Skip to main content

Irish Emigration History

Historic Emigration

‘Most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold, or some other crop, but Ireland has had only one export and that is its people.’

John F. Kennedy on his presidential visit to Ireland, June 1963

No country in Europe has been as affected by emigration over the last two centuries as Ireland. Approximately ten million people have emigrated from the island Ireland since 1800.

Pre-independence Irish Emigration

Emigration became an intrinsic part of Irish life before independence, especially from the Famine onwards. In the 1600s, approximately 25,000 Irish Catholics left – some were forced to move, others left voluntarily – for the Caribbean and Virginia, while from the 1680s onwards Irish Quakers and Protestant Dissenters began to depart for Atlantic shores.[1] Sizeable Presbyterian emigration from Ireland’s northern Ulster province took place from the 1710s onwards, alongside smaller Anglican Protestant and Catholic emigration from Ulster and the southern Munster province.[2] This pattern continued until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814. Ireland had largely benefited from price rises associated with war on the European Continent but duly suffered from the drop in export price levels following Waterloo. From 1815 to the start of the Great Irish Famine (1846-1852), between 800,000 and 1 million Irish sailed for North America with roughly half settling in Canada and the other half in the United States.[3]

            Regularly forgotten is the fact that it was only from the early 1830s onwards that annual departures by Catholics began to exceed those of Dissenters and Anglicans combined.[4] Irish Presbyterian and Anglican migrants who moved to America in the first half of the nineteenth century felt little animosity from locals because of their limited numbers and, in the case of the Irish, their religion. Thereafter, Catholics greatly outnumbered Protestants. The successful development of the linen industry in north-east of the country throughout the nineteenth century meant that Ulster became a major player in the British industrial revolution.  This led to many people moved from the surrounding Ulster countryside to Belfast as the century progressed. The lack of industrialisation elsewhere in Ireland meant that most people living in rural areas went to the urban centres across the Atlantic and the Irish Sea to find employment.

            For many Irish people, the Famine was the final ultimatum before deciding to leave Ireland.[5] Of the 1.8 million who arrived in the United States in 1845-55, many were much poorer than those that had gone before them; as the fact that almost one third of the new arrivals were from the poorer Irish speaking areas suggests.[6] The emigration of so many during the Famine led to the establishment of huge Irish communities abroad, particularly in the United States – the destination of choice for the vast majority. These vast networks helped to facilitate millions of more Irish to emigrate in the decades following the Famine. To give an indication of the colossal nature of Irish emigration, consider that roughly one in two people born in Ireland in the nineteenth century emigrated.[7] In the late nineteenth century, nearly as many people born in Ireland lived outside the country as lived in it.[8] No other European country contributed as many emigrants per capita to the New World during the so-called ‘age of mass migration’ between the mid-nineteenth century and the start of the First World War as Ireland.[9]

Irial Glynn, Dec. 2012

[1] For more details, please see Sean O’Callaghan, To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland and Kerby Miller, Ireland and Irish America: Culture, class, and transatlantic migration, Dublin: Field Day, 2008, p. 44.

[2] Kerby Miller, Ireland and Irish America, p. 44.

[3] See Joel Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved: An Analytical and Quantitative Study of Irish Poverty, 1800-1851, London and Boston: George Allen and Unwin, 1983, p. 230 and Cormac Ó Gráda, Ireland: A New Economic History 1780-1939, Oxford: Clarendon, 1994, p. 74.

[4] Numbers quoted in Kerby Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 193-8.

[5] Kerby Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, p. 6.

[6] Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish became white, New York and London: Routledge, 1995, pp. 38-9.

[7] Kevin Whelan, ‘The long shadow of the Great Hunger’, Irish Times, 1 Sept. 2012.

[8] Enda Delaney, ‘Our island story? Towards a transnational history of late modern Ireland’, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 37, No. 148, Nov. 2011, 599-621, p. 601-2.

[9]Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Across the briny ocean: some thoughts on Irish emigration to America 1800-1850’, in Tom Devine and David Dickson (eds), Ireland and Scotland, 1600-1850: parallels and contrasts in economic and social development, Edinburgh: Donald, 1983, pp. 118-130, p. 118.



