The journey to Ellis Island, the New York immigrationreception point from 1892, usually began with receipt of a pre-paid ticket froma family member already settled in America. Those that could afford to buytheir fare themselves were small in number. Steerage fares between 1880 and thestart of World War 1 held fairly steady at £4-£5 which was equal to half theannual income of a labourer.

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Ellis Island - the view from the water
Ellis Island - the view from the water

The problem for many of those who wanted to emigrate wasthat they couldn"t find any regular employment in the first place. Withoutsteady income, saving such a fare could be difficult if not impossible.The pre-paid ticket was, then, an essential feature of the continuing exodusfrom Ireland. Without it, much smaller numbers would have made the journey toEllis Island and America.

There were, however, what we now call "standby" tickets. They were cheaperthan reserved tickets and could be bought by those who were prepared to wait.Such price variations were advertised through newspapers and a dense network ofshipping agencies.

"Through" tickets were also available. For example, the Lanagan family ofAntrim received a pre-paid ticket to Rochester, Pennsylvania, in 1903. Boughtin the USA, it cost a total of $75 10c for Robert, his wife Margaret and theirinfant son.

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The journey to Ellis Island: reaching the port of departure

With the cost of passage secured, the next stage in the journey to EllisIsland was getting to the port of departure. Towards the end of the 19thcentury, some 90% of all Irish emigrants made the sea crossing in iron hulledsteam ships.

These were big, with a capital B, compared with the sailing ships that hadtransported earlier waves of emigrants, and they needed deep water ports, somost of the "trade" in transatlantic crossings departed from Liverpool inEngland and then made stops in Queenstown (Co Cork) or Londonderry.

Ireland"s railways, 1906. Click/tap image for expanded view.

For those with homes in the west/southwest or the north it was convenient tostay at home until the newspapers or the local shipping agent brought news thatthe ship had been cleared for departure in Liverpool. They could then take atrain to Queenstown or Londonderry and save accommodation costs in port.

Liverpool, however, offered passengers the greater choice of crossings andthe lowest fares, and the route from Ireland to England was well-established.

Ireland"s rail network in 1906. Tap image for enlarged view.

For those with homes in the west/southwest or the north it was convenient tostay at home until the newspapers or the local shipping agent brought news thatthe ship had been cleared for departure in Liverpool. They could then take atrain to Queenstown or Londonderry and save accommodation costs in port.

Liverpool, however, offered passengers the greater choice of crossings andthe lowest fares, and the route from Ireland to England was well-established.

Although there were other routes to Liverpool, the majority of emigrantstravelled via Dublin"s Kingstown port (now renamed Dun Laoghaire). This porthad had its own rail line to Dublin since 1834 and had been connected to themain network since 1856. From here, mail, livestock and cargo ships offered deck passage across theIrish Sea, a notoriously fickle stretch of water.

By 1896 the shortest sea crossing, to Holyhead on Anglesey, took under 3hours, while the steamer to Liverpool took four. In foul weather, the journeycould be twice as long.

In 1911, some 80 ships crossed from Kingstown to Britain every week, most ofthem crammed with migrants. Some already had onward tickets; others planned tosave their fare while working in England. No passenger lists were made.

The journey to Ellis Island: via Liverpool

Very few who arrived in Liverpool could go direct to a waiting ship. Theywere usually told to arrive in the city two days before sailing. Typically,they had to find themselves a place to stay, visit the emigration agents orship brokers agency, and make sure all was in order for their departure.

What records survive in Liverpool?

What records survive in Liverpool?

Were your ancestors in Liverpool on a census night? English census returns survive from 1841 and ten-yearly after. They can be searched on a number of websites for a fee, including Ancestry and FindMyPast.

The National Archives in London holds passengers lists for Liverpool and other British ports from 1890 to 1960s (refs BT26, 27 and 32). The outward list BT27 is online at FindMyPast (see link above).

Liverpool"s Maritime Archive & Library holds a collection of emigrant diaries, letters, photographs and passenger tickets, which can be searched in person.

The boarding houses had a reputation for being pretty awful, and the hugebustling city held many dangers for unwitting and unworldly emigrants. Allsorts of scams abounded such as charging exhorbitant fees for storing luggage,or overcharging for accommodation. By the turn of the century, these problems were fewer because the steamshipcompanies started to look after their passengers and limited their exposure tothese potential dangers. They were met on arrival and taken to boarding housesand hostels that were either affiliated or owned by the steamship lines.

Unfortunately there are no records of which properties the shippingcompanies owned, nor are there records of who stayed where (except those whowere in port on census nights, of course.... see link box below). Passports orother state documentation was not required for emigrants from Britain andIreland at this time.

Passengers and their luggage were collected from their accommodation on theday of departure (or the evening before, depending on tides) and taken to thequay where they either boarded their ship or were carried by boat to their shipwaiting in the estuary.

