The Second Generation

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The Second Generation: covering the period of around 1815 to 1900, during the lives of the sons of Weir Acheson. These were brutal decades for the early Acheson family; the Great Famine in Ireland, loss of farm ownership, migration to America, and then to Ontario. Yet, their descendants thrived in the next generation. It all starts here.

Politics of Ireland in the early 1800's

The drastic action that was taken was the Act of Union, passed in 1800. It formed a new country ("The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland") by uniting England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. A new flag - the Union Jack - was created for it which had components from the flags of each member state. All regional parliaments were abolished, and instead the entire UK was to be ruled from a centralised London parliament. For most Irish, there wasn't a noticeable difference, but it meant the Irish government representatives could not pass laws on their own. In 1813, a man named Sir Robert Peel set up a law-enforcing force in Ireland. Its job was to arrest those who broke the law and generally manage crime prevention. This force was known as the 'Peelers' or the 'Bobbies', and later became known as the Police. It was the world's first Police force and, by 1822, most countries has followed suit and set up their own.

The hated penal laws were still in force in Ireland in the early 1800s. These discriminated against non-Anglicans, principally Catholics and Presbyterians. It had been promised that they would be abolished with the Act of Union. However, this did not happen and it took the actions of Daniel O'Connell to lead a campaign for emancipation that captured the English public's imagination and led to the necessary legislation being passed in 1829. The importance of emancipation to the Irish people was recognised when the main street in Dublin was re-named after O'Connell after independence in 1921.

A starving family digging for potatoes, as depicted in the Illustrated London News in 1847. Getty Images

The Irish Famine: A Disaster Poised to Strike

In the early 1800s, the impoverished and rapidly growing rural population of Ireland had become almost totally dependent on one crop. Only the potato could produce enough food to sustain families farming the tiny plots of land the Irish peasants had been forced onto by British landlords.

The lowly potato was an agricultural marvel, but staking the lives of an entire population on it was enormously risky.

Sporadic potato crop failures had plagued Ireland in the 1700s and early 1800s. And in the mid-1840s a blight caused by a fungus struck potato plants across all of Ireland.

In 1800 the population of Ireland was between 4 and 5 million, with 200,000 in Dublin. However the Industrial revolution and especially the Irish Linen industry expanded explosively in the first half of the century, and this allowed the population to increase dramatically. By 1841, there were 8,175,000 people in Ireland. (This compares to the 1996 figure of 5,162,535.) Most Irish landlords were Protestants, simply because the law forbade Catholics from owning land. The Irish peasants themselves, who were both Protestant and Catholic, ate potatoes almost exclusively, since land was scarce and potatoes were an intensive crop. However, in 1845 a fungal disease called 'phytophthora infestans', or 'potato blight' struck and wiped out a third of the potato crop in Ireland. This was a disaster to the peasants who relied upon it. Those who lived near towns were better off, since towns had other sources of food, but things got very bad for those living in rural areas.

By 1846, potato supplies had sold out and many people began to slowly starve. The British government stepped in and imported £100,000 worth of maize from America to feed the starving, and this helped prevent mass death for the first year of the Famine. However, the crop of 1846 also failed and this time wiped out almost all the potatoes in Ireland. Thousands of people simply starved, particularly in rural areas. Many also died from typhus, scurvy and dysentery. The British set up soup-kitchens and workhouses for the poor but they drastically underestimated the scale of the disaster, and many people did not receive any aid at all. The problem was compounded by landlords who evicted Peasants who could not pay the rent because they had no potatoes to sell. Fortunately the crop of 1847 was good, and, although the 1848 crop failed, the starvation was never so bad as in 1846.

