The Speaker for the November Meeting of the Bellaghy Historical Society was Mr. Ronnie Hanna M.A. whose subject was “The Ulster Emigration Experience of the eighteenth century”. Mr. Hanna lectures at Queen’s University and has written many papers on historical subjects.
He pointed out that emigration to the New World which most people believe to be the result of the Great Famine of the 1840s, had in fact started in the previous century as there had been smaller famines before that time, notably that of 1729 when bad weather caused the Scottish settlers on the Antrim coast to suffer a mini-famine.
There was great hardship in Ulster and little opportunity for a man to improve his condition. When the linen trade, on which many of the landlords depended, underwent a slack period they would raise the rent and there were many evictions of tenants who simply could not pay the higher cost. The area most effected at this time was a triangle which Mr. Hanna showed on a slide, comprising the counties of Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Antrim all of which had been “planted” with Scottish families, who were mainly Protestant and Presbyterian.
At that period in history The Penal Laws were equally severe on Presbyterians and Catholics, who could not hold offices of any significance or own land because of the dominance of the Established Church of England (and Ireland). The agents sent from America to attract people to emigrate were offering them a chance to own land and develop it.
The bad conditions at home and the offer of land in the New World were known as the “push and pull” factors which caused families to emigrate. There was therefore every reason for them to take the very bold step of crossing the Atlantic, a journey which took about three months in sordid conditions where disease was often present and when many people died on the voyage. Those who made it were met by representatives of the landowners who had recruited them through their agents and who had paid for their passage. Many of these Ulster Scots emigrants became famous and at least three American Presidents sprang from this importation, the best known being possibly Andrew Jackson.
Sometimes a Presbyterian Minister would organise a whole group from his congregation for this exodus to be settled in the Frontier regions. The figure given for the number of people who emigrated between 1710 and 1775 was one hundred and sixty thousand. Those who emigrated in the following century as a result of the Great Famine settled mostly on the Eastern seaboard of America.
Mrs Mary Breslin, Chairperson, thanked Mr. Hanna for his most interesting talk and reminded members that the Speaker for the December meeting would be Mr. Alec Blair whose topic would be “The Planter and the Gael”.