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Despite the disastrous state of Ireland before the Great Famine, emigration was slow and sporadic. Between the years 1841-44, the numbers leaving the country averaged about 50,000 a year. To leave Ireland was regarded as the most dreadful of fates, and transportation was a most dreaded sentence. The second successive failure of the potato crop in 1846 produced a revolutionary change of attitude; now the Irish people, plagued by starvation and disease, saw emigration as the only escape from a land of death. In 1846, 106,000 people emigrated and this number increased in thousands yearly, reaching 1/4 of a million in 1851. Between the years 1845-55 two million people had emigrated, after which there was a gradual decline. However, emigration has continued to remain a significant social problem up to the present time.
A notable characteristic of the Great Famine exodus was that whole families rather than individuals emigrated, and all social classes resorted to emigration as a means of escape from death and destitution. The poorest cottiers were the first to leave followed by small-holders, then the better off farmers and town and city dwellers.
Tens of thousands of the very poorest emigrants, who could not afford the Trans-Atlantic passage, went across the Irish Channel to Britain. Many, probably the majority, never escaped from destitution. They became the tramps who were to wander around the towns and cities of Britain. They were not only poor, emaciated and unemployable, but often fever-ridden as well.
During the period 1836-51 about 3/4 of the emigrants who left the country went to the United States, 19,000 went to Australia and the remainder went to Canada. Not all of them could afford to pay their own fare.
Three main types of assistance were availed of by Famine emigrants:
The Orphan Emigration Scheme
In 1848 the government introduced an emigration scheme to encourage suitable orphans to go to Australia. By May 1848, 68 unions, including Ennistymon, had provided the Poor Law Commissioners with lists of children suitable for emigration. 4,175 female orphans and 967 males had been nominated. Girls were in greater demand than boys because of the shortage of women in Australia. It seems only girls went from Ennistymon Union. In June 1850 the minutes of the board of Guardians record that "the emigrant girls from this union conducted themselves remarkably well on their voyage to Sydney". Again in April 1850 there is a letter from the Commissioners referring to the emigrant girls from the Ennistymon Union sent to Port Adelaide. This particular scheme lasted only two years and its termination was due to the increasing difficulties of finding work for girls who were quite untrained as domestic servants and a growing anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment in Australia. Altogether, this scheme was responsible for sending 4,175 girls out from Irish workhouses. Sydney received 2,253; 1,255 went to Port Phillip; 606 to Adelaide and the remaining 61 to the Cape of Good Hope.
The Decline In Population In Clare
The present population of the county is around 88,000. According to the census returns of 1841 the population of Clare was 286,000. In 1851 it was reduced to 212,000, a drop of 74,000. In the 10 years between 1841-51 over 13,438 Clare homes became uninhabited.
Over 50,000 people died of starvation between 1845 and 1850 and thousands emigrated, many of them to Australia. Between 1851 and 1855, for instance, over 37,000 people emigrated from the county.