Mayo: Seasonal Migration

At the turn of the nineteenth century, seasonal migration of agricultural workers from Ireland to the United Kingdom was practiced predominantly by communities found on western coast of Ireland.

Whether the members of the Addergoole Fourteen partook in seasonal migration is not the aim of this article. This article is merely highlighting that the practice was prevalent, and practiced by communities in the west Ireland, especially in County Mayo

The seasonal migration of agricultural labourers to Scotland and northern England was practiced by those communities located in the most peripheral regions such as Achill and Belmullet in County Mayo. There is inferential evidence to suggest that seasonal migration was practiced by some families and members of the community in Addergoole, parish of the Addergoole Fourteen.

Seasonal migration was practiced because there was no alternative form of paid labour within a region. Remittances earned by agricultural labourers was sent or brought home. Remittances ‘constituted an important component of the smallholders income’.[i] Seasonal migration followed a well-established pattern. In early spring potatoes were planted annual requirements of turf gathered and oats sown.

The migrant crossed to Britain in the month of June, remaining there until November, returning in time for reaping the potato harvest. By the early nineteenth century the practice of seasonal labour had become well established in Ireland fitting in with European migration patterns.[ii]

The academic, J.H. Johnson stated that the 57,000 recorded in the 1841 census forms as practicing seasonal migration is far too low, thus the annual estimate of historian David Fitzpatrick, of one hundred thousand Irish agricultural Labourers practicing seasonal migration during the pre-famine era, can be regarded as a more realistic figure.[iii] As the nineteenth century progressed those partaking in seasonal migration decreased. J.H. Johnson outlines why this occurred:

‘The general conclusion emerges that the broad pattern of harvest migration to Britain owed much to the alternative opportunities for agriculture work within early nineteenth century Ireland. The detailed changes which took place owed much to alternations in the pattern of local accessibility, increase in railway lines into remote peripheral regions, decrease in population reduced those seeking seasonal migration. At the end of the century it was only in the western peninsulas that a substantial number of cottiers still remained, with no alternative source of cash income’.[iv]

The remote areas that remained most traditional in socio-economic and cultural respects were remarkably resistant to emigration. From 1881-1911 the population of County Donegal fell by 18 percent the population of the Rosses district rose slightly; similar increases took place in County Galway’s Oughterard district and on the Belmullet and the Dingle peninsulas.[v]

Those communities in the most peripheral regions in County Mayo gained access to the British labour market by taking the hiring boat from Achill Island[vi] or from the Erris peninsula. The British Government recognised the impoverished nature of life on the Erris peninsula. They planned to relieve the congested conditions by attempting to organise and subsidies a permanent solution:

‘It is understood that proposals for a fast trans-Atlantic steamship line subsidised by the government have been renewed to the government. This line, it is proposed, shall run from Halifax to Blacksod bay. The proposal also is said to include a fast Pacific line to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and India’.[vii]

Nothing came of this initiative, thus seasonal migration remained an important facet of peripheral economies in county Mayo and other communities along the west coast of Ireland. Though there were alternatives for the youngest members of families in the various Hiring Fairs that were common Ireland especially in the northern regions of the island of Ireland, those who were old and able partook in seasonal migration to ensure the livelihood of the farmstead and family at home.[viii] [Look out for future article on “Hiring Fairs in Ireland”]

Accurately recording on the number of people who practiced seasonal migration was difficult to undertake. There was no way of attaining accurate statistics on the number of seasonal migrants who had left and had returned via a different route to that of their departure. Seasonal labourers could return quiet easily during the harvest season as is evident from Frank Sweeney’s interesting and informative historical account of the murder of Conall Boyle in the Rosses in County Donegal at the end of the nineteenth century. See Frank Sweeney, The Murder of Conell, County Donegal 1898 (Dublin, 2002).

The murder had returned from his seasonal Labour in Scotland, availing of cheaper off season return fares, to murder his victim and thus return to Scotland to continue his labour in Scotland. As it was off season he was the murder was not recorded as a seasonal migrant.

Though those in authority carefully recorded those who availed of the rail service one must approach the evidence with a due note of caution. Many seasonal migrants departed via boat from Newport, Westport, Achill, Belmullet, Ballina and Sligo. There is also no evidence or statistics on seasonal agricultural labourers who had secured permanent or semi permanent labour remaining in England or Scotland. This was an inevitable trend as seasonal migration was a temporary delay before a decision to emigrate permanently was taken.

