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The Irish Diaspora: How Famine and Political Crisis Fueled a Mass Emigration

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AJ writes articles on a variety of subjects, including the recipes she has tried and loved.

What Is the Irish Diaspora?

Over 70 million people living outside of Ireland claim to have Irish blood.

This group of Irish-blooded living around the world is more than 15 times the combined population of the Republic of Ireland, which was approximately 4.5 million in 2011, according to the official census of that year. (1)

Are you one of the Irish Diaspora?

The Irish Diaspora refers to Irish emigrants and their descendants who live in countries outside of Ireland. "Diaspora" is derived from the Greek word to "scatter," and in a contemporary context, it refers to a group migration dispersed outside its traditional homeland.

President Mary Robinson popularised the phrase in her 1995 address to the Joint Houses of the Oireachtas, "Cherishing the Irish Diaspora," in which she reached out to the millions of people worldwide who can claim Irish descent: "The men and women of our diaspora represent not simply a series of departures and losses. They remain, even while absent, a precious reflection of our own growth and change, a precious reminder of the many strands of identity which compose our story." (2)

18th-Century Irish Emigration and the Irish Famine 1740 - 1741

The Irish Famine of 1740 to 1741 (Bliain an Ãir) was caused by "The Great Frost" which struck Europe and Ireland with bitter cold and excessive rain. This period lasted from December 1739 to September 1741 and resulted in destroyed harvests, hunger, disease, death and civil unrest.

During and after this famine, many Irish families either moved around within the country or left Ireland completely. The poorest were excluded from this social and economic opportunity and remained in Ireland where many perished.

Ireland was predominantly rural during this period with complex issues of social inequality, religious discrimination and extreme poverty.

Ireland was unprepared for the 1740 to 1741 famine and was ill-equipped to recover from its consequences. Extreme food shortages, the increased cost of what little food was available, and the lack of welfare agencies outside of the Church contributed to high mortality rates and the absolute necessity to seek better survival opportunities elsewhere. Exact numbers of emigrants are unavailable, but it is believed that the ratios are likely to resemble those who emigrated during the next and more widely-known famine, the Great Famine of 1845 to 1852.

19th-Century Irish Emigration: The Great Famine 1845 - 1852

The Great Irish Famine (an Gorta Mar) was known internationally as the Irish Potato Famine. The event was a result of the potato blight disease that devastated the crops that up to a third of the population depended upon as a staple food.

In Ireland, the famine was known as the "Great Hunger." The Irish population of eight million was reduced by an estimated one million. A portion of the populace died of starvation, and up to another three million emigrated during the famine period and into the early 20th century—mainly to England, Scotland, the United States, Canada and Australia. Death records are unreliable as the escalating numbers of dead were buried in mass graves without a trace. In some districts, entire communities disappeared as residents died, were evicted, or were fortunate enough to have the means to emigrate.

A large majority of people migrated to America, and by 1850, over a quarter of the New York City population was estimated to be Irish. A New York Times article recounted the seemingly unstoppable tide of Irish immigration on April 2, 1852:

"On Sunday last three thousand emigrants arrived at this port. On Monday there were over two thousand. On Tuesday over five thousand arrived. On Wednesday the number was over two thousand. Thus in four days twelve thousand persons were landed for the first time upon American shores. A population greater than that of some of the largest and most flourishing villages of this State was thus added to the City of New York within ninety-six hours." (4)

A family evicted by their landlord in the 19th century.

A family evicted by their landlord in the 19th century.

The Continual Flow of the 20th Century Irish Emigration

The flow of Irish migration continued through the 20th century. Small, unsustainable agricultural farming, government protectionist policies that isolated the economy, exclusion from European economic booms, and political uncertainty in Northern Ireland continued to make opportunities abroad seem more attractive than the economic and social limitations at home.

