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  • Writer's pictureBridget Walsh

Researching emigration in my own family.

Updated: Aug 15, 2022

I love this topic; the story of people on the move. Why they move, and do they stay gone? If they come back home, are they happy?

Here's an example from my own family.

My mother, Julia Heffernan, came from a poor fishing family, and grew up in a dilapidated Georgian terraced house in Passage East village, County Waterford. I found her mother's name, also Julia, on the 1911 census. Julia Tuite, aged nineteen was then living in the house with her widowed mother, Catherine Tuite. Three generations already.

When Julia Tuite was a child, she also lived for a time with her grandmother, Catherine Daley, aged eighty. Both she and Julia Tuite appear here on the 1901 census. I don't know the reason for this, or where Julia Tuite's mother was. The matriarch, Catherine Daley, was born in 1821 and would have lived through the Famine years.

My family tree stretches right back to the Famine.

1930s Ireland.

In the 1930s, Julia Heffernan, my mother, was one of the youngest in a family of eight children. Her father was a fisherman. I understand that he liked a drink. Julia was always the child who could pacify him when he got into a rage. I got the impression from my mam, that she came between her mother and father at these times, even from a very young age.

Aged fourteen, she had to leave school to go to work as a house-maid in a local country house. I think she worked there for a few years, and then left to go to England towards the end of WW2.

She was still in her teens when she emigrated to England. I often wonder if she intended to go back or knew then she had to make a life in England.

The ATS in Chester

She had two older sisters who had gone before her, Mary and Katty. They joined the Auxillary Territorial Service (ATS). Julia joined them when she was old enough to enlist. She was earning money and getting a training in being a telephone engineer / telephonist.

I think this picture could have been taken when she was still a teenager, perhaps in the ATS in Chester. It was near enough for her to go to the seaside for a day trip. She had hazel eyes and dark auburn curly hair.

I also have a very faded picture of her as a young woman in Leicester, after the war, standing with other female engineers beside a great old Humber car. Life was good.


Mum met and married my father, a Wicklow man, in 1949, so she was twenty-two. Of course, in those days, as soon as she became pregnant, she had to give up work and set about raising her family of four children in the catholic faith. They were fortunate to be given a council house in Leicester, and she went back to work as soon as the last daughter was born. She worked in factories and at cleaning jobs. I remember she cleaned the local army barracks. She did the early morning shift. Eventually she got re-employed as a GPO telephonist and worked full-time at that job.

Life as an emigrant.

Her story is just one of thousands of young Irish people who left Ireland. I'm writing about the Famine emigration, and my mother emigrated almost one hundred years after the Famine.

It's sad for me to think that there was still not much for many of Ireland's young people for at least the first half of the twentieth century. I plan to write about the fight for independence from Britain in a future novel.

The Famine trilogy.

In my second novel, I explore the life of emigrants and how they coped with cultural changes, and the loneliness of being a stranger in a foreign land.

In the final novel of the trilogy about the Famine, my protagonist returns to Ireland. I want to examine how she set about making a life for herself as a Famine orphan.


Thank you for your visit, while you're here, why not:

1. Read more about these fascinating characters and how I imagined their lives during the Irish Famine. Buy 'Daughters of the Famine Road,' on Amazon.

2. Visit my website: Click on the Contact page, say hello, and I’ll send you a free pdf of the first chapter of my latest novel.

3. Look out for the next novel in the trilogy:'Daughters in Exile' coming soon.

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