'When they persecute you in one state, flee ye to another'
Petition to Pope Pius the Ninth
by potential Irish emigrants to Brazil

Introduced and edited by Oliver Marshall

A topic that has somehow been largely neglected by historians of the Irish Diaspora is that of onward, or third country, migration (Marshall 2005: 270, n. 7; 274, n. 8; 276, n. 50). During most of the nineteenth century North America was the main destination for Irish migrants with, of course, many of those heading across the Atlantic travelling via Liverpool. But with employment opportunities available closer to home, it is hardly surprising that many Irish migrants avoided the greater expense, time and hardship of an Atlantic crossing and instead sought work in the towns and cities of industrial England. But what remains entirely unknown is how many of these migrants hoped or expected that their stay in England would only be as long as needed to raise enough money for an onward passage to the United States or elsewhere nor what proportion were successful in re-migrating to third countries.

Blast Furnaces at Cradley, in the British Midlands Black Country
(Revolutionary Players)

Conditions for Irish immigrants in nineteenth-century England were generally grim, with some of the worst experienced by the community in Wednesbury, in the industrial Midlands. With a population in 1861 of 22,000, Wednesbury was one of a string of 'horrid manufacturing towns' (RMR, Vol. 1, No. 5, 28 September 1867) linked together by chains of metal works and furnaces merging into virtually a single conurbation to form the iron and coal producing district known as the 'Black Country'. The area - described by the American consul in Birmingham as 'black by day and red by night' (Burritt 1868: 3) - both impressed observers for the vast concentration of its heavy industries within a relatively small area, and also shocked for the environmental brutality that had been committed. 'The landscape, if landscape it can be called,' wrote an anonymous visitor in the 1860s, 'bristles with stunted towers capped with flame, and with tall chimneys vomiting forth clouds of black smoke, which literally roofs the whole region' (SPCK 1864: 12). The soil too was contaminated, long having been turned 'ink-black' by slurry and other waste, while the air was 'hot and stifling and poisoned with mephitic odours' (SPCK 1864: 12). Industrial noise was constant, often deafening, with an incessant bang and clang and roar and boom of ponderous hammers thundering without the pause of a single moment.

It was to this environment that Father George Montgomery entered in 1850 when he was sent to Wednesbury to establish a Roman Catholic mission. Born in Dublin in 1818, the son of a former Lord Mayor of Dublin, Montgomery grew up in wealthy, staunchly Protestant, family, an unlikely background for one who would spend much of his life serving a Catholic community in one of the harshest corners of industrial England. After taking Holy Orders in the Church of Ireland and then a period caring for parishes in Sligo and Dublin, Montgomery was one of many Anglican priests to convert to Roman Catholicism during the 1840s and 1850s. Admitted to Oscott College, a Catholic seminary in Birmingham, Montgomery was ordained as a priest in 1849. After a period of study in Rome, Montgomery returned to England, lecturing to Catholics in Bilston, a south Staffordshire coal mining community, from where he was sent to neighbouring Wednesbury (Marshall 2005: 46).

During the 1840s, Wednesbury's approximately 3,000 Catholic (overwhelmingly Irish) residents had been left virtually ignored by church authorities. Due to the flood of immigrants to England fleeing the famine in Ireland, combined with an increase in self-confidence amongst English Catholics, the Roman Catholic Church was stretched beyond its capacity to meet the spiritual needs of a rapidly growing population. On arrival in Wednesbury, Montgomery immediately set about raising money for building work, with St. Mary's Church, positioned astride a hill-top overlooking the town, opening in 1852. Eager to win local trust, Montgomery saw himself as both the spiritual and moral protector of the town's Catholic - and specifically Irish Catholic - community. Shocked by what he considered to be the miserable and amoral state to which his parishioners had descended in England, Montgomery felt obliged, as a missionary priest, to play a central role in the community to which he had been sent to serve. One of his first campaigns was to bring a halt to the 'deadly melees' that were a regular feature of Wednesbury Irish life, the police having dismissed the community as too 'depraved' to make intervention worthwhile. Montgomery soon won considerable respect and affection from his parishioners and, financially forever in debt and surviving on the barest of necessities, he was admired, both locally and further a field, for living extremely modestly (WWBA, 18 March 1871; WRCS, 19 March 1871).

