“Because it is nearer”—Ireland and Migration

Today, across the entire world, millions of people are observing the feast day of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. But how can we account for the global spread of St. Patrick’s Day, a day celebrating the culture of a small island off the Atlantic seaboard of Europe? The answer, in part, is the extraordinary scale of emigration from Ireland. While this is often attributed to the Great Famine, in his essay on the Irish Diaspora in The Princeton History of Modern Ireland, Enda Delaney paints a more complex picture. He notes that the history of modern Ireland begins with a wave of immigration of Scottish and English settlers, as part of the planned pacification of Ireland through plantation during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Over the same period, the displaced Catholic gentry of Ireland scattered across Europe, founding schools and fighting as mercenaries in wars across the continent.

By the nineteenth century, however, emigration had clearly become the established pattern: “in the years between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the arrival of potato blight in Ireland in September 1845, approximately a million people left Ireland for North America, and perhaps half that number traveled to Britain, with thirty thousand obtaining state assistance to go to Australia on their
own volition, and another forty thousand sent as transported criminals.” To put these numbers into context, the 1841 census (the first conducted in Ireland) gave the population of the country as 8.2 million. In the desperate years that followed, as many as one million died of starvation and a further two million emigrated. The population of the country continued to dwindle for more than a century, reaching its lowest point in the 1960s at less than three million.

The Famine Memorial, Dublin

The Famine Memorial on the Dublin Quays.
William Murphy on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

The migrating Irish spread throughout the British Empire, on which the sun proverbially never set, but the well-established Irish communities in the United States continued to act as a magnet for many. Delaney recounts a conversation between the agricultural reformer Sir Horace Plunkett and a Galway farmer. “When Plunkett asked why the farmer’s daughter chose to emigrate to the United States rather than move within the county where work was available, the response was ‘because it is nearer,’ meaning that she knew more about New York from friends and family than any part of Ireland apart from her locality.” And this in an age when telephones were a rarity, and crossing the Atlantic still meant a lengthy sea voyage.

The last two decades have seen an extraordinary reversal, with Ireland becoming a destination for migrants for the first time in centuries. Recent estimates suggest that there are 500,000 people living in the Republic who were born outside of Ireland, almost one in eight of the population. The Dubliner standing next to you at the St. Patrick’s Day parade could as easily have been born in Warsaw or Beijing as in Ireland. There can be no question that migration will remain a dominant theme in the history of Ireland.