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Victorian Irish Migration to the Channel Islands

Dabeoc Stanley | Lancaster University

Jersey, the Channel Islands
Jersey, the Channel Islands: A view of Elizabeth Castle showing the summit before the alterations during the German military Occupation 1940-1945.

“The weekly importation of Irish paupers still continues in batches of the same lump… This time the greater part were women and children without money and without luggage. The husbands will doubtless come in a few weeks when their wives and progeny shall have explored the land.” – The Jersey Times, 25th March 1851

Irish travelling to the Channel Islands in the mid-nineteenth century did so through a maelstrom of contemporary fears, anxieties, and prejudices shared across the maritime space with England. The Jersey Times was not alone in utilising negative tropes – indeed, Irish migration was often cast in terms of disease and contamination. Historiography of nineteenth-century Irish migration has often focused on the dramatic tableau of urban impoverishment in Liverpool and the tragic diaspora-forming trans-Atlantic passage of ‘coffin ships’ driven by the Great Famine. This focus has inadvertently relegated studies of Irish experience and influence in the peripheries of the British Isles to neglect. This is short-sighted because the Channel Islands offer a wonderful petri-dish for considering how multiple factors determine historical migration. The Islands are geographically-defined parcels with unique constitutional and socio-linguistic characteristics which structured interactions between locals and Irish arrivals.

Migration has long been part of the ebb and flow of the history of the Channel Islands. Located just off the French coast, the islands have often acted as refuge from political upheaval. Between 1685 and 1727, waves of Huguenots arrived; precursors of the émigrés who fled the French Revolution and re-established Catholicism in Jersey and Guernsey. More unusual visitors included the 10,000 Russian soldiers billeted during the winter of 1799-1800, awaiting repatriation after the failed allied invasion of Holland.

Irish can be identified early, present amongst 18th century Guernsey church registers, often arrivals during the extraordinary eighteenth-century maritime trading boom the Channel Islands enjoyed. Guernsey (in particular) established close links around the Celtic and Irish Seas in its role as a bustling entrepôt in the contemporary smuggling of exotic commodities such as tea, tobacco, and liquor. The firm of Carteret Priaulx & Co, based on the island, had customers along the southern coast of Ireland, and Irish smugglers often visited seeking cargoes of tobacco. Constitutionally liminal, both Guernsey and Jersey were able to protect their longstanding privileges to facilitate this criminality – a wearily familiar situation in the modern day where the Islands’ Crown Dependency status has made them popular tax havens for the international rich and shady.

Unlike the British mainland, the Channel Islands were not the favoured haunts of the spailpíní, or migratory Irish agricultural labourers, even during a boom in potato exports in the 1830-40s. Influenced by the Norman example, the inheritance laws on the islands favoured the division of landholdings; the result was that even in the nineteenth century, the average farm size was small enough to avoid the need for families to employ paid agricultural help. Instead, the Irish travelling to Guernsey and Jersey sought employment opportunities in the military, labouring, and mining sectors. Numbers surged in the 1840s as a ripple of the Great Famine – the elephant in the room for any discussion of this period of Irish history.

Two choropleth maps of Irish counties representing the population density of Guernsey and Jersey born people in Ireland
Figure 1. Comparative maps of Irish birthplaces recorded among Irish residents of the Bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey in the 1851 census.

Historian Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh has identified three distinct flows of nineteenth-century Irish migration to the British Isles. The Channel Islands represent an off-shoot of the southernmost of these networks, drawing off some of the Irish migration from Munster and southern Leinster, which was passing through the south-western English ports. Until the eighteenth century, the number who opted to travel to the Channel Islands was limited by the poor state of communications and cross-Channel travel. It was only in 1778 that a regular postal service (packet) was established to Southampton. By the Victorian period, however, the technological innovation of steamers had revolutionised the ease and reliability of travel. Lively competition depressed ticket prices and led to a proliferation of links to ports including Weymouth, Southampton, London, and Newhaven. The result was an exceptional period of positive net migration to the islands, with Guernsey’s non-native population peaking at 27.8% in 1851.

Comparative maps of the percentage of Irish-born birthplaces by county.
Figure 2. Comparative maps of the percentage of Irish-born birthplaces by county.

As Guernsey, Jersey, and Alderney were so small, they attracted only a small proportion of the total Irish travelling through the south-west English ports. So, what motivated these Irishmen and women to buy a ticket to the Channel Islands? Looking at the 406 Irish birthplaces recorded in the 1851 census offers an answer; a highly localised chain migration process that traced back to individual communities in Ireland. Mapping Irish birthplaces, it becomes clear that although Munster represented over ½ of the flow in both cases, there was a clear distinction between Guernsey (39% coming from Kerry alone) and Jersey (where Cork and Waterford were dominant). The Munster dimension demonstrates that nineteenth-century maritime networks must be understood as two-way flows. As Irish travelled seeking opportunities, they communicated information back through the network to their hometowns.

