The Irish Road to South America
Travel Patterns from Ireland to the River Plate
living quarters were dark, cramped and dirty. They were never or
very rarely cleaned. The fact that passengers had no means of changing
their clothes or bedding, provided ideal condition for the spread
of body lice and the typhus fever they carried. Typhus was the most
deadly disease, and it was called ship fever. Most passengers tried
to remain on the deck as much as possible to escape the lice and
odours below but when there was a storm, they were forced back in
steerage without fresh air as there was no ventilation. As doctors
were seldom present on board, emigrants often had to doctor themselves
and took their medicines, such as Holloway’s pills –
which were widely advertised at the ports.
of the Irish emigrants to Argentina experienced fatal consequences
from these conditions. In 1849, Edward Robbins (1802-1866) from
Clara, Co. Offaly, and his family emigrated to Argentina via
in the month of March, I left for Liverpool and I arranged
for a passage to Buenos Aires for myself and family with Michael
McDonnald. On the 4th of April, all my family arrived at Liverpool
and were kept there until the 8th of May, on which they sailed.
There was much sickness on board from the neglect of the Government
Inspectors at Liverpool: one man and a child died at sea.
My family and myself suffered very much, [but] had a good
passage and arrived at Buenos Aires on the 13th of July. [We
were] in quarantine until the 22nd on which day we landed.
It was a Sunday. My family and myself counted 13, of which
10 had to go to the Irish Hospital [Robbins 1860: 11]. 
August 1849 the Robbins left the Buenos Aires Irish Hospital,
but the outcome of the trip was appalling for the family:
Edward's wife Ann Ryan died on 21 August, their son Bernard
died on 29 August, and Ann Ryan's daughter Mary Ann Coffy
died on 4 September.
effects of the voyage in the passengers' health were still alarming
by the end of the century. Thomas Murray, who emigrated in 1892,
complained 'of the dreadful conditions experienced in the quarantine
station. "The treatment given to people is an outrage to humanity".
The third class passengers in particular appear to have been deplorably
treated. The food was "the dirtiest slop ever offered to a
human being"' [McKenna 1994: 150].
Every sailing vessel ‘was compelled to carry livestock. Cows
and calves, sheep, goats, pigs and hens were carried in the larger
vessels and the noises they made and the smells from their quarter
did nothing to improve the conditions [Greenhill & Giffard 1974:
14]. Even the smallest vessels carried a few animals on voyages
likely to be of any duration. In the tropics, ‘this heat,
added to the closeness, made our cabins very oppressive; the foul
air came up the hatchway in the form of smoke, and the captain even
sent some one down to see whether the ship was not on fire’
[Greenhill & Giffard 1974: 14].
On these long voyages to South America, averaging from four to six
weeks, the modern passenger would be faced with interminable tedium.
For most of the travellers, boredom and monotony were annoying aspects
of the journey. The first Sisters of Mercy in Argentina (who afterwards
would be in charge of the Irish Hospital) had a typical journey
in one of the British Packet (Lamport & Holt) vessels:
did they bear the heat of the torrid zone, the monotonous days,
the trying tediousness of that lengthy voyage. While most of the
passengers, enervated by the fierce tropical sun, lay stretched
out as if dead, they [the Sisters] were up and doing. The cooler
waters of the South Temperate Zone and its beautiful, starry skies
were a relief and a joy to them. After a prosperous but uneventful
voyage, their vessel cast anchor in Rio, where they were detained
a fortnight for the repair of the coasting steamer in which they
were to continue their voyage to La Plata [Murray 1919: 172].
Never Go Back, Kate remembers that in Liverpool they boarded a
steamer. At first she and the other girls 'were very, very sick
[...]. It was a long voyage, and after a fortnight the weather
became very warm. One day was so like another that I began to
wonder whether we were ever to see anything again but green water
swinging up and down, and the sky above, so still.' Promiscuity
on board presented moral dangers to young women. Kate and her
friends sailed 'under the Captain's protection, at least he told
us so [...]. He protected Nancy the whole way out, telling her
not to trust the officers, and putting her on her guard against
some of the gentlemen who were married and who wanted to have
a bit of fun because their wives were not on board' [Nevin 1946:
vessel, especially a square-rigged sailing vessel, ‘of course
took the routes where the winds were most favourable because to
do so was to save time and trouble in the end, even if it mean
going thousands of miles out of the way’ [Greenhill &
Giffard 1974: 20]. In 1834, a vessel of 420 tons, flush-decked
and with three masts would have been mastered by a crew of about
twenty persons: ‘the master, two mates and the steward […],
the carpenter cooper and one apprentice […], the cook, ten
seamen and three apprentices’ [Greenhill & Giffard 1974:
to the River Plate varied with shipping company and accommodation,
and they ‘ranged from £10 to £35’ [Illingworth
2002]. An average price paid by the emigrants can be established
in £16 [McKenna 1992: 71]. Later in the 1880s, an advertisement
placed by The Pacific Steam Navigation Co. (Lamport & Holt),
announced fares of £25 to $30 in first class, and £10
to £15 in third class [Bassett 1885: 104]. On an announcement
in The Standard newspaper of Buenos Aires, 29 June 1873, we
read that the fares from Buenos Aires to Southampton were £35
(first class), £20 (second), and £15 (third) [Howat
If a regular wage for an Irish rural labourer at that time was 7½
shillings a week,he should have been forced to save during about
an year to pay for the passage ticket. This is the reason why McKenna
and other authors argue that emigrants from the Irish Midlands and
Wexford were tenants and farmers with relatively higher income than
the emigrants to North America and other parts of the world, who
were primarily labourers. However, labourers without the funds to
purchase their tickets to South America were financially assisted
from sheep-farmers in Argentina who were looking for skilled shepherds
in Ireland. John James Murphy from Salto, Buenos Aires, addressed
ship captains in 1864: ‘If you choose to bring out to this
country any passengers that my brother (Martin Murphy of Haysland)
arrange for, I shall hold myself accountable for the payment of
same on their arrival out here.’ In an enclosed separate communication
to his brother, Murphy suggested to avoid ‘letting others
to see it [the note]. But this I consider only fit for the ears
of my own friends in Haysland or at least the greater part of it.’
