Story: Irish

Page 2. Migration 1800–1850

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Conditions in Ireland

In the 19th century Ireland’s rural people were landless labourers, or peasants renting a few acres with limited productivity. Their misery was intensified by other factors, including:

  • land division by inheritance
  • the transfer of land used for crops into sheep and cattle farming (which reduced work opportunities)
  • industrialisation (which destroyed the supplementary income from domestic spinning and weaving).

In the late 1840s there was a devastating potato famine, in which over a million people died.

Scale of Irish migration

Throughout the 1800s, and particularly after the famine, the Irish streamed away from their homeland to seek a better life. Often younger sons went first and were followed by other family members in a chain migration.

In the 70 years after 1850 about a million Irish crossed the Irish Sea to England or Scotland. Over four million sailed for the new worlds of America and Australasia. As a result, Ireland’s population almost halved.

Immigration to New Zealand

In 1845 the Dublin University Magazine described New Zealand as ‘the most recent, remotest, and least civilised of our colonies’. It was the most expensive to reach – over four times the cost of crossing the Atlantic to America.

The majority of Irish emigrants went to North America; Australasia took no more than about one in 13. For the first half-century of European settlement in New Zealand the number of migrants from Ireland was small. Almost none came direct from the potato famine. Until 1852 they comprised less than 15% of immigrants from the United Kingdom.

Assisted immigrants

The New Zealand Company offered assisted passages to organised settlements in New Zealand. However, the company did not consider illiterate Irish peasants to be ‘desirable emigrants’. Under 2% of the company’s settlers were born in Ireland, despite the fact that a few of the early New Zealand Company settlement leaders, such as John Robert Godley in Canterbury and Edward Stafford in Nelson, were of Anglo-Irish background. This group were members of the Anglican élite who saw their situation weakened at home by Catholic emancipation and the emergence of Irish nationalism. Few of the Irish joined them. In 1848 the province of New Munster (Wellington and the South Island) had a mere 175 Irish inhabitants.

New Ireland?

Despite the small numbers of Irish in New Zealand in the 1840s, the islands were given Irish names. In a Royal Charter of 1840 the ‘Northern Island’ became New Ulster, the ‘Middle Island’ New Munster, and ‘Stewart’s Island’ New Leinster.

In 1846 two provinces were also named New Ulster and New Munster. New Ulster extended north and east of the Patea River mouth, while New Munster consisted of the rest of the North Island and all of the South Island and Stewart Island.

These provinces were abolished in 1852.

Irish in Auckland

By 1851, in contrast to Wellington and the South Island, a larger proportion of Auckland’s population (2,871 out of 8,840) were of Irish background. Few had come direct from the homeland; many had arrived via Australia. (The convict settlement in New South Wales included large numbers from Ireland, and over a third of the United Kingdom migrants to both Victoria and New South Wales during the 19th century were Irish.)

Men of Irish heritage such as Jacky Marmon and Frederick Maning were to be found among the early gangs of traders, whalers and sealers, and in the 1840s numbers in Auckland slowly grew.

There were also significant numbers of ex-soldiers. Some of these were discharged from British regiments brought to New Zealand in 1845–46. Others came with the largely Irish Royal New Zealand Fencibles. Arriving in 1847 with wives and children, they provided protection for the area south of Auckland town. This military influence helps explain the large representation at that time of Auckland immigrants from County Dublin, a common recruiting ground.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Irish - Migration 1800–1850', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2015