The Irish continued their pattern of leaving home during periods of economic and/or political crisis. Emigration levels following World War II during the 1940s and 1950s almost paralleled those of a century earlier. The 1980s created a "lost generation" as the young and well-educated fled high rates of unemployment to seek a better lifestyle wherever they could.

21st-Century Irish Emigration and Economic Stagnation

Emigration is again the Irish response to national hardship in this century. In 2013, a University College Cork’s Émigré Project publication revealed that 21st-century Irish migrants are more educated than the general population (which confirms the "brain drain" theory); that rural areas have been affected more by emigration than urban towns and cities; and that one in four households has farewelled a family member to another country since 2006. (5)

An International Monetary Fund/European Union bailout of Irish banks, high unemployment, unprecedented redundancies and business closures saw the tripling of Irish people leaving the country between 2008 and 2012. Whilst the exodus of Irish to foreign ports gives some relief to the economy, the social scars of further dislocation, dispersal and displacement will again take generations to mend.

The first Irish Diaspora Policy was launched in March 2015. Taoiseach Enda Kenny made a comment at the launch, “Emigration has a devastating impact on our economy as we lose the input of talent and energy. We need these people at home. And we will welcome them.” (6)

Ireland is finally calling its people home.

Irish immigrants in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early 20th century.

Irish immigrants in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early 20th century.

Fast Facts on Irish Immigration

  • 10 million Irish people have emigrated since the year 1700.
  • One out of every two people born in Ireland has emigrated since 1800.
  • By the mid-1800s Irish immigrants made up a quarter of the populations in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
  • New York had 250,000 Irish-born residents by 1850, making it the most Irish city in the world.
  • Over four and a half million Irish settled in America between 1820 and 1975.
  • More than 34 million Americans considered themselves to be of Irish ancestry in 2002, making Irish Americans the second-largest ethnic group in the United States.
  • Approximately six million British citizens have an Irish grandparent.
  • Up to 30% of Australians claim Irish ancestry, possibly making Australia the "most Irish" country in the world.

The Irish in Me—I Am Irish, But I Am Not

I am part of the Irish Diaspora. I have no Irish blood, and I do not live in Ireland, but I do have Irish citizenship. My husband has Irish blood. He does not live in Ireland. He does have Irish citizenship.

My daughter has Irish blood. She may one day live in Ireland. She has Irish citizenship. Thank you to Thomas Patrick Myles Byrne and Helena Bridget Shanley for your posthumous gifts of Irish citizenship to your grandson, granddaughter-in-law and great-granddaughter. It is a great honour to be a member of the great Irish Diaspora and to share the love and pride for Ireland. We may one day go home. Will you?



© 2012 AJ

Share Your Irish Story

John Kearney on May 25, 2020:

There was no shortage of food in ireland during the so called famine. Tons of food were exported from the island of ireland

Kate on March 23, 2020:

I live in North America and I am of Irish descent. My Irish ancestors came from County Mayo and Roscommon. My maternal great grandfather received beatings as a child in school when he lived in Ireland for speaking Gaelic. Another great great grandfather of mine got in trouble for cutting down a tree for wood and was sentenced by the English to be tied to a rock under a waterfall as punishment. However, my great great grandfather fled Ireland before he received the punishment m. Nobody in my family knows if he died on an emigrant ship or made to America or Canada.

AJ (author) from Australia on October 03, 2016:

Enjoy your day June :-)

AJ (author) from Australia on October 03, 2016:

Hi Jeanie. Maybe you should add Scotland to your 2017 trip? You should find the McBrides in Ireland, but I suspect you need to look for the McDonalds in Scotland. A world trip might be coming up? I haven't taken the genealogical DNA test, but need to do that - it sounds so exciting!

AJ (author) from Australia on October 03, 2016:

Lucky girl! If you can do some online research about your family before you leave, it will add extra dimension to your trip. We didn't know much the first time we visited, but became so proud and territorial when we found our surname plastered across almost every second shop front in County Wicklow - it gave us an immediate sense of history and belonging, and I'm not even Irish! The original Public Records Office in Dublin was burnt during the civil war in 1922, and what genealogical records remained were largely from private family records, but hopefully you can get enough leads before you leave and do a quick follow up in Dublin when you get there. All the best and travel well.

