This is the story of mass emigration from the Iveragh Peninsula in 1883.   Two ships were chartered and assisted passage was provided to take entire families away from South Kerry to New York in this case.   1,200 in total left.   ‘There were 253 pupils in the Ballyhearney National School before the 2nd ship sailed. The following week there were only 46.  As a result the two old villages on Valentia, Clai na Cartan and Cnochan Cora Beg located in Coromore & Corabeg were decimated. Clai na Cartan had 50 houses in 1800, 21 houses in 1853 and only 1 house remained in the 1901 census. Cnonchan Cora Beag had about 60 houses at its height’.

“In June 1883 two ships the Furnesia and the Belgravia came into Valentia Harbour and took a human cargo of 1,200 people from the Iveragh Peninsula to America.

In 1845 at the start of the Great Famine, over 70,000 fled the country, with more than 50,000 going to the United States.  In 1883 termed ‘the year of free emigration’, a total of 105,743 people left the country, almost 83,000 of them destined for the U.S.  Much of this exodus was orchestrated by the unjust and pitiless land system where fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale were non-existent.

But it was not until 1882 that there came any worthwhile government aid for emigration.  This resulted from the crusading work of one James Hack Tuke, an honourable Quaker from the city of York who was active in charitable work in the West of Ireland.  He was appalled by what he described as ‘the culmination of man’s degredation’. The Government of the day was unwilling to undertake the huge expense involved, but Tuke persisted until grants were available to intending emigrants at the rate of 5% per adult.  Since the various shipping lines were offering steering passage to America for a little as £4 per adult, Tuke’s scheme became known as ‘Free Emigration.

The Cahirciveen guardians had despatched a number of emigrants via Queenstown (Cobh) in April 1883 and availing of Free Emigration, they entered into direct negotiations with the Anchor Line Shipping company for direct transport from Valentia Harbour.   The Belgravia was the first ship to sail past the Lighthouse into Valentia Harbour and was reported as being the largest ship to ever enter Valentia Harbour up to that time.

Cahirciveen Parish Priest Rev. Canon Brosnan went on board and having gathered about him the emigrants of his own parish, gave them his blessing and farewell.  The Belgravia left Valentia Harbour at 4pm on Saturday, June 2, 1883.  The final parting was pathetic, touching and grief stricken. 763 embarked, of whom about 471 were adults, 273 children and 19 infants, with about a dozen deciding at the last moment to remain behind.

Just two weeks later, the Furnessia, a larger ship of the same line entered Valentia Harbour and transported a further batch of 436 state aided emigrants to America, making a grand total of 1,199 in one fortnight.

The Kerry Examiner newspaper paid tribute to the exemplary conduct of the relatives and friends of the emigrants, of whom the reporter stated ‘a crowd of more than 5,000 assembled on the shores of Valentia and Renard to bid farewell to their dear ones about to leave for America’.  Ten days after the Belgravia’s departure from Valentia a telegram announced the safe arrival of the emigrants in New York.  

But the Furnessia’s passengers met with a frigid welcome in the United States.  Fanned by local newspapers, opposition was growing to what was described as ‘Britain’s exportation of Irish paupers’.   The New York Daily News carried the following blanket condemnation: ‘Hundreds of assisted emigrants arrived here on the Furnessia last evening.  They contrasted unfavourable with the previous comers.  Five heads of families came directly from the Cahirciveen workhouse.  All of them were poorly clad, have no money and no friends.  Their arrival excites much indignation’.   Some were even sent home.

Of the 100,000 or more who left Ireland for lands unknown in the year of Free Emigration only a few would ever see their homeland again.  All over America, Canada and to a lesser extent Australia they found their last resting place in the cold soil of the stranger. Not for many of them the warm welcome of friends and family on these foreign and unknown shores, but often having to endure vilification and loathing on their arrival.  Today, let us remember those Valentia and Iveragh people who set out from Valentia Harbour for America in the Belgravia and Furnessia in what were days of woe and sadness here in the year 1883″.

All above from The Kerryman (South Kerry Edition) 15 April 2015 Full list of passengers on Belgravia and on Furnessia. We are indebted to Brother Peter Lynch (of the wellknown Valentia Lynch boat building family) who in the 1980s painstakingly copied down in foolscap sheets ever single passenger and their ages.  These were later transcribed (with dates of birth) by Daniel Sullivan, a Dublin born son of Valentia parents whose great grandfather Michael O’Sullivan had been  both Registrar for Births/Deaths/Marriages, Valentia  & Clerk of the Court of the Petty Sessions on the Island.