Onboard: the class-conscious journey to Ellis Island

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Written by the creator of Irish Genealogy Toolkit and Irish Genealogy News, "The Family Tree Irish Genealogy Guide" is full of advice, tips and strategies to ease what can be a challenging journey.

Its guidance will be useful to any researcher of Irish heritage, but especially for the target Irish-American researcher who"s struggling to work back to Ireland from their immigrant ancestor.

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ISBN: 9781440348808 / 240 pages. 

By theend of the 19th century, the biggest transatlantic liners made their journey toEllis Island with 1900 people onboard. About 500 would be employees and about1100 would be steerage passengers. The rest were "cabin class" passengers.

Steeragehad historically been a dark, noisy, smelly, stuffy deck of large bunkdormitories. There was little or no privacy, and access to open deck waslimited. From 1895, "closed" berths began to appear in steerage, and offeredsome privacy. By the outbreak of WW1, 30-50% of tickets were for this "NewSteerage" arrangement.

Anotherbig change to standards of passage had been the introduction of 2nd classtickets. Known as 2nd Cabin passengers, immigrants were offered improved food(and four meals a day instead of three as in Steerage), improved ventilationand more space. It was a much better option, and came to be recognised as goodvalue, especially by families and single women.

From 1880to 1897, 2nd class made up just 5% of passengers. From 1898 to 1913 it made up11% of those making the journey to Ellis Island. Fares averaged £8 (against £5for Steerage), and was the preferred choice of many Irish-born Americans whohad made their first crossing in Steerage; having enjoyed some success in theUnited States, they were prepared to pay the extra when returning permanentlyor temporarily to/from Ireland.

For first-class passengers, the journey to EllisIsland was an opulent and luxurious experience. Grand Saloons, flamboyantballrooms and top-quality dining were available to those who could afford the£25 fare. Most of the ship"s 500 staff were assigned to cater to the cares andwhims of this group.

The journey to Ellis Island: arrival in New York

In thesailing ships of the middle 19th century, the crossing to America or Canadatook up to 12 weeks. By the end of the century the journey to Ellis Island wasjust 7 to 10 days. By 1911 the shortest passage, made in summer, was down to 5days; the longest was 9 days. With conditions having improved (although theywere by no means extremely comfortable for those in steerage), thetransatlantic crossing was no longer seen as a one-time ordeal. So as theships entered New York harbour, and the Statue of Liberty came into view,passengers probably felt less trepidation and more simple excitement. Thejourney to Ellis Island still had a few hours to run for most, however.

Thesteamship would dock at either the Hudson or East River piers to disembark itsfirst and second class passengers.

Thebetter-off simply passed through Customs at the pier and were free to go.

The Great Hall of Ellis Island, where immigrants were registered and examined.
Ellis Island"s Great Hall, where immigrants were registered/examined.

ForThird-class or Steerage passengers, the final part of their passage was made byferry or barge to Ellis Island where, in the Great Hall, they hadto undergo three to five hours of medical and legal inspections. (Since bothinspections were fairly cursory, this period was largely spent waiting to becalled forward.) The legalinspection involved checking the immigrant"s identity against the ship"smanifest which had been prepared by the shipping company before departure inIreland/England.

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They were then free to enter the United States and to begintheir new life.

Therecords of the 51million people who made the journey to Ellis Island from 1892to 1957 have survived and are available online and free at

Mary"s journey

Mygrandfather"s eldest sister, Mary, who made the journey to Ellis Island inOctober 1901, was one of thousands who received a pre-paid ticket. Agedseventeen, she appeared in the 1901 Irish census a few months earlier with noform of occupation, despite her formal education having ended two yearspreviously.

She wasprobably more than aware that her chance of finding work was limited if sheremained at home. My family lived in the southwest of Cork and subsisted on asmall patch of garden. On the 1901 and 1911 censuses her father describedhimself as an egg dealer which sounds a lot grander than the reality. They hada few chickens and sold eggs from a cart at Rosscarberry market. He gotlabouring jobs as and when he could.

Mary wasone of five children still living at home, my grandfather and his brotherhaving secured junior but welcome employment with the Post Office in London.Her big brothers sent money home but they were still little more than kidsthemselves and their pay would have not stretched to much. Mary"s prospectswere bleak, and there would certainly not have been any spare cash for buying atransatlantic fare.

When herfather"s sister Bridget Cotter sent notice of a pre-paid passage, Mary musthave experienced mixed feelings. Here was her chance for adventure andopportunity. The price, for her, was leaving behind her family and all that wasfamiliar.

Shedidn"t know it when she said goodbye to her family at Clonakilty rail stationin October 1901, but she would never again see her parents, her little sistersor her homeland. She died in her 60s.