Galway Famine Emigrants in New York City

Dr. Gerard Moran

A feature of Irish emigration in the half century that followed the Great Famine was that more women than men left Ireland, which was not the European norm. In the period 1870 to 1910 55 per cent of Irish emigrants were women, usually single and between 16 and 24 years. There were a number of reasons for the large-scale exodus of women. They were more likely to send back remittances to Ireland than boys, even when married and were able to secure more steady employment in areas like domestic service. As so many women emigrated they were able to marry partners from Ireland and less likely to take non-Irish partners. Emigration also provided the emigrants with the opportunity to choose their partners, unlike in Ireland where marriages were arranged by parents. It also allowed them to marry outside of the social group they came from back in Ireland. Emigration also permitted them to be financially independent and not have to wait until they inherited the farm or until a dowry was provided. After the Great Famine marriage in Ireland was postponed and people married later, remained celibate or in the case of second and subsequent daughters had to secure the dowry themselves. Thus, while many left Ireland for economic reasons, for many, marriage in a foreign land was a more liberating experience.

The Irish settled in Five Points

It is difficult examine the marriage patterns of Irish emigrants and the researcher has to rely on church records where they are available. The records of the Church of the Transfiguration on Mott St (in present day Chinatown) provides an insight into an area with one of the highest concentrations of Irish-born in the city. The parish covered the Five Points area and in the early 1850s 52 per cent of its population were Irish, many having arrived in New York during the Great Famine. While the largest groups came from Kerry and Sligo, all Irish counties were represented. The Irish settled in Five Points because accommodation was cheap and they were prepared to accept the harshest living conditions, often up to twelve people occupying a single room. The area was the poorest in New York and has been made famous by the film The Gangs of New York. Strong Irish communities were established in the tenements in Mulbury, Orange, Mott and Leonard Streets. Males were employed as casual labourers and to supplement the family income women took in lodgers, often from Ireland.

The records of the Church of the Transfiguration provide an insight into the marriage patterns of the emigrant Irish communities as to who they were, their ages, where they lived and the parishes they came from in Ireland. However, there is health warning when researching the records as names have different spellings are used and there are occasions where the surnames have changed because American officials were unable to understand the Irish accent and spent it differently. This is more evident with the spelling of Irish parishes. However, these difficulties can be overcome with patience and a knowledge of Irish parishes.

Nine of the marriages were where both partners came from Galway

Between 1853 and 1860, 59 natives of Galway were married in the Church of the Transfiguration. Thirty-two were married between August 1853 and March 1855, involved in twenty two marriages. They came from parishes which included Athenry, Dunmore, Tuam, Clifden, Menlough, Headford, Monavea and Craughwell. A strong pattern of people marrying other Galway natives is evident as with Michael Dolan from Menlough who married Mary Curley from Kilcoony, and John O’Brien from Headford who married Honora Devine from Tuam on 7 January 1854. Nine of the marriages both partners came from Galway. Six involved partners who came from the same parish as with Owen Finaghy and Bridget Nowlan, both from Kilooran, and Mathew Browne and Mary Murray, both natives of Clifden who married on 12 March 1854. Six of the marriages involved partners who resided in the same house in Five Points as with John Leonard from Monavea who lived at 45 Mott St and who married Johanna Cullinan from Annamore, Co. Waterford, and Bridget Mooney from Craughwell who married John Fitzgerald from Castlelyon, Co. Cork. Both resided as 38½ Mulberry St. Six of those from Co. Galway were either widows or widowers as with Owen McCarthy from Kilronnan who married Mary Connery, a widow. There is no indication when these individuals had lost their partners, but it is likely for some it occurred during the Famine or on the journey across the Atlantic.

While the records indicate the ages when the marriage occurred, these may not be totally accurate as some were not entirely sure of their dates of birth. Eight were aged between 16 and 20 years, eleven were in the 21 to 25 years age cohort and nine between 26 and 30 years. The youngest was Margaret Curley from Kilcoony who was 18 years when she married Michael Dolan on 20 November 1854; while John Ward from Caltra was the eldest male when he married Mary Coffee from Tullamore on 10 October 1854.

The marriage records provide us with an insight into the lives and settlement patterns of this group of Galway Famine emigrants and is probably replicated in the other large industrial towns and cities that the Irish settled in. The largest group of those who married, twelve, lived on Mulberry St, while another three lived on Mott St. In a number of cases they lived in the same building as with Roger Costello and John O’Brien, both from Headford, who resided at 154 Leonard St. Emigrants were more likely to marry people from the same parish in Ireland or from other parts of Co. Galway, or who lived on the same street or the same tenement in the Five Points area. It suggests the close bonds that existed in the immediate years after the Famine and integration and assimilation with the host community was minimal. This is not surprising given their experiences at home during the Famine and the reception they received after their arrival in New York.

This page was added on 28/03/2018.

Comments about this page

  • Thanks for the info! FYI, Michael Casey b. Athenry 1830-31 to Pat and Mary (Hayes) Casey, as per Emigrant Savings Bank records and obit, marr. at Transfiguration 3 June 1854 Catharine McManus, b. Ballinasloe 28 Sept. 1832 & bap. St. Michael’s Parish 30 Sept. 1832, dau. of Hugh and Catharine (Clark) McManus.

    By Marie Scalisi (12/02/2021)

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