Journal Volume 5 2006

Surplus People from Newcastle and Ballyvolan  (continued/5)

Getting to New Ross

Many people are surprised to learn that New Ross was an important port of emigration at that time. The main reason it figured so prominently was Graves & Company, a shipping firm which had been engaged in transatlantic trade for some years. When emigration became the most lucrative transatlantic trade it was natural that they should turn their attention to that quarter. The Fitzwilliam estate had contracted Graves with their previous assisted passages and the arrangements had proved satisfactory. There seemed no need to look elsewhere, and throughout the 1847-56 clearances, New Ross was the port of embarkation.

New Ross (

Even from the southern portion of the estate, New Ross was sixty miles distant. From Newcastle and Ballyvolan it was much greater, and it would seem logical that the McGuerry, Ellis and Roche families would have found it much easier to emigrate through the port of Dublin, but New Ross it had to be. In late May and early June of 1848, they gathered what they could and sold what little they might have had that could not be taken with them. Goodbyes to relatives, friends and neighbours would be said, and perhaps even an American wake was held to send them on their way. Unfortunately we can only surmise, because if the McGuerrys, Ellises and Roches left a record of their experiences, I have not come across it. On the day of leaving, perhaps they made their way to Coolattin and joined up with their fellow emigrants, from where carts provided and driven by relatives, friends or neighbours, carried the luggage or the young or old when they became tired. In some cases the estate provided carriage costs.

New Ross was a busy town. The river Barrow was quite wide and deep enough to allow ocean-going sailing ships to berth alongside the quays even though the open sea was eighteen miles downstream. Long before the groups of emigrants and their entourages entered the bustling town, they would crest a hill and look down at it. From this vantage point, they could see the sweep of the river and the tall masts of the ships. Then they descended into the streets, making their way to the quayside. Here was a jumble of human activity that most of Fitzwilliam's tenants would have found baffling. They were country people whose only experience of crowds at close quarters were fair days, but this was something different. The populace was a mix of residents and emigrants. The latter found what space they could to set up a temporary camp either along the quays or in back streets, or in fields on the outskirts of town. Challoner had sent one of his leading hands with them, Ralph Lawrenson, to make sure that there were no problems and all would board the ship.

The firm of William Graves and Sons owned and operated ships which traded between U.S. and Canadian ports and those in Britain and Ireland. They chartered other ships when needed and were experienced in the carriage of goods such as timber from Canada and tobacco, molasses and cotton from the United States. In common with other shipping agents, in recent years they had become equally experienced in sending those ships back across the Atlantic loaded with people. The usual routine was an eastward voyage from Canada or the U.S. to Liverpool where the cargo was discharged before the vessel sailed in ballast for New Ross where she would take on emigrants for the return journey. Graves would reap the benefit of the mass exodus which the estate now planned.

So much has been said and written about ‘coffin ships’ that it is easy to forget that such dilapidated vessels constituted only a tiny percentage of ships used in the emigrant trade. They did exist, but not in the numbers which are generally believed. Most of the ships which were used to take famine emigrants across the Atlantic were rough and ready, general cargo ships with the barest of modification for the accommodation of passengers. In truth, the people were not regarded as passengers at all but as human cargo, to be delivered as cheaply and with as little disruption to the ship’s schedule as possible. Comfort was not a consideration, but the ships themselves were seaworthy. Tales of rotten hulks crammed with destitute refugees being sent to sea for insurance gain may reflect isolated cases, but the vast majority of emigrant ships were strong and capable of making two round trips during the spring-to-autumn season. The efficient running of the ships depended a great deal on the honesty of the agent, the level of concern of an influential sponsor, and ultimately the character of the masters and crews. In the case of the Fitzwilliam tenants, both the honesty of Graves and the concern of Fitzwilliam guaranteed ships which were among the best available.

The ship which the McGuerrys, Ellises and Roches boarded at New Ross was the Swan. It did not differ in any great detail from countless others involved in the emigrant trade, and for this reason we can say what the Newcastle and Ballyvolan people experienced in general.


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