The Irish potato famine of the late 1840s was a human disaster on a massive scale. Some 2 million people either died or emigrated in a three year period. Even greater numbers emigrated during the next decade, the 1850s, mainly to America, Canada and Britain.
Mary Helen Finn's family originated from western Ireland in the mid 1800s. From both anecdotal evidence and recorded information it is most probable that they left Ireland as a direct consequence of the great potato famine which had such catastrophic effects on large areas of Ireland during the late 1840s.
These families were likely to have been amongst the poorest people in Europe during that period, even by the standards of the early Victorian poor of the industrial cities of Britain. They most likely entered Britain's ports as ragged, dispossessed and homeless immigrants fleeing from the consequences of mass starvation and the widespread cholera epidemic, which had killed an estimated 2 million people during a five year period, mainly in the western counties of Mayo, Sligo, Galway, Clare, Roscommon and Tipperary.
It seems most likely that our own families came to England during the 1850s, a period of massive emigration from Ireland. Stories passed down through the family suggest that they came from counties Mayo and Sligo; evidence from census returns indicates that they came from Galway. On this basis we might speculate that they came from an area perhaps on the border of Galway and Mayo, close to the area known as Joyce Country near Lough Mask and the Partry Mountains? But, I stress this is only speculation.
Amongst some of the earliest records I have of the family in Birmingham are entries from the censuses of both 1861 and 1871.
There is an entry for the Flynn family (Mary Helen’s grandmother and her children) living at Northwood Street in the All Saints ward of Birmingham in 1861. Mary Helen’s mother Bridget Flynn is listed as a 15 year old daughter whose trade is an umbrella maker.
The full record includes:
Mary Flynn aged 40, a widow born in Ireland in 1821. The oldest son is Patrick Flynn aged 24, a stamper, born in Ireland in 1837. There is a woman named Mary Rattigan who is the same age as Patrick Flynn and is listed as a daughter. The name of Mary Rattigan occurs in other records and I am convinced she was a married older daughter whose husband has either left her or died, etc. Notably, Mary Rattigan is the same age as Patrick Flynn, so they could have been twins.
Next in line in the Flynn family was David Flynn, aged 20, a shoe maker born in Ireland in 1841. Then comes Michael Flynn, aged 18, a stamper, born in Ireland in 1843.
After Michael came my great great grandmother, Bridget, the 15 year old umbrella maker, born in Ireland in 1847. Bridget is followed by Daniel who is 10 and is also working as a stamper. Daniel was born in Ireland in 1851. The seventh child listed is Margaret, aged 9, born in Ireland in 1852. Amazingly, this 9 year old is also at work, her trade listed as an umbrella maker like her older sisters. Finally, child number eight is Maria Flynn, aged 6.
There is another census entry for the Flynn family, ten years later in the 1871 census. This time Mary Helen's grandmother is listed as a 50 year old widow named Mary Flynn. Some of the older children have left home by now, leaving 3 teenage children living with their mother at 7 court number 1 Ryder Buildings, Smith Street in Newtown. Mary Flynn was again listed as having been born in Ireland in 1821 and this time she has a trade, working as a housekeeper.
The children recorded in the household were Daniel aged 20, a stamper, Margaret aged 18 and Maria aged 16, both warehouse girls. All of these three children were born in Ireland, which indicates that they came to England after 1855, the year of Maria's birth, but before 1861, the year of the previous census. This narrows their arrival down to a 6 year window.
A map of 19th century Ireland - the main areas affected by the famine and mass migration were on the west coast, especially in the counties of Connacht
Another brother from the Flynn family?
Living a few streets away from the Flynn family in the 1861 census was a 23 year old gun finisher named James Flynn. It is not inconceivable to think that this could have been another member of our Flynn family, possible an older brother, although I must stress that there is not stronger evidence than surname, age and proximity of location.
James Flynn was from Ireland, his wife Catherine was also 23 but from Birmingham. James and Catherine had two sons, James aged 2 and Thomas aged 1, both born in Birmingham. The family lived at 1 House, Rose and Crown Yard, Brearley Street West, which is on the edge of Hockley very close to St Chad’s and to Northwood Street where our Flynns were residing.