Many thousands of Irish decided to cut their losses and set sail on emigration boats to America. This is the origin of about half of what is now referred to as 'Irish America'. Hundreds of Irish died on the ships which were so overcrowded that they became known as 'coffin ships'. By 1851, the population had fallen 25% to 6,000,000 and the emigration continued until around 1900, by which time only 4,500,000 Irish remained in Ireland. This left huge chunks of abandoned farmland and even today, large areas of derelict farmland can be seen in Mayo and Galway. Many Irish felt that the British could have done more and this caused a lot of anti-British sentiment to arise, particularly in Ireland and among the Irish who had gone to America.

After the Famine, the price of food rose rapidly and Irish farmers began to get better off as they made money on this market. In response, the Irish landlords raised taxes. However, after 1876, the food-bubble burst and many farmers fell on hard times. Despite this, as well as poor harvests in 1877-1879, the landlords did not reduce the taxes. Many farmers found they could not pay their rent and were evicted from their cottages and land. Many of these evicted farmers, who were now homeless, formed a new land-reform movement headed by Michael Davitt, a farmer from Mayo. They wanted to change the law to reduce the power of landlords and allow peasants to own their land.

Life in Tyrone county[1]


The peasantry are very industrious. The houses of the farmers are built in some parts of stone, in others of clay; slating is becoming more prevalent than thatch for roofing. The want of native timber has also been much felt in the construction of the houses of the small farmers and cottiers. The cabins are generally built at the joint cost of landlord and tenant, in which case the latter has an abatement of rent; when the whole is executed at the tenant's cost, a year's rent is usually allowed him. The use of turf for fuel is universal except in the immediate neighbourhood of the collieries.


The food consists of potatoes and oatmeal, and in seasons of scarcity, barley meal; milk is used in summer and autumn; in winter, herrings. Sometimes a pig is killed at Christmas, or several labourers join in the purchase of a cow.


The Donagh, which is kept at Brookborough, near Five-mile-town, is a box or casket about the size of a thick quarto volume containing a representation of Christ and the Apostles in high relief on brass coated with silver, under which are some relics; it is used as a test of veracity in taking evidence among the people.

A belief in fairies, called here the Wee People, is universal among the poorer peasantry; as is the custom of driving their cattle round fires lighted on Midsummer-eve.

The Irish in Victorian Era[2]

Those with Irish ancestors may discover some who crossed the Irish Sea to England, fleeing poverty for opportunity, or just survival. Large numbers did so during the mid-19th through the turn of the 20th century, a time of overwhelmingly rural to urban movement in sync with Irish desperation and English industrialization. It's more accurate to dub them "migrants" rather than emigrants or immigrants, since the whole of Ireland was within the United Kingdom then. For most, migration was reluctant and reactionary. Many anticipated it to be a stopover – the ultimate destination being the more distant shores of the US, Canada, Australia, etc.

Leaving Home

Statistics in the 1841 census of Ireland reveal the majority of the population lived in rural areas as impoverished tenants on small plots of land typically owned by an absentee (usually English) landlord. All was dependent upon their "industry" as a family/household in a localized economy and they were heavily reliant on the potato crop. Outsiders called this the "lazy crop" since it was planted in spring then left to grow to maturity without much attention - allowing for a redirection of family labors, but definitely not laziness. Their lives were drastically upended in 1845 by the mysterious and merciless arrival of the potato blight. It spread rapidly, turning the precious spuds into dark inedible mush. Another devastating blight followed in 1846, and although it didn't repeat the following season, the year became known as "Black '47" because by then, the damaging ripple effects had taken hold.

It's been said that although the potato blights were unavoidable, the Great Famine need not have been. The complexities of the topic are beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say, England's response to Ireland's calamity was inadequate. Looking back, in the years leading up to the Famine, the small-subdivision land system in Ireland was becoming unsustainable. Tenants barely scraped by and most actually resisted urges to improve their land productivity since that would lead to increased valuation and additional rent. Landlords struggled with administration of the vast individual wretched tenancies, many desiring to consolidate their holdings into more lucrative grazing lands for livestock or grain production. These and other underlying factors had been simmering, and came to a full boil with the potato crop failures. Facing the certain loss of rental income, numerous landlords responded with evictions (crudely called "clearances") of poverty-stricken tenants. For millions of the Irish peasantry, the result was suffering, starvation, death... or exodus.

