In the decades prior to the Great Famine the population of Co. Galway increased rapidly. While the official censes returns for 1821 and 1831 are largely unreliable and an underestimation, by 1841 the county had over 440,000 people and was one of the most densely populated counties in the country. A number of factors contributed to this population explosion: people married early, fathers subdivided their farms among their children so that holding became unviable, the prevalence of the rundale system on many estates, but more important was the heavy reliance on the potato which was able to feed a family from a small parcel of land. Most estates were unable to control the subdivision of holdings as they were leased to middlemen who then sublet the land to tenants who held yearly tenancies. Middlemen charged the tenants high rents and most landlords found it difficult stamp out the practice of subletting until the leases expired and they regained control of their estates.
The Crown held properties in counties Cork, Roscommon, King’s Co., Kerry and Galway which were leased to middlemen and this led to the subdivision of farms which the Crown was unable to prohibit until the leases expired in the 1830s. The Galway properties were located at Irvilloughter in the parish of Ahascragh, while Boughill was in the parish of Taghboy, one mile from Ballyforan village. Boughill comprised 111 statute acres of arable land and 320 acres of bog, and was leased to Nicholas D’Arcy who paid an annual rent of £4 12s 3d. He in turn let the land to John Killelea. When the potato failed in 1845 there were 111 people living in Boughill where rundale was expensively practiced by the seventeen families, each family having between three and seven acres in several lots on different parts of the property.
The Irvilloughter property comprised 694 acres and had a population of 408 who paid a rent of 25s an acre which was considered excessive as it was nearly twice the rate that tenants on neighbouring properties paid for superior land. The property had been let on a sixty-one year lease to Ross Mahon of Castlegar and in 1830, when the lease expired the Crown regained possession. Throughout the 1830s and early 1840s the tenants were unable to pay the rent because of adverse economic conditions and the rundale system which made their agricultural endeavours uneconomical. Under Mahon, the tenants were allowed to pay the rent through their labour. As early as 1830 the Crown representatives realised the extreme conditions of the tenants and unless the population was reduced the consolidation of holdings into viable economic units could not take place. The Commissioners of Woods, who managed the estate on behalf of the Crown, offered to assist those willing to emigrate, but this was refused.
The failure of the potato crop in 1845 had a major impact on the tenants on the two properties. While relief was put in place it was realised a more radical solution was required to improve the position of the people. Emigration was suggested in 1847 after a similar scheme had been adopted on the Ballykilcline estate in Co. Roscommon. Initially, the Treasury, who were to fund the scheme, were reluctant to get involved as it was felt it was too expensive, but eventually agreed to provide the finances. Golding Bird, the agent for the properties, was to administer the emigration and the first group left Galway on 15 June 1848 on the Sea Bird for Quebec. The group comprised thirty-eight families and twenty-two individuals making a total of 253 people. Six families were headed by widows who brought with them twenty-nine children; Bridget Cosgrave from Irvilloughter having nine children. The oldest emigrant was John Carty from Irvilloughter who was sixty years and who left with his wife, Bridget, and four sons who ranged in age from ten to fifteen years. Carty had a cabin and a three acre farm, and was described as very poor. The largest family group was that of John Kennedy from Irvilloughter, who left with his wife and nine children, two sons and seven daughters, aged between four and twenty. Kennedy had a cabin and a three acre farm and was also described as being very poor. Most of those leaving had holdings of less than an acre and a half, the main exceptions being Denis Grady who had eight acres, and Nicholas Flannery and John White who each had six acres. The group arrived in Quebec on 23 July and ‘landing money’ had been forwarded to the Canadian authorities to pay for the emigrants’ travel to their final destinations. Most proceeded to Upper Canada and two families went to the United States.
After the departure of the group on the Sea Bird the remaining population in Irvilloughter, numbering 220 people, and in Boughill, numbering 73, continued to be destitute. The success of the scheme in 1848 resulted in preparations being made to send another group after the tenants petitioned to be sent. The Treasury authorised another £1,400 to send a second group. On 17 August 1849, the Northumberland left Galway with 158 people from the two properties, 114 adults and 44 children. It consisted of thirty-one families and seven individuals. Nine families were headed by widows with the widow of Andrew White having seven children who ranged in age from six to eighteen years. Michael Glynn, aged fifty-five years, was the oldest emigrant and he travelled with his wife and six children. The emigrants were medically examined before they sailed to ensure they were fit to travel, but four of the group died on the voyage, including Sally White who was travelling with her mother. Bridget White, and her three sisters. The Northumberland arrived in Quebec on 2 October 1849 and the emigrants were provided with ‘landing money’: 7s 6d for adults and 5s for each child aged between five and fifteen years. The emigrants then travelled to Montreal. There is no indication of what happened the former Crown tenants after this. The only information came from Michael Byrne from Boughill who had left on the Sea Bird: in September 1848 he wrote to Golding Bird from Middlebury, Vermont where he was working on the railroad and earning 5s a day.
The total cost of sending the 411 people was £2,814, but 150 people still remained on the two properties. While the conditions of those who stayed improved as the farms were consolidated into viable economic holdings, the Crown decided to sell the estate in 1855. Those sent to North America in 1848 and 1849 had been given the opportunity of a better life.
Eilis Ellis, Emigrants from Ireland, 1847-1852: State-Aided Emigration Schemes from Crown Estates in Ireland (Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore; 1993).