‘What makes an emigrant? What are the pressures which drive a young man or woman from the townland of his birth and his family, pathetically equipped mentally, to try and make a living in an alien milieu... Every man has his own story; every girl her own reason.’
John Healy, No One Shouted Stop!
The story of the Addergoole Fourteen is a captivating one with so many angles. There’s the story of the successful Catherine McGowan returning home, a living embodiment of the American Dream, and her apparent efforts to convince neighbours and friends to join her on the journey back to the USA.
There’s the three Bourkes, uprooting completely from their home in Carrowskeheen in search of a new life and then there’s the young brigade - eight of the fourteen were under 30 - who were going on what must have felt like a daunting yet thrilling adventure to a land far, far away.
But what caused so many to go at once? The parish in North Mayo had a population in 1911 of circa 2,450 and the fourteen locals who travelled on the Titanic are believed to represent the largest proportion of people from any area who were aboard RMS Titanic.
There were certain factors which may explain why so many went on the one ship - Catherine McGowan’s influence is discussed on Page 2 - while for the greener members of the fourteen, there was a certain strength in numbers.
Still, though, it’s a big hit in terms of emigration - not to mind the subsequent loss of life - for one area to take. And then there’s the quirky stat that eleven of the fourteen were women - which was at odds with general emigration ratios at the time.
All of that compelled Lahardane student Dylan Nolan - son of Addergoole Titanic Society Chairman Dr Paul Nolan - to make it the subject of his history thesis at NUI Maynooth. His work - ‘A Comparative Case Study of The Fourteen Emigrants of the Parish of Addergoole, County Mayo, who boarded the RMS Titanic: Migration, Memory and Reflection’ is a striking piece of work.
It was fateful rather than any significant pattern that saw Addergoole parish have fourteen of the fifteen Mayo people on the Titanic. What wasn’t fateful though was the overall emigration trend for Mayo at the time.
Research Nolan has encountered shows that while emigration from Ireland as a whole declined by 15 per cent from 1881-1910, it increased by a huge 53 per cent in Connacht.
“It was a fair decision on them to go, they would have had a pitiful holding and had to go. Mayo had the highest numbers of emigrants per capita at the time in Ireland,” said Dr Paul Nolan.
“The preliminary report from the Census last year shows a population for the Addergoole parish of 680. In 1911 it was 2,450. Pre-Famine it was 6,800 and post-Famine it was 5,300. It was only after 1900 that emigration really became pronounced.”
The factors were social, political and economic, with economic the most pronounced on the west coast. Small farm holdings made it very hard for families in rural west of Ireland to sustain all their offspring. The Land League had been fought and won but successive land acts in London didn’t change a whole lot for small farmers in Mayo.
Unless a son was set to take over the farm or a daughter could find a husband, there was little to keep them in Ireland. Even gaining such security didn’t stop people looking to the west with ambition.
As Dylan Nolan states ‘they believed there were no viable alternatives; their future was in the United States’.
It was easy for them to see what the US offered too. Letters home from family members would tell them of life in the US and the experience of three women among the Addergoole Fourteen would further convince them.
Local historian, the late Tony Donohue believed Catherine McGowan was ‘the prime mover of the group’.
“She (McGowan) was a very good example of the benefits of immigrating to the United States. Catherine McGowan, Mary Mangan and Catherine Bourke were three examples of returned emigrants who had done well for themselves. The influence of three non-dependent women who had left Ireland with little money and their parents blessing on a community that lacked self-confidence and material wealth is significant,” notes Dylan Nolan.
“For those living in impoverished conditions and perpetual servitude to a stagnant sterile society, emigration offered an escape. For people who had no economic ties, emigration was an opportunity to rid themselves from the slavery of social constraints that remained in rural Ireland. To males and females in rural Ireland with no hope of inheriting land or marrying, emigration was the logical alternative to a life of poverty and loneliness,” continues Nolan.
And then there’s the fact that eleven of the Addergoole Fourteen were women. It was not out of sync with the patterns of the time.
“In Ireland at the time the percentages for emigration were 55 per cent female and 45 per cent male but in Mayo the ratio was much higher. In Mayo at the time there were three women going to the States to every man,” Dr Paul Nolan told The Mayo News. “Women were great at going there. It puts in perspective the power of the Mayo female. The women of the era were very go-ahead and not daunted by the trip at all,” concludes Dr Nolan.
His son, Dylan, comes to a simple but depressing conclusion in his thesis. The Fourteen left like so many others due to the ‘economic sterility of rural Ireland’. Sound familiar?