It is important to give descendants of  Kerry ancestors a picture of what life was like when your grandparents  or great/great grandparents emigrated, from the county  in the nineteenth century:


  • For most of the nineteenth century, travel in County Kerry was walking or by horse or donkey & car.  A person walking will average 3 – 4 miles per hour, a person riding or on a horse or donkey cart will average 5 -8 miles per hour. So a person could travel up to 12 miles each day, have time to meet relatives or friends  or do  business (selling at market) within a 12 mile radius.
  • The nearest port for emigration, with ships mostly sailing to  Canada, was Blennerville, the Port of Tralee from 1828 until 1867.    The railway came to Tralee in 1859. Stopping in Rathmore, Killarney, Farranfore and Tralee it was then possible to travel to Queenstown or Dublin by rail and onwards from there .  Ships left  from Queenstown bound for New York (some via Liverpool).  Limerick Port was also used.   Charles Bianconi’s long cars started to serve Tralee to Cork at first c. 1828 and eventually called to Killarney, Killorglin and as far as Glenbeigh.  Mail cars also operated between Tralee, Dingle, Castleisland, Killarney and Listowel.  These would be used mostly by ‘the gentry’, ordinary people could not afford them.


  • It would be very uncommon that a marriage would take place to someone who lived more than 20 miles away.
    • Most Kerry people married withinneighbouring townlands.   They met through neighbours, relatives, friends.   In the first half of the century, Kerry men and women mostly married in their early twenties.  After the Great Famine 1845-1852, the average age was thirty and over.   After the Famine,  the more land they tenanted (or eventually owned), dictated that ‘matches’ were made. These of course, were the middle to ‘strong’ farmers.  To marry into one of these farms, a girl had to have a dowry which in turn would provide the means for the husband’s sisters to get married thereafter.   A man marrying into a wife’s farm (known  as a ‘cliamhán isteach’), needed to have cash/youth (preferably both) with a view to keeping and developing that farm.  Land, the ownership or tenure was everything (and still is!).  I can’t emphasise this enough.
  • Taking into account the travel limitations, ask yourself where they might have attended church, where would they have gone for market and fair days and to purchase the ticket for their emigration?  Where did they go for court and legal affairs?  Were there actually roads in their native townlands.  


  • Why did your ancestors emigrate?  To get work is the immediate answer. Opportunities for education, particularly in the first half of the century,  were very limited, especially if you lived outside the main towns, and while education was highly prized, it was not always possible for all the children in large families to avail of it.  There was no employment for the vast majority, no land available to acquire and absolutely no ‘opportunities’ as they are now called.
  • Who paid the passage and why did they decide on particular locations?   This is probably one and the same question.  Single people emigrating got the fare from relatives already in the emigrant country, which would be paid back after arrival and employment.  This ‘passage money’ would then be re-cycled on to the next brother or sister whose turn would come to take the  boat.   The location was not chosen by the emigrant.  He/she needed to go where there were already relatives, neighbours and friends who would try to have jobs already lined up on arrival.  Different Kerry parishes are well known for providing large numbers of immigrants who settled in the same destinations.  West Kerry and Ballyferriter/Dunquin/The Blasket Island natives almost all went to Springfield, Massachusetts.   Ballymacelligott natives went in large numbers to New Zealand and the Beara Peninsula people went to Montana.   The Five Points, Lr. Manhattan became home to hundreds of Lansdowne Estate emigrants.
  • Kerry was one of the poorest counties in Ireland in the 1800s.   Dr. John Church gave evidence to a Select Committee of Parliament in 1824 reflecting on the poverty and lack of employment in the Listowel area.  The census of 1821 gave a population figure of 216,185 for the county and by 1841 – twenty years later  the figure was 293,880.    It has always been a mystery how the population could expand in such awful conditions, but people married young and had large families, birth control methods were non existent as was gainful employment.   Following the Great Famine 1845-1852 the population drop in the town of Listowel between 1841 and 1851 was 17%.  However, the outlying country areas suffered much more.  See full list here.


  • After the surrender of Limerick in 1691, the treaty which promised religious freedom to the Catholics was broken, and they were made subject to the action of severe ‘penal laws’.  Catholics were not permitted to have schools, They could not own land or own a horse that was valued at more than £5 among many other rules.    As a result Irish Catholics were poorly educated.  In the 1841 Census of Ireland, male illiteracy topped 60% on a countrywide basis.  That figure would be higher for females. While the Penal Laws were relaxed from the late 1790s they were not abolished until 1829.  ‘Pay Schools’ existed in most areas from the early part of the nineteenth century.  They had started as traditional Hedge Schools where classes were held outdoors in the bogs and corners of fields, in order to avoid detection by the authorities.  The children of strong farmers or merchants in towns, may have been able to attend these and some had the means to attend private schools in the main towns.
  • In 1831 the National Education Board was established by the Government ‘for the education of the poor in Ireland’ and from early 1840s the hedge schools were gradually replaced by free national education.  This education was to be only through the medium of English and had both cultural and language challenges.  All instruction was to be through English even though in some areas in the county were not used to reading English ‘as the little English they possessed was oral’.[1]
  • The Schools Collection on is very much worth a look.  If you go into the schools listed here  you may see the school that your ancestors attended. This is a collection of Folklore collected in schools by the children in the 1930s.  They were asked to speak to older relatives and write out the stories that they heard from the older people in their home area, about life when they were growing up

Irish Language

  • Irish was the spoken language outside of the main towns until the 1840s. In the Dingle Peninsula, and parts of South Kerry in particular, Irish was the spoken language until a much later priod.   By the mid-18th century, English was becoming a language of the Catholic middle class. Once it became apparent that immigration to the United States and Canada was likely for a large portion of the population, the importance of learning English became relevant. This allowed the new immigrants to get jobs in areas other than farming.


  • There were none to speak of.  Tralee, Listowel, Dingle, Killlarney, Kenmare, Cahirciveen had Workhouses which were dreaded by the people.  ‘To end up in the Workhouse’ was something that nobody wanted.

Effect of the Great Famine on the population of Kerry.


  • Why are names of our ancestors all spelled in different ways?   Standarised spelling was not the norm, poor education meant that a lot of people could not read or write in English.   A majority of Kerry people spoke mostly Irish up to the Great Famine with those in the Dingle Peninsula and South Kerry continuing to do so.  If a clergyman or government official wrote your name down as he heard it and you were unable to read or write yourself, you just went along with that spelling for the rest of your life and indeed so did your descendants.   I have just been tracing a family of ‘Corrigans’ who turn out to be ‘Corridons’ in Kerry and I could quote many more such examples.  And we won’t get into the Sullivans (or O’Sullivans) who ordinarily went by a ‘branch’ name at home and still used that on arrival in the U.S., making it very very difficult to find ancestors later.

[1] Moloney Caball, Kay, The Kerry Girls: Emigration & the Earl Grey Scheme, (Dublin 2014).   for further information.