Exile or emigrant? Female ex-prisoners who left Ireland 1850-1921

Pauline M. Prior

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the popular mind, the concept of 'emigration' usually refers to people voluntarily leaving one country to go to another in search of a new and better life. It presupposes some degree of choice, although it is accepted that for many emigrants, such as those who left Ireland during the nineteenth century, there were few incentives to stay at home. Current scholarship on voluntary and forced movements of people demonstrates that the distinction between the categories of 'voluntary emigrant' and 'forced exile' is often blurred. Orm Overland's study of refugee communities in the United States highlights the fact that, although the differences between the 'emigrant' and the 'exile' may be clear in extreme cases, this is not always true, as there may be 'pressing political or economic reasons behind a decision to emigrate'. Migration scholars Jan Lucassen and Leo Lucassen also question the adequacy of conceptual models of migration based on what Lindsay Proudfoot and Dianne Hall refer to as the 'straightforward binarism between free and unfree emigration'. The questions raised by these scholars are very relevant to the study of Irish people who left their country during the second half of the nineteenth century immediately after they had been discharged from prison or from Dundrum. Their stories are discussed here against a background of substantial scholarship on emigration from Ireland and on the criminal justice system within Ireland. According to David Fitzpatrick, at least eight million men, women and children emigrated from Ireland between 1801 and 1921. This large-scale movement of people was generally characterised by the voluntary emigration of individuals who funded their own passages. However, it also included schemes of assisted emigration, funded variously by governments, landlords, the poor law authorities, earlier emigrants, and philanthropists. In addition, it included people who were transported from Ireland by means of the criminal justice system a practice that had originated in the seventeenth century. What is less well known is that after the end of transportation from Ireland to eastern Australia in 1853, to Bermuda in 1863 and to Western Australia in 1868, Irish convicts continued to be channelled towards emigration by being offered early release if they agreed to leave Ireland. These people, and especially the women among them, are the subject of this article.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-47
Number of pages18
JournalAustralasian Journal of Irish Studies
Issue numbernull
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2009


  • emigration
  • USA
  • Australia
  • convict, prison
  • infanticide, child killing
  • Ireland, mental health services, history


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