In this way, he did not risk the expensive cost of tickets on unskilled
or unreliable workers [Murphy to Murphy, 25 March 1864].
The second period, 1851-1889, is marked by iron and steel sailing
ships and, in particular, by steam. 'The major effect that steam
power appears to have had was that it reduced the length of the
journey from around three months to about thirty days' (McKenna
1994: 147). The shorter journey was used in private letters as an
argument to convince others to visit Argentina. On 28 August 1863,
Fr. Anthony Fahy, the Chaplain of the Irish in Argentina, wrote
to his superior Fr. Goodman: 'I wish you would think of taking a
trip out here when you are relieved from the cares of office - the
steamers from Liverpool arrive here in twenty six days now! - Seven
thousand miles is great travelling!' [Ussher 1951: 103].
were far superior vessels, to such a degree that the last sailing
ships were built by 1855. Sailing packets carried emigrants to South
America for another twenty years but they steadily lost ground to
steamers. The transition from sail to steam was radical. The introduction
of steam packets ‘on the Brazil and River Plate trade route
in 1851 brought an immediate speeding up of the pace of communications’
[Howat 1984: 147]. For instance, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.’s
Teviot left Southampton on 1 January 1851 and arrived at Buenos
Aires on 18 February of the same year (49 days). Thirteen years
later, a letter from John Murphy was stamped on 27 May 1864 in Buenos
Aires, 4 July in London, and 5 July in Wexford (39 days).
Typical 1870s Lamport & Holt screw steamer to the River
Plate. In 1876, there were departures from Liverpool for Buenos
Ayres on the 3rd, 10th, and 18th day of every month, calling
at Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, and Montevideo. In Liverpool, passengers
boarded at the North side of the Bramley-Moore dock. Some of
the dispatched vessels were Biela, Copernicus,
Galileo (Capt. Eills), Halley, Hevelius,
Hipparcus, Humboldt (Capt. Mitchell), Kepler,
Laplace, Leibnitz, Maskelyne (Capt. Hairby),
and Tycho Brahe (Lamport & Holt brochure, 17 June
1876 - Mary Anglim Collection 2003).
spite of the better speed and efficiency of the steamers, even in
the late 1880s conditions on board for poor emigrants did not improve.
'Many of the emigrant ships had, [Fr. van Tricht, a priest defending
the rights of emigrants] asserted excellent first and second class
accommodation, but no cabins or partitions of any kind for the emigrants.
Between decks a forest of iron poles, on which the hammocks, sometimes
1,000 in number, are slung in three layers, for men, women, and
children together, with no possible privacy of decency, spreading
a moral contagion to which he could only allude before his present
audience, and inducing an atmosphere which baffles description.
Such was often the emigrants' accommodation, in spite of Government
Regulations ordering the separation of the sexes and families. He
attributed the deaths which invariably occur during the passage
out to the over-crowding and utter disregard of all sanitary and
hygienic rules which prevail on board many of the emigrants ships.
[Fr. van Tricht] had been assured by many of his correspondents
that the food, though sufficient in quantity, was execrable in quality,
and often quite uneatable' [Vivian to Salisbury, 20 April 1889].
1851 onward, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. was the major carrier
of cargo and passengers from the British Isles to the River Plate.
The service was inaugurated with the above-mentioned ship Teviot.
‘The gently shelving estuarine shores of the River Plate presented
difficulties in the landing of passengers and goods at Buenos Aires.
Bushell […] reports how the Esk anchored about 12 kilometres
off the city, with the passengers and mails being transferred to
a tiny steamer to steam to within 3 kilometres of the shore. The
next transfer was to an open whaler, which was sailed or rowed to
about 200 yards off the shore. The long-suffering passengers were
then taken by a horse-drawn, large-wheeled cart to a wooden jetty
and, at last, reached terra firma’ [Howat 1984: 111]. Murphy
adds that ‘in those days , sailing vessels anchored
far out in the river; from there they came as far as possible in
rowing boats and then on in carts. When the tide was high, the boats
came in as far as the Merced Church, and were tied up to iron rings
in the wall of the church. For many years after, those rings were
still there’ [Emily Murphy 1909: 1].
On 23 July 1849, the Buenos Aires port authorities registered twelve
members of the Robbins family, who arrived in the Vanguard (Coghlan