Sometime in 1821 a young family arrived in the port of Halifax , Nova Scotia, after a long and arduous passage across the Atlantic. James McDermott and his wife Ann, together with their three young children, all under four years of age, had come seeking a new life and better prospects in a land far to the west of their home in Longford County, Ireland. James was 29 years old, his wife around 23. Their oldest child Thomas was about four, Mary, a year younger, and Patrick, just a toddler. And Ann was already pregnant with their fourth. Her namesake, Ann, would be born that August in Halifax.
Halifax had long been a destination for Irish immigrants. The first wave of Irish arrived in the late 1750s, a time when Ireland was largely a country of tenant farmers and laborers, with an economy dependent on Great Britain and its protective tariffs. These economic barriers, plus the prospect of land ownership in North America, led many to emigrate, particularly from the “Scots-Irish” northern counties of Londonderry, Donegal, Tyrone and Antrim.
A second wave of Irish occurred between 1815 and 1845. The overwhelming majority of those fleeing the country at that time, like James McDermott, were unskilled, Catholic peasant laborers. Ireland was becoming Europe’s most densely inhabited country, its population having more than doubled in the fifty years before 1815. The land could just not support such increased numbers. One of the main problems was the absence of the practice of primogeniture among the Irish. Family farms or plots were divided again and again until individual allotments were often so small— perhaps only one or two acres in size—that they were of little use in supporting a family. Conditions worsened when after the Napoleonic Wars an agricultural depression set in and many of the Irish were evicted from the plots that they had leased as tenants because landlords were converting their holdings to grazing land. The concurrent great rise in population left thousands of discontented, landless Irish eager to seek new horizons. Religious animosity, civil disorder during the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798, and an unpopular forced union with Great Britain in 1801 combined with the opportunities offered in America to make the idea of emigration attractive.
Because the passage from Britain to the Canadian Maritimes was substantially cheaper than to the United States, many Irish immigrants went first to Canada, landing at Quebec, Montreal, or Halifax, and subsequently sailed down to the United States. This, indeed, was to be the case with our forbearers, the McDermotts, when after a year in Halifax they decided to book passage to Boston, Massachusetts.