Donegal Women Who Bade Farewell

By Brian McLaughlin

In the last two centuries an estimated ten million people emigrated from Ireland and a unique exhibition mounted in Donegal revealed a remarkable story of emigration by women from the county.

This is a part of Donegal’s history that has been little examined as these brave and in many cases fearful women went to countries such as Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

These women ventured far and wide and when they had established themselves sent money back home and helped other family members to follow them. This process was known as chain migration, as pointed out by the Assistant Curator of the Donegal County Museum Caroline Carr.

She said: “people might be surprised to hear that between 1871 and 1891, 56,000 women left Ireland for the US alone, slightly higher than the number of men. The Irish were the only emigrant group in which women outnumbered men”.

Emigration changed over the century from the original main destinations of the US, Australia and New Zealand to the 1940s when approximately three out of every four Irish emigrants were destined for Britain and one out of eight for the US.

With few opportunities for women at home, emigration provided not just employment but a chance for education and social freedom. There are the powerful images of women at work gutting and curing fish in Dundee; natives of Donegal – many of them could only speak Irish. They were also employed as ‘tattie hokers’ – picking potatoes in Scotland which showed that they were strong and resilient women.

These migrant women also worked in factories beside the fish canneries. They were employed in weaving and textile work and were also street sellers or hawkers working from barrows, hand carts or baskets. They sold flowers, fruit and matches.

Donegal migrant men and women who travelled to the North of England and Scotland did general farm work. The workers lived in ‘bothies’ – small huts for farm labourers living in harsh environments.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain led to a demand for seasonal workers and Donegal men and women found themselves in Scotland. There was local opposition to their presence. Sectarianism, lack of education and the fact that many of them only spoke Irish prevented them from working in highly paid jobs and skilled trades.

The emigration of Donegal women was between 1845 – 1950. Ireland was devastated by the Great Famine and one immediate result was the mass emigration of entire families.

There were Donegal people who emigrated to voluntarily escape a life of poverty in search of a better life. Some took advantage of assisted passenger schemes. Others left less voluntarily through enforced emigration schemes.

Orphans were sent to Australia and Canada and people were taken before the courts for minor offences which were often trivial and transported as convicts. Families were sent from workhouses.

Ruthless landlords carried out evictions and tenants were forced to emigrate. There was the infamous Derryveagh evictions where forty-seven families were forced out of their humble hovels. Many of these emigrated to Australia with help from the Donegal Relief Fund set up in Australia to help Donegal people.

Derry and Moville on Lough Foyle were the points of departure for north – west emigrants to ‘The New World’ to settle in the US and Canada. People south and south-west Donegal emigrated from Sligo.

The exhibition that told the story of Donegal women who emigrated titled ‘A Long Farewell” was held at Fort Dunree on Lough Swilly in the Inishowen Peninsula. It was mounted by Donegal County Museum and Donegal County Archives. There is also a well-presented booklet written on the subject which can be read online.