Saturday, March 13, 2010


Press Release by
Seven thousand historic letters published online for the first time
  • Records describe the death and despair of millions
  • More than 4.4 million Canadians with Irish ancestry may find clues about lives of their ancestors
  • Records are free to access
March 10, 2010 (Toronto, ON), Canada’s largest family history website[i], will offer free access to records that outline in vivid and gruesome fashion the devastating effects of the Great Potato Famine of Ireland, which began in 1845.
Published online for the first time, the collection, Ireland, Famine Relief Commission Papers, 1845-1847, is made up of almost 60,000 images of original documents collected by the Famine Relief Commission and features letters, studies and details of environmental conditions that led to and resulted from the great famine.
This collection will be of great interest to the 4.4 million Canadians who claim some form of Irish ancestry and who may be able to find important pieces of social history in the collection, providing an unparalleled account of the lives of their ancestors.
The Great Famine of Ireland was a period of starvation, disease, death and mass emigration in the mid-19th century, caused by a disease that ravaged the potato crops across Europe, a staple food of Ireland’s poorest citizens.
In response to the failure of the potato crop, the Famine Relief Commission was established in November 1845, collecting letters from all local official sources covering the advance of the potato disease and the condition of the general public. Reports were received from lieutenants of counties, resident magistrates, poor law guardians, the constabulary, the coast guard the clergy and from concerned citizens.
Some of the records are particularly graphic in their content. A Reverend Thomas Wilson, chairman of the relief committee in Clonuskert, Roscommon, wrote of six deaths per day in the parish from hunger and disease.
Another report, by H McDermot, commanding officer of constabulary Fairhill, gives details of the deaths of Martin and Michael Joyce, a father and son, from starvation. It states that they went to bed together and were found dead in the same bed.
Patrick Browne, a poor law guardian in Aughrim parish, sent a letter to Col. Duncan McGregor, inspector general of constabulary, noting 16 deaths in the parish from hunger in the previous weeks and the difficulties faced in affording proper burial for these people, with a request for funds to purchase coffins for the destitute who were on their way to death.
Karen Peterson, marketing director for, comments: “The famine was a major turning point in Irish history, and while St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of all things Irish, it is also an appropriate time for us to remember the millions of Irish lives lost during this tragic period.
“These events have special significance for hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrants that fled to Canada during the famine, many of whom can now find out more about the plight of their ancestors during the 19th century.”
These records are especially valuable to people with Irish ancestry as almost all the 19th century Ireland censuses were destroyed during the Irish Civil War, meaning often obscure records are used to piece together key information about Irish heritage.
Other resources for discovering Irish heritage at include:
The Canadian Passenger Lists, 1865-1935, which feature the records of more than 230,000 Irish who arrived on Canadian shores, mostly during the years of the Great Famine.
Many Irish also came to Canada by way of New York and other US ports and their records can be found in a range of US immigration collections, including the Irish Immigrants: New York Port Arrivals, 1846-1851, and the Irish Canadian Emigration Records, 1823-1849, which includes letters and documents with information such as details on orphan children, including adoptive parents, date of arrival, name of the ship on which they travelled and even their state of health upon arrival.
The Historical Canadian Censuses, 1851-1916 often times include information on the country of birth of an individual’s parents. This can sometimes lead to discoveries of previously unknown Irish roots.
The Famine Relief Commission Papers, 1845-1847 have been digitized in partnership with the National Archives of Ireland (NAI) and Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and are available free at Additional Irish content can be found at

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