Alderney’s experience of Irish migration was distinctive. In 1851 the population of the parish of St. Anne, which covers the whole island, was 9.4% Irish – proportionally the highest concentration in the Channel Islands. Why was Alderney such an attractive destination? The answer lies in pull-factors created by the British government’s breakwater construction project at Braye Bay, work on which continued from 1847-64. This ultimately unsuccessful boondoggle exceeded the capacity of Alderney’s native labour pool, drawing in workers through the maritime connections with south-western England. As a result, the island experienced a demographic explosion; the population more than quadrupled from 1,083 in 1841 to 4,932 in 1861. The Irish who travelled to Alderney were of this milieu; in 1851, 68% were male and low-skilled, including a pre-existing community of railway navvies who had migrated to the island to construct the Alderney Railway in the 1840s.

Alderney’s Irish therefore embodied many of the stereotypical labels; poor, young, male, employed in physical labour, and from the rural west or south-west of Ireland (over ½ were from Kerry). Unsurprisingly the contemporary press highlighted the tensions resulting from Irish residence in this hothouse environment. In March 1851, the Southampton Herald claimed the island suffered ‘An Irish row’ during which ‘a man named Henley drew his knife and stabbed another make named Gavan’. Common tropes occur in the Leeds Times report of November 1856 describing ‘barbarous murders’ committed by ‘Timothy Kelly and Nugent Loughlan … Irish labourers’ which had been precipitated by ill-feeling between locals and Irishmen. Alderney demonstrates that the socio-economic conditions on each island were key determinants in how peaceable the Irish experience was.

Guernsey, the second-largest Channel Island, saw an Irish population peak at 3.6% in 1851. Irish settled mostly in the eastern-most four parishes, including the town of St Peter Port. Less than half the island’s area of this region contained 97.65% of resident Irish in 1851. Evidence of the motivations of individuals can be found in the voluminous Register of Persons sent out of the Island, which highlights the vituperative zeal of island officials in deporting non-natives who threatened to require poor relief. Irish, predictably, were disproportionately likely to be deported. Between September 1842 and February 1851, a period including much of the timescale of the Great Famine, 430 Irish were expelled from St Peter Port alone. Recorded birthplaces of these unfortunates largely confirms the census pattern – the five most frequently listed counties were all in Munster. Expulsions formed an important part of the extraordinary mobility of Irish during the nineteenth century. Individuals passed through maritime networks in a process of step-wise migration, often staying in a location for only a brief period of time. Two-thirds of migrants to Guernsey from 1841-1901 only appear in a single census.

Jersey’s Irish came from a much broader geographical background than the other Channel Islands – only Louth is unrepresented amongst recorded birthplaces in the 1851 census. Jersey’s population had increased by 150% from 1806-1851 with the Irish comprising an important component. Pull-factors motivating migration to the island included construction and domestic service. In 1851 Irish women comprised over 15% of domestic servants across the Island – a significant over-representation. This reflects the fact that unlike Alderney more than half the Irish who travelled to Jersey were women seeking opportunities in the explosive urban growth of St Helier. By 1851 the town came to contain 82.7% of all the Irish living in Jersey.

The idiosyncratic and kaleidoscopic nature of the Irish experience in the Channel Islands, with each flow unique in motivation and composition, demonstrates the limitations of generalisations regarding historical travel patterns. Island attitudes and anxieties about the influx of Irish during the Great Famine pose pertinent questions about how small communities cope with socio-economic pressures driven by migration. Irish travelling to and through the Channel Islands represented nineteenth-century liquid modernity – a relationship limned by the dialectical relationship between parishes with high Irish settlement and parishes where Guernésiais and Jèrriais remained the primary language longest.

Comparing the Irish experience in these island petri-dishes, the Great Famine looms large – across the Channel Islands (and indeed the Isle of Man) the peak of Irish population was in 1851, and the rate of influx most acute during the decade of 1841-51. Further study is needed to integrate this story into the broader narrative, as time spent on these islands often preceded or followed residence in more conventional (and better studied) areas of Irish settlement. Insular life, and the marks it created, were a much more significant component of the nineteenth-century Irish migration experience than either their geographical size or census enumerations might suggest. The Channel Islands must be integrated into our understandings of historical Irish travel.


Further Reading:

  • Akenson. Donald. Harman., The Irish Diaspora: A Primer (Belfast, The Institute of Irish Studies, 1993)

  • Boleat, Mark., Jersey’s Population – A History (St Helier, Société Jersiaise, 2015)

  • Crossan, Rose-Marie., Guernsey, 1814-1914: Migration and Modernisation (Martlesham, Boydell & Brewer, 2008)

  • MacRaild, Donald, M., Culture, Conflict and Migration: The Irish in Victorian Cumbria (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1998)

Dabeoc Stanley is a current History PhD student at Lancaster University. His research is on the eighteenth-century illicit economy, smuggling networks of the Channel Islands and Isle of Man, and the application of GIS in maritime history.


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