Commentators have variously referred to 1950s in Ireland as the decade of ‘doom and gloom’, the 'worst decade since the famine' and the ‘lost decade’. [1] Agriculture, the traditional mainstay of the Irish economy, continued to decline throughout the 1950s. The state dedicated insufficient effort to developing new industries to fill the gap created by the demise of, in particular, of the small farm rural economy. As a consequence, little work was available for thousands of young people coming of age. Unemployment remained high throughout and it was estimated that from 1949 to 1956, real national income rose by only 8 per cent, at a time when the average increase in European equated to approximately 40 per cent.[2] Most young people knew that the only way to secure steady employment therefore was to cross the Irish Sea.[3]

            In the 1950s, approximately half a million left the Irish Republic. Considering the country’s population than stood at less than 3 million, to lose approximately 16% of your population – most of whom were very young and left to gain employment abroad – in one decade was astonishing. Indeed, Ireland shared the ignominy of being the only country in Europe to see its population decline in the 1950s with East Germany.[4] Roughly three out of every five children who grew up in 1950s Ireland left the country at some stage.[5]

            Why did so many people leave independent Ireland during the late 1940s and 1950s? In 1950s Ireland, agriculture still accounted for approximately two-fifths of the working population. The small farm rural economy, especially in the west of Ireland, was in an irreversible decline. Most young people knew that the only way to secure steady employment – and the lifestyle that went along with a regular weekly income – involved crossing the Irish Sea.[6] As the commission on emigration noted in 1955, emigration became ‘a part of the generally accepted pattern of life’.[7]

            The ‘Breaking the Silence’ interviews carried out by UCC’s ICMS (see emigrants’ voices) provide a haunting description of the barren social landscape after the departure of people’s friends and family members. John Healy’s lyrical account of the decline of his hometown, Charlestown, Co. Mayo, is another later example of the widespread perception that rural Ireland was gradually ‘dying’ as young people left in such large numbers.[8]

Irial Glynn, Dec. 2012.

[1] Cormac Ó Gráda, A Rocky Road. The Irish economy since the 1920s, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997; Brian Girvin, ‘Political culture, political independence and economic success in Ireland’ , Irish Political Studies, 12:1, 1997, 48-77, p. 61; and Dermot Keogh, Finbarr O'Shea and Carmel Quinlan (eds.), The Lost Decade. Ireland in the 1950s, Cork: Mercier Press, 2004.

[2] Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, London: Profile, 2005, p. 463.

[3] Enda Delaney, The Irish in Post-War Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 20.

[4] Mary Daly, Slow Failure. Population Decline and Independent Ireland, 1920-1973, Wisconsin: Wisconsin University Press, 2006, p. 58.

[5] Enda Delaney, The Irish in Post-War Britain, p. 12-13.

[6] Enda Delaney, The Irish in Post-War Britain, p. 20.

[7] Commission on Emigration and other population problems, Reports: 1948-1954, Dublin : Stationery Office, 1955, p. 137.

[8] John Healy, The Death of an Irish Town,  Mayo: House of Healy, 1988.


As the economy developed in the 1960s, emigration decreased. By the 1970s, following Ireland’s entry into Europe, more people returned than left the country in a welcome break from the past. Unfortunately, years of huge borrowing and spending in the 1970s, along with a second oil price crisis in 1979, led to huge economic problems developing in 1980s Ireland. National debt rocketed whilst the number of people at work remained relatively static despite a huge growth in the labour market caused by the 1960s baby boom. Increased unemployment was followed by increased emigration.

            Emigration increased significantly in the 1980s – with the majority leaving in the latter part of the decade. Whilst other peripheral European countries had experienced extensive postwar emigration, this had largely stopped by the 1970s; Ireland was by itself when widespread emigration began to reoccur in the 1980s. Four males emigrated for every three females. Migration took place from everywhere, with emigration from major urban centres often exceeding the national rate. England, particularly the south-east of the country, remained the main destination for emigrants but America, too, provided a welcome destination for many since the US unemployment rate by the late 1980s measured one-third that of the Irish rate.

            In a similar vein to the 1950s, most of those leaving in the 1980s were young. In contrast to the 1950s, many of those emigrating in 1980s were much better educated than their predecessors, with many having third-level qualifications. This represented the changing face of Ireland rather than any marked change in emigration since the number of people attending third-level education had grown enormously between the 1950s and the 1980s.  

Irial Glynn, Dec. 2012


Emigre Department of Geography University College Cork College Road Cork Ireland