Irish-American Walsh Families

People who came from Ireland to live in America are called "Irish-Americans" in this document. America attracted immigrants from Ireland almost from the beginning of its settlement, but most Irish-Americans originated in the Great Famine in Ireland in the mid-19th century. Families with the surname Walsh came to America during colonial times, but the vast majority of these families came during the Great Famine. This website focuses on the Walsh families who lived in county Mayo, Ireland, for the three decades before and during the Famine, many of whom came to the United States. A destination that accumulated a disproportionate concentration of Irish and Walsh families was along the route of the Erie Canal in New York, where the railroad tracks also ran. One of the counties on this route was Ontario county, New York, which is the other focus of this site.

The Walsh Name and Origin

The Walsh name derives from a geographical origin. During the Norman invasions of Ireland, many of the Normans launched their campaigns from Wales. The Irish name for this origin is Breatnach or Breathnach, which means Welsh (from Wales), or more generally, "from Britain." The back-translation of Breatnach became "Walsh" though it is spelled rarely in Ireland "Welch," "Welsh," or "Walshe." In the United States, because of differences in pronounciation, the spelling of the name was often changed from "Walsh" to "Welch" so the Irish-Americans could hear their name pronounced by Americans in the familiar way. Other anglicizations of "Breatnach" include "Brannagh" and "Brannan."

The name Walsh is the fourth most frequent name in Ireland, but it is the most frequent name in county Mayo. There are a lot of Walshs because there were a lot of invaders, settlers, and colonists who were eligible for the name. Because many Walsh families sprang up independently all over Ireland, the unrelated families never formed a "sept" similar to those of other Old English families, such as Roche, Fitzgerald and Burke, who trace their ancestry to a small cohort of founders.

In county Mayo, according to John Grenham (author of Surname History), the  founder of a large Walsh family was " 'Walynus', who arrived in 1169, is said to have been the progenitor of the Walshes of Tirawley in Co. Mayo, and the brother of Barrett, the ancestor of the Barretts of the same county." It is possible that many or most of the Walshs and Barretts living in Mayo then and now are cousins, however distant.

The origins of the Walsh families in Ireland raises the question of how their eventual dispersion in America proceeded. Did Walsh families who were related or neighbors in Ireland tend to settle in proximity after their migration? The tentative general answer is "Yes" with many exceptions. The specific question this site examines (without a conclusion as yet) is how many of the Walsh families of Ontario county, New York, came from Mayo, or were related, and to what degree.

Their Voyage and Destination

Until the later part of the 1800s, the Irish came to America on sailing ships. Many excellent books are available that describe these voyages, their disgraceful and too often deadly conditions, and the reforms to remedy the plight of the migrants. Most of the Irish disembarked in New York City, a few in other American ports, and some in Canada. The cost of passage to Canada was generally less than to ports of the United States, and after arrival, the trek across the border was relatively short.

The main point of discussing their route is that it brought most of the arriving Irish into contact with the Yankees, an unlikely cultural clash that despite its difficulties, would produce a renewed and complex society. The Yankees were descendants of the earliest colonial settlers of New England, whose determination had overcome the hardships of pioneering a wild land, and whose stubborn independence then overthrew their British colonial rulers. In the 19th century, the Yankees were pushing west, relentlessly taming the frontier and building settlements and cities. They swept through northern New York and mixed with migrants from New York and neighboring states in its western aspects. Yankees created many of the opportunities for the Irish to find their place in a new American society. They needed hard workers who could provide the labor to complete their ambitious plans for an endless series of hugh engineering projects that would create an incomparable industrial and commercial infrastructure. Yankees differed from the newly arriving Irish in many ways, but they shared a dislike of the British and a distaste for bondage. The war between the states would help to unite these people and the industrial complex they built would help them win it.

Their Labors

Almost all of the Irish-Americans were destitute, having spent their last savings on passage. Fortunately, jobs were readily available in the expanding American territory, and these jobs drew the Irish immigrants into the heartland and frontier. Most of the immigrants were unsklled, and most of the jobs involved manual labor. The Irish helped to dig the Erie Canal and move the boats over it. They laid the railroad track, maintained the trains, and worked to keep them running. They found jobs in mining, building, and agricultural trades. These jobs were one of the first steps for the Irish to integration into American society. When they had saved enough, most were able to acquire some land of their own, a precious achievement that would have been impossible in their colonized homeland.

The Irish in Ontario County, New York

Thus it was that the Irish came to Ontario county, New York. Ontario lies in western New York state, in the Finger Lakes area, south of Rochester. From New York City, the immigrants would likely travel up the Hudson River, then westward across the state via the Erie Canal or the railroads. There were both lake and land routes from Canada to New York a little north of Ontario county. The principal towns of the county are Canandaigua and Geneva, old Yankee outposts from which further westward expansion was planned and launched. The Erie Canal runs near its northern border and by 1850, railroads connected most of its villages. Here, and at other towns along the railroad lines, many Walsh families made their home. There were other concentrations of Walsh families in neighboring counties where the canals and railroads ran. These communities did exchange individuals, but the extent of blood relationship among the Walsh families in them is unknown. Today, the descendants of these Irish-American Walsh families still live in these counties and nearby locations. Other descendants continued the journey to the west to become the seeds of Walsh families in locales all the way to California and beyond.

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copyright © 2005 by Joseph C. Hager


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