardians for each workhouse could use loans to pay for passage.

This is when assisted migration took off.

The Jeanie Johnston’s role in assisted migration

In 1847, the Jeanie Johnston was purchased by John Donovan & Sons of Tralee. Its registered owners were John Donovan and his son Nicholas.

The ship was known for providing above-standard conditions for the emigrants it brought to Canada. But, in 1851, Nicholas Donovan also helped fund an assisted migration scheme.

A controversial scheme

Helen O’Carroll, curator at the Kerry County Museum, did a lot of research around this. William Denny of the Denny Estate in Tralee first offered to pay for the passage of local workhouse inmates and take repayment from the local Board of Guardians later on. Nicholas Donovan, who owned around 1,000 acres near Tralee, heard about this and wanted to take part too.

However, the scheme caused controversy at the time because both Denny and Donovan chose to help inmates who came from their own estates.

When it was discovered that one of Donovan’s tenants registered at the workhouse just to emigrate, Donovan was accused of taking advantage of a charitable cause by sending his own tenants on his own ship for payment by the Board of Guardians.

Donovan denied this and explained that the man, James Stack, had lost his farm and was living in a hovel with his eleven children. They would eventually end up in the workhouse, he said, so it would be better if they emigrated now. In the end, the Stack family left for Quebec on the Jeanie Johnston a couple of months later.

Interestingly, as O’Carroll points out, records show that when the Jeanie arrived, families from the Denny estate were given £1 each to help them get settled in Canada. However, Donovan’s former tenants received nothing.

Contrasting views

In April 1853, the Jeanie Johnston also carried 65 tenants from the Earl of Kenmare’s estate in Killarney. The Earl, who had just inherited his title and estate, found that the land was largely occupied up by indebted tenants. To make it profitable again, he decided to send them away.

The Tralee Chronicle’s report on his scheme was positve: “A great many of those emigrated had very fair means of their own, but the passage money of the entire was paid by the noble Earl, while those in a less comfortable position were provided with abundant clothing and sea store”.

However, the emigration agent in Quebec, took a very different view, reportng: “There were a large number of very destitute persons on board the Jeanie Johnston, consisting chiefly of females and children…”

How many emigrants left through these schemes?

Between 1846 and 1855, landlords assisted the emigration of up to 100,000 people, while workhouses funded the passage of 20,000.

However, these numbers grew in the latter half of the century with workhouses helping another 25,000 leave. In the 1880s, the government also subsidised the transport of 54,000 and two philanthropists – Vere Foster and James Hack Tuke – funded around 30,000 departures.

While these assisted migration schemes account for a small proportion of the people who left Ireland, it facilitated more chain migration among families. It also impacted how North Americans viewed the incoming immigrants and led to calls for immigration restrictions.

To find out more about Ireland’s history of emigration, visit the Jeanie Johnston Famine ship. Book tickets here