As the Wednesbury mission became secure, Montgomery concentrated his attention on education and emigration, expounding his views of these subjects in The Rev. G. Montgomery's Register. [1] Published on an occasional basis from August 1867 and circulated both within the parish and to friends beyond, the four-page newssheet featured a mix of local church news, passionate declarations concerning the position in England of poor Catholics and extracts from letters that he had received from former parishioners emigrants living in the United States. Montgomery was convinced that the British state was utterly untrustworthy and was possessed with an irreconcilable hatred of the Catholic religion. Certain that the state's recent interest in subsidising Catholic schools was to exert control through financial means, Montgomery called for self-reliance, urging priests and laity to establish and maintain schools on a strictly independent basis, setting an example with the Wednesbury mission school. But while education remained a major concern, it was to emigration that Montgomery dedicated much of his energy.

Soon after taking up his position in Wednesbury, Montgomery began receiving letters from Irish former residents of the town who had emigrated to the United States, hundreds of whom had settled in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These letters frequently contained paid passages for emigrants' friends and relations who had been left behind in Wednesbury, a fact that caused Montgomery to observe that his mission was in effect serving as a depot for United States-bound emigrants. Recognizing this reality, Montgomery felt justified in directly intervening in the migration process, taking it upon himself to investigate possible new destinations and to enter into negotiations with their agents. Indeed, given the conditions that prevailed in Wednesbury, not only did he feel that it was appropriate to assist his parishioners to emigrate, he felt that it was his duty to do so, declaring: 'We hear our divine Saviour saying, ‘When they persecute you in one state, flee ye to another,' and we look whither we may flee to obey this precept' (RMR, Vol. 1, No. 6, 19 October 1867).

Montgomery argued that if the Irish were to remain in England, it was vital that they improve their position economically as 'without temporal prosperity - speaking of the run of mankind, and taking people in masses - there can be no spiritual prosperity' (RMR, Vol. 1, No. 5, 28 September 1867). He felt, however, even a modest standard of living in England was an unrealistic goal, with the best that he might achieve would be 'to dress the wounds of the perishing wayfarer' (RMR, Vol. 1, No. 5, 28 September 1867). For there to be a hope of eternal salvation, Montgomery concluded that the Irish must escape England, to be 'conveyed to a place where [they] may be thoroughly taken care of' (RMR, Vol. 1, No. 5, 28 September 1867). Acknowledging, however, the Church's ambivalent attitude with regard to emigration from Ireland itself, Montgomery was at pains to point out that the situation of the Irish in England was entirely different:

I am not disturbing a people who are at home contented and settled, but I am trying to direct their migrations people who are on the move in search of a home. To my view the Irish in England, considered as a body, are like the traveller in the Gospel, who lay in the way ‘stripped and wounded and half dead'. The poor people are wounded with five grievous wounds. They are suffering compulsory and extreme poverty; they are strangers in the land; they are expatriated strangers, who have neither country nor home; their progeny is becoming extinct in the cities and great towns of England; and their children are apostatising from the Catholic faith (RMR, Vol. 1, No. 5, 28 September 1867).