Jeanie Russell on October 03, 2016:

I'm 44% Irish. My great grandparents were McDonalds and McBrides but I don't where they came from in Ireland. I hope to visit next year. I didn't know I was that much Irish until I did the DNA test.

Jeanie on October 03, 2016:

44% Irish here. I don't know where in Ireland my relatives came from---I'm trying to find out. I hope to visit in 2017.

KonaGirl from New York on September 26, 2016:

You are so sweet. Thank you.

AJ (author) from Australia on September 25, 2016:

I hope you can visit Ireland soon June. It is truly beautiful, and I am sure you would connect immediately with your Irish background and obvious pride.

KonaGirl from New York on September 25, 2016:

I did not realize how many times there had been cause to immigrate from Ireland other than the Potato Famine. I too am part Irish, but have never been to Ireland. One of my daughters and granddaughters has made the journey. I hope to some day. Even though the Irish were considered the lowest of the low, when arriving in NYC during the famine, we have shown the world how productive and talented we can be. Thanks for the very informative article.

AJ (author) from Australia on September 14, 2016:

Hi Dianna - thank you for sharing such a lovely personal story. I'm sure the Irish are generally hardworking, given the enormous contribution they have made to so many parts of the world, including their own. AJ

Dianna Mendez on August 29, 2016:

The best boss I ever had was Irish. He had great attitude and work ethics, which he brought with him when he immigrated from Ireland. The country is beautiful and I would certainly love to visit some day. Thanks for the information on this lovely country.

AJ (author) from Australia on August 28, 2016:

You are so right about the Irish contribution to the United States - I once visited Cobh in County Cork and the testimonials at the wharf to the Irish who had departed for America was incredible - politics and literature are just two areas that would be enormously different without them.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on August 28, 2016:

Like most white people living in lands that were once part of the British Empire, I am supposed to have some Irish blood, though I couldn't tell you how much. The Irish made so many cultural contributions to the United States and other lands that I think most of us feel Irish, even if we are not. Great hub!

AJ (author) from Australia on April 08, 2015:

There is great tragedy in the Irish history, but as you say, none of us will ever forget. Thank you so much for visiting.

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on April 04, 2015:

I knew there had been a heavy Irish Immigration after the great potato famine but did not know the numbers were that high. That could explain why St. Patrick's Day is so widely celebrated in so very many other countries. Plenty of Irish descendants to remind us not to forget.

AJ (author) from Australia on March 24, 2015:

Thank you SheilaMilne. As you know, the process of applying for Irish citizenship is complex, demanding and drawn out over a very extended time, and there is no guarantee that any family members will receive citizenship, spouse or children. So it is a great honour to have citizenship of your birth country.

SheilaMilne from Kent, UK on March 24, 2015:

I was born and brought up in Ireland and therefore I am an Irish citizen. However I have a British passport and don't really plan to change it. I know nowadays when you apply, as my sons have done, for an Irish passport, they ask the likelihood of you ever living there. I think they may be tightening up on the rules because also there is no guarantee that a spouse will be granted citizenship.

AJ (author) from Australia on March 23, 2015:

Hi Elsie. Thank you for dropping by. Irish genealogy is tricky - so many branches of the same family name and you have to be absolutely certain you have the right branch. I also understand that a fire of public archives in the 1900s destroyed most records that weren't kept by families, which makes the genealogical search even more interesting. Good luck.

Elsie Hagley from New Zealand on March 23, 2015:

Petty I didn't see this article last week it would have made a nice St Patricks Day story.

My grandmother was a Riley, she married a english man and the came to New Zealand in the early 1900s, I have irish blood in me and I'm very proud to be a descendant although I know nothing about my great grand parents from Ireland, I do genealogy but can't find much to help me yet.

All the best.