Agricultural labourers availed of special return train fares to Dublin where they took passage to Britain. According to British Government reports and tables relating to the Irish migratory agricultural and other labourers for the years 1900 onwards indicates that those communities located in or neighbouring towns such as Straide, Foxford, Claremorris, Swinford, Castlebar and Ballina to name the most prominent along the Dublin rail corridor availed of the service to Dublin. According to the official records agricultural labourers from the County Mayo contributed the largest proportion of the annual amount of seasonal migrant workers.

Advertisements found in the regional newspapers of Mayo highlight an aspect of the seasonal migration from the peripheral regions of the county. Boats were commissioned by farmers in Scotland and northern England to bring potato pickers from Achill Island and Belmullet.[ix]

Seasonal migration on Achill Island dated back to the late 1880s. It had become an essential way of life for the islanders as a solution to the economic hardships of the time. The potato harvest lasted from June to October and the workers ranged in age from as young as 13 to 23 and would travel from farm to farm in squads containing from 20 to 30 people.[x]

The Kirkintilloch tragedy of September 16, 1937 was one such indication that seasonal migration was still relied upon by the communities along the western coast of Mayo up to the out break of World War Two. Those who remembered it at the 70th anniversary remembrance were natives of Achill Island Margaret Reilly and James Higgins who had followed the migration pattern from Achill Island of settling for good in Scotland.[xi]

There is evidence to suggest that some families in the parish of Addergoole practiced seasonal migration similar to others in surrounding regions as outlined.[xii] Oral evidence collected from the late local historian, Tony Donohoe, and the very much alive local historian, Michael Molloy, indicates that there is a evidence to indicate that seasonal migration was practiced by members of the community of Addergoole up to the 1950s.

According to the two local historians, those who did participate in the seasonal migration to the United Kingdom, either walked to Newport and onto Westport where they availed of a steamer to either Glasgow or Liverpool. Alternatively, seasonal agricultural labourers from the area walked to Foxford train station, which was a busy terminus for seasonal agricultural labourers as proved by the reports and tables relating to Irish migratory agricultural and other labourers in British Government records, taking the train to Dublin port and thus taking a cattle boat to the United Kingdom.[xiii]

The oral testimonies of both men illustrate that members of the population of Addergoole were active in finding alternative sources of income to supplement that accrued from the farm. For those who did not participate in seasonal migration one must inquire has how these families and members of the community of Addergoole survived in a time when globalized markets were ever encroaching on traditional life.

Sources: Below

[i] ‘Table VII, – Showing the Numbers of Harvestmen conveyed over the Midland Great Western and the Great Southern and Wester Railway systems form the under mentioned stations to Dublin during the Season of 1903’. P.46, in, Reports and Tables relating to Irish Migratory Agricultural and Other Labourers, for the year 1903, p.819, [Cd.142],H.C.,1904,CV.

[ii] Ruth-Ann Harris, The Nearest thing that Wasn’t Ireland: Nineteenth-Century Labour Migration (Athens, 1994), p.xiv.

[iii] J.H. Johnson, ‘Harvest Migration form Nineteenth Century Ireland’, in transactions and proceedings of the Institute of British Geographers, 20 (1965), p.98 and David Fitzpatrick. Irish Emigration 1801-1921 (Dublin, 1984), p.5.

[iv] .H. Johnson, ‘Harvest Migration form Nineteenth Century Ireland’, in transactions and proceedings of the Institute of British Geographers, 20 (1965), p.109.

[v] Kerby, A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford, 1985), p.474.

[vi] Fiona McGrath, ‘Emigrations and Landscape: The case study of Achill Island’, in the Trinity Papers in Geography, no 4 (Dublin, 1991), p.4.

[vii] Connaught Telegraph, 17 Aug 1912.

[viii] Frank Sweeney, ‘The Murder of Conall Boyle, County Donegal, 1989’, in Maynooth Studies in Local History: No 46 (Dublin, 2002), p.189.

[ix] Mayo News, 25 May 1912.

[x] Mayo News, 11 September 2007.

[xi] Kirkintilloch Herald, 20 Sep 2007.

[xii] Conversation with Tony Donohoe, 25 May 2006.

[xiii] ‘Table VII, – Showing the Numbers of Harvestmen conveyed over the Midland Great Western and the Great Southern and Wester Railway systems form the under mentioned stations to Dublin during the Season of 1903’. P.46, in, Reports and Tables relating to Irish Migratory Agricultural and Other Labourers, for the year 1903, p.819, [Cd.142],H.C.,1904,CV.

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