Montgomery first considered an Oregon settlement scheme, and in 1853 he unsuccessfully sought funds to visit the United States where he hoped to find wealthy Irish-American patrons willing to finance agricultural settlements in the western territory. Of his motives behind this plan, Montgomery later recalled, 'it seemed to me a pity that the expatriated Catholic peasants of Ireland should die out in the English towns - a miserable proletarian population without religion or patriotism.' (RMR, Vol. 1, No. 1, 31 August 1867). Although he believed that the spiritual condition of Catholics in the United States was slightly better than was the case of those in England, he lamented the danger to faith and morals that Catholics continuously faced in both of these Protestant-dominated countries. Considering the negative influences in both England and the United States, Montgomery was keen to encourage migration to a Catholic country, one where the Irish would enjoy protection, security of faith and morals, impossible, agreed Henry Formby, a fellow Catholic priest and admirer of Montgomery, either in England or in 'the mixed and often godless society of the United States' (Formby 1871: 10-11).

Rejecting the United States, Montgomery instead looked towards South America as a possible destination for the Irish poor in England. How exactly he became such a fervent proponent of Brazil is not entirely clear but he was clearly attracted by the Brazilian government's land colonisation programmes that sought to encourage independent family farms. Montgomery maintained that agriculture, rather than manufacturing or industry, was the more 'eligible' way of life, and was convinced that 'as God had given the earth to the children of men', it was the necessary work of both 'enlightened statesmanship' and 'Christian Charity' to assist families of destitute workers to migrate overseas where they could take possession of uninhabited fertile lands that were awaiting exploitation (Formby 1871: 11-14). Montgomery himself recorded that he began to seriously consider the practical possibility of Brazil as a destination for emigrants from the British Isles in 1866 after reading an article in the Standard (6 April 1866), a London newspaper. 'In no latitude,' the article extolled, 'can there be discovered greater national wealth. The surface is enormous, the soil exuberant, the seaports are magnificent, the navigable rivers unparalleled, the mines inexhaustible; and yet Brazil pines for people.' With such a country apparently yearning for immigrants, Montgomery entered into correspondence with the article's author, said to be an Englishman who had lived in Brazil for fifteen years. Encouraged by all that he heard, Montgomery went on to canvass the opinions of others who had first-hand experience of the country. Amongst these was Joseph Lazenby, an Irish Jesuit at the Colégio do Santissimo Salvador in Desterro, the capital of Santa Catarina, who told him of an apparently successful agricultural colony in the southern province largely inhabited by Irish men and families from New York. Having satisfied himself that Brazil (and in particular Santa Catarina) was 'a fit place for the settlement of poor Catholics astray in England' (RMR, Vol. 1, No. 2, 28 September 1867), with support growing for the emigration scheme - with some going so far as to believe that Brazil offered the best hope of an Irish cultural renaissance, with the Irish language being the future language of the settlement (UN, 15 February 1868) - Montgomery began to take practical measures to assist his parishioners to emigrate.


Oliver Marshall


[1] The first issue (Vol. 1, No. 1) of The Rev. G. Montgomery's Register is dated 31 August 1867. The only known surviving copies of the newssheet are held by the Birmingham Archdiocesan Archives, St. Chad's Cathedral (ref. P303/6/2). The last issue in the collection is Vol. 1, No. 13, dated 4 July 1868; issue No. 7 is missing.



- Burritt, Elihu, Walks in the Black Country and its Green Border-land (London: Sampson, Low, Son, and Marston, 1868).

- Formby, Henry, A Voice from the Grave: Being the Funeral Discourse of the Rev. George Montgomery (London: Burns, Oates, and Company, 1871).

- Marshall, Oliver, English, Irish and Irish-American Pioneer Settlers in Nineteenth-Century Brazil (Centre for Brazilian Studies, University of Oxford, 2005).

- RMR - The Rev. Montgomery's Register (Wednesbury).

- SPCK - Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Birmingham and the Black Country (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1864).

- The Standard (London).

- WRCS - The Weekly Register & Catholic Standard (London).

- WWBA - The Wednesbury and West Country Advertiser (Wednesbury).

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 July 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Marshall, Oliver (ed.),
Petition to Pope Pius the Ninth' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 4:3 (July 2006). Available online (, accessed .


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