Emigration From Ireland

It is quite difficult to describe emigration from Ireland in a short article but I will give do my best to give a quick overview. People have been emigrating from Ireland (North and South) since the 1700s when Ulster people went to America. There is an excellent record of this at the Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone.

People started to go and live in Australia in the 1820s but because this was so far away these people were either convicts or people with enough money and contacts to make the journey and set themselves up in business when they got there. A few people went to South Africa and South America but this was rare. The Convicts Transportation Scheme was withdrawn in 1840.

The Famine of 1845- 1852 changed everything. People did not emigrate because they wanted to, they did it because they had no option. Potato blight struck and because a third of the population were entirely dependent upon the potato as a source of food they had nothing to eat and so started dying in their droves. It is likely that the blight was inadvertently transported on ships sailing to and from America. The disease also spread throughout most of Europe.

There was a period of mass evictions in 1847 most notably in Counties Clare and Mayo. Far more people emigrated than the West of Ireland than any other area. I remember hearing a story almost 30 years ago when I was at the Gaeltacht in County Donegal. By the side of the road there was a very big rock about 20 foot high. When people were leaving to get the boat to England or America they used to throw a pebble up on top of the rock and if the pebble stayed that meant that they would never return and if it fell back down again that meant that some day they would return to Ireland. Many of them never came back.

Women emigrated nearly as often as men and whilst the men found work in construction, building bridges, canals and railroads the women became housemaids, cooks and looked after children of wealthy US families. Many however died on the journey, the Famine ships were notorious for disease and poor conditions. By 1854 between 1.5 and 2 million Irish had left their native country. They tended to settle in the cities where they landed, eg. Boston, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Baltimore.

The next big wave of emigration from Ireland came in the wake of the Second World War. The American economy was booming in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of the war effort and Ireland’s economy was depressed. Five Hundred Thousand people emigrated between 1945 and 1960 and 3/4 of these went to Britain. One of my own aunts went to England and another went to America. I have only one aunt on my father’s side living in Ireland. People met with discrimination when they went to Britain and many boarding houses put up signs saying “No blacks or Paddies”. Another problem was that many of the Irish employers who had construction businesses also owned public houses and the practice was to insist on paying the workers in the pub on a Friday night which meant that the unscrupulous employer got the workers to hand back a lot of their earnings and a lot of the workers developed a serious drink problem.

There was in place an Assisted Passage Scheme to Australia from 1947 to 1971 where Irish people got assistance with the cost of the fare, hostel accommodation on arrival, access to public housing and voting rights within 6 months of arrival.

The 1980s saw another period of high unemployment with America regaining popularity as a destination. For the first time, graduates were forced to emigrate, particularly engineers, architects, accountancy and business graduates. This was known as the brain drain. In Northern Ireland many people left because of the Troubles and it is a well known fact that a lot of Protestants and some Catholics went to Scottish and English universities never to return.

Now in 2010 Ireland is in recession again. Is this recession worse or better than the 1980s. People say that it is worse now because the option of emigration has been greatly reduced. Nowadays you need a visa to go to the US or Canada or Australia. I believe that certain trades and services like nurses are in demand in Australia. If you decide to go and work in the US illegally you will not be able to get a driver’s licence or a bank account and you will not be able to travel home to Ireland for fear of being deported.

The reality is that emigration is a key feature of Irish life. Every family has brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and now children that have emigrated. John Cunningham from County Fermanagh (my home county) has said that whilst emigration is generally viewed negatively it brought many positive benefits to Ireland. The money that the emigrants sent home boosted the Irish economy and the skills and experience that returning emigrants brought back with them have had a very positive impact on this country.