One of the most startling statistics about Ireland is that half of all the people born here since 1820 have emigrated. It is estimated that there are more than 70 million people worldwide who are of Irish origin. Indeed there can be very few countries in which the Irish have not settled at some time in the past.

Editor's note: In May 2022 our sister publication, Ireland of the Welcomes, celebrated its 70th anniversary. To mark the occasion, we dipped into our decades of archives and found incredible articles like this and others written by famous Irish figures such as Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, and Paul Henry. This is one of the articles featured.

The classic picture of Irish emigration is of starving peasants fleeing from a country racked by the potato famine in the late 1840s. While this is not a false image - over one million people did leave Ireland during those terrible years - it is merely part of the story. Emigration has been a feature of Irish life since the earliest period of our history. 

Phases of emigration

It was in the 16th century that the pattern of emigration was established in the aftermath of the English conquest under Elizabeth I and the imposition of the Anglican Reformation. There were four separate waves of emigration resulting from war in Ireland during this period. In the 1580s, many Munster chieftains went to Spain and Portugal where they found employment, particularly in the Spanish navy. For those obliged to leave Ireland after the completion of the conquest in 1603, Spain was again the main destination, though some settled in Brittany.

The third phase involved the transportation of whole regiments from Ireland to both France and Spain by Oliver Cromwell in 1652/3. A contemporary chronicler estimates that number at 34,000 men. In addition, indeterminate numbers of ordinary people were also transported at this time. The main destination was the West Indies where the Irish could be sold as slaves, though some were also sent to Virginia. In the late 1660s, it was estimated that there were 12,000 Irish in the West Indies, which gives us some indication of the scale of the operation.

The final, and most celebrated, military exiles are those who left Ireland after the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. These are the "Wild Geese". At least 20,000 men went to France in 1690-1 accompanied by wives, children, and other dependants. They fought in the French armies of Louis XIV until 1697. Most of them were then disbanded, and while some were left destitute and forced to take menial jobs, others becomes teachers of philosophy, rhetoric and mathematics, an indication of the high level of education which many of them possessed.

Working abroad

Spain soon provided welcome new opportunities. In the Spanish army, both an Irish ad an Ulster regiment was established in 1709, later augmented by a third, to form the Spanish "Irish Brigade". Through reduced in numbers the original Irish Brigade continued to operate in the French army both Austria and Russia also sought "Wild Geese" from Ireland. The recruitment in Ireland for various continental armies continued until well into the second half of the 18th century, and many Irishmen achieved fame and fortune in this way. 

A military career was by no means the only option available. From the late 16th century Irish merchants and traders had settled in virtually all the major port towns on the coast of west Europe.

Gradually Irish enclaves grew around them with priests, bakers, tailors and innkeepers being particularly prominent. Irish commercial success in 18th-century Europe is perhaps best exemplified by Richard Hennessy, a Cork emigrant, who founded the famous Cognac firm.

18th century America

Emigration to America also began in the 18th century. It was predominantly, but by no means exclusively, from Ulster. This is somewhat surprising as Ulster was the most prosperous region in Ireland. The explanation appears to be an increase in rent for farmland, the precarious nature of the linen industry on which the modest prosperity was based and the resentment of Presbyterians at the legal and social disabilities under which they had to live.

The Ulster Presbyterians, who by 1770 were emigrating at the rate of 12,000 per year, played an important role in the extension of the American frontier and formed the Scot-Irish element in the population of the New World. It is increasingly being recognized that Catholics also went to North America at this time. The Scot-Irish tended to emigrate as family units while the Catholic Irish sent as individuals, usually in early adulthood. 

Great Hunger

The Napoleonic War curtailed this trend briefly but, after the peace settlements of 1815, an even more intense movement resumed. More than a million people left Ireland before the onset of the Famine in 1846. They went, in roughly equal proportions, to the USA and to Britain.