Feeding the Needs of Industry

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution had been underway in England for over 100 years. Innovations of the prior century had led to completely new manufacturing processes. Time was, goods were produced in homes or shops, and machinery was painstakingly driven by man, beast, wind, or water. The invention of the steam engine meant that machinery needn't be confined by these limitations. England was at the forefront of steam-driven advancements; leading to tremendous growth in mass production of everything from coat buttons to steel beams, Steam-fueled locomotion sparked the beginnings of railroads in the 1830s, and around the same time, there were discoveries in the practical application of electricity. Novel methods for manufacturing gas were developed as well. This gas would supply lighting in streets; homes and factories; thereby extending potentially productive hours.

In this new age of speed and efficiency, an abundance of man (and woman) power was required to satisfy the recirculating needs for fuel and production. Irish evacuees made their way into the dangerous and exhaustive conditions of coalmines, gas works, railroads, factories, steel foundries, textile mills, and so on. Ireland's land and people had long been exploitable resources for England. In pre-Famine times, the usual Irish migrant was an able-bodied young man bound for agricultural work or skilled in a specific trade - and travelling solo, as there were slim prospects for women, children, and the elderly. There was a much different dynamic row due to the economic devastation in Ireland and the flourishing industrialism in English cities. Raw human labour, of all shapes and sizes, was needed... and available.

Shelter in the Storm

Concurrently, England's own residents were moving in droves from the countryside to urban areas; vying for jobs and housing with newly arrived Irish. This competition added to existing unrest from the two islands' age-old history of conflict: Britain's colonial empire stretched across the globe, but neighbouring Ireland had always been an enigma. A new mingling of their peoples brought along a more personalized prejudice. The Irish were relegated the most undesirable jobs and to the harshest of living conditions in overcrowded tenement neighborhoods.

The Irish were no strangers to distress, but nothing could have prepared them for the urban experience: Stepping off into such an alien world was only tolerable through sympathetic kin and countrymen in supportive enclaves. As compared to incoming Scottish or Welsh, or even to their contemporary American immigrant cousins; those in the Irish clusters of Victorian England had different objectives regarding integration. Most laid blame squarely on their English hosts for the need to flee Ireland in the first place. While the industrial cities offered refuge, many intended it to be a short-term one and felt no burning desire or obligation to assimilate fully.

Religion- a Barrier and a Buffer

The great majority of mid-19th century Irish were devoutly Roman Catholic, but weren't overall as tightly bound to its doctrines as might be imagined. The truth is that back in Ireland, particularly in the rural areas, there were still pre-Christian undercurrents linked to their rituals, the saints they revered, and the holy days they observed. The days of the severe penal laws were a recent painful memory as well. This made for a loosely herded Catholic flock in Ireland during the era. The Irish arriving in Victorian England carried their religious faith with them... but ancient beliefs were in the baggage as well. Regardless, there was an embedded anti-Catholic atmosphere waiting for them in the aftermath of England's hundreds of years of wars with "papist" nations like Spain and France.

Religion was yet another obstacle for the Catholic Irish in Victorian England, but it was also a pathway. Just like the secular inter-dependency of labour-hungry English industry and the just-plain-hungry Irish migrants, there were mutual needs on the spiritual front. The feeble Catholic Church in England received an infusion of new souls and the metropolitan parishes shaped rustic Celts into more compliant Catholics. Oddly, in this urban setting, the structured piety eventually became an intimate part of their identity as Irish Catholics. The parish communities offered the Irish a haven from, then a buffer to, wider interaction with society.

  1. Website "; Begin tracing your Irish ancestry Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary, Co. Tyrone
  2. Adopted from "The Irish in Victorian England - and How to Find Them"; by Joe Grandinetti; published in Your Genealogy Today magazine, May/June 2018, pp. 40-45