The Irish Diaspora: How Famine and Political Crisis Fueled a Mass Emigration
The Irish Diaspora Is Thriving Throughout the World
Over 70 million people living outside 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 devastated 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 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)
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 1980's 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 that, “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.
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?
Are You One of the 70 million People of Irish blood Living Outside of Ireland?
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© 2012 AJ