There is some dispute about the numbers who left Ireland during and immediately after the Famine. At least a million fled during the height of the crisis and it is probable that the decade of 1846-55, as a whole led to a loss of two and a half million people through emigration. But then an apparently unstoppable cycle had been set up and a further four million were to leave Ireland by 1914. Emigration remained a key element of the Irish experience right up to the 1960s when it was finally and, as is now sadly evident, only briefly halted. 

America and Britain remained the most popular destinations up to 1921, thereafter there is a pronounced shift to Britain at the preferred location. The geographical proximity of Britain, and a feeling that exile there was not permanent or irrevocable, probably explains the fact that in the 1946-51 period eight out of ten emigrants from Ireland went to Britain. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Irish people also went to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. At various times up to one-tenth of Irish emigrants could be found in those countries. 

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Where from?

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, emigration was strongest from the northern and midland countries of Ireland. During the famine, there was a shift to the south and west of these traditional regions.

However, the heaviest levels came from the north midlands and north-wist. It was not until the 1870s that significant emigration began from the west of Ireland. Prior to that, people in this most depressed region appear to have had neither the resources nor initiative to seek a better life abroad.

Statistics for the period 1876-1914 show that emigrants to the USA were more likely to come from Connacht, while Canada and New Zealand drew from Ulster. However, the scale of emigration was so massive that people from every Irish county could be found at all major destinations. 

City dwellers

In whatever country they settled, the Irish congregated in the large cities and in the most highly industrialized areas. This can be partly explained by the ready availability of work, but it contrasts sharply with their predominantly rural background and the keen sense of loss of a blissful, rustic way of life evident in emigrant ballads and songs. In all comparative analyses of American immigrants, the Irish stand out as the exception from other nationalities in their rejection of the opportunities available for homesteading and or ranching.

In 1940, nine out of every ten Irish in the US were in urban areas, while in Britain, the 1951 census shows one-third of the Irish there in London and two-fifths in Glasgow.

Single ladies

Another interesting feature is the large number of single Irish women who emigrated. Even before the famine, two-fifths of Irish emigrants to the US were women and they frequently formed the majority of those leaving Ireland at many periods thereafter. This was, again, in sharp contrast to other European nations. The system of arranged marriages, dowries and the general drudgery of life for women in Ireland are the usual explanations for this pattern. 

The profile of the average Irish emigrant remained largely unchanged throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. They were single, young adults seeking. anew life before undertaking the commitments of marriage and family. They would usually send money to their parents and often arranged the subsequent emigration of younger brothers and sisters, but it was extremely rare for the Catholic Irish to bring their parents abroad.

Irish emigrants also had exceptionally low levels of return. In comparison to other ethnic groups in the USA, few Irish either chose or were able, to come back to Ireland. This stark reality is underlined by the peculiar Irish practice of the "American Wake", whereby the going away party for a young emigrant was regarded by all as the final and irrevocable parting from family friends and country. 

Emigration has been a bittersweet experience for the Irish and any discussion of it must reflect this ambiguity. There is a justifiable pride in the achievements of the Irish in so many diverse fields and in virtually every part of the world. Indeed there is some validity in the complaint that we have not sufficiently acknowledged nor rejoiced in this positive side of the subject. It has been curiously neglected in bother the writing and teaching of Irish history. This reluctance to discuss one of the major formative influences on the development of Irish society is based on twin feelings of guilt and embarrassment that so many people have either chosen or been forced to leave their native land. There is, undoubtedly, a negative aspect to emigration, and while this needs to be faced and addressed, it should not obscure the fundamentally positive outcome, both for the individual emigrants and the Irish nation, that it facilitated. Celebration rather than lamentation should be our keynote in approaching this complex and fascinating topic. 

* Liam Irwin was the Head of the History Department at the Mary Immaculate College Campus of the University of Limerick. At the time of writing, he was a Visiting Professor at Frostburg States University in Maryland where he was pursuing his research on Irish emigration to the USA.

** This article was originally published in the July 1992 issue of Ireland of the Welcomes, an Irish Abroad special.