THE Irish have been on the move for centuries, and now millions of people around the globe claim an Irish heritage. In the United States alone, 33 million people, or 10pc of the population, self-identified as Irish when they completed their 2013 census form. This means that being Irish ranks second (after Germans) as the largest ethnic identity in the United States.
Clearly emigration is not unique to the Irish as wars, ethnic conflict, famine or economic opportunity have all pushed and pulled populations around the globe. However, what is striking is that an island with such a small population (currently 6.4 million people) has such a large Diaspora around the globe that is estimated at 70 million people.
The longevity of the tradition of emigration has been one factor in why the Irish Diaspora has been so large, and this coupled with the tumultuous history of the island, has led thousands of Irish men, women and children to depart their home every year.
To place the Irish tradition of emigration into context, consider current international migration patterns. According to the United Nations, the country with the largest population based overseas between 2000 and 2015 was India, which has 16 million of its citizens living outside its borders. Given that India’s population is over 1.2 billion people, its diaspora represents only 1.2pc of its population. In contrast, the population of the island of Ireland is only 9pc of the size of its Diaspora. So how and why did the Irish Diaspora come to be so large?
The first group to leave Ireland on a regular basis were the religious men of Ireland’s monasteries. Between 500 and 800 Irish monks travelled across Europe as missionaries to spread the word of God and, in the process, established a network of churches and monasteries. The religious link to emigration would continue right through to the 20th century as Catholic priests and nuns were sent by their Church to run parishes in the developed world or else work as missionaries on continents such as Africa and Asia.
While there had always been a movement of people between Ireland and Britain, the main wave began in the mid-18th century. While Ireland was struggling to modernise, Britain was beginning its industrial and transport revolutions. Whether building canals and railways, or working in factories, the Irish journeyed to Britain in their thousands to find employment. By 1841 the Irish-born population residing in Britain totalled 415,725, a figure that would continue to grow through the rest of the 19th century peaking at 781,119 in 1881.
The industrial wealth of Britain, the dominance of the high seas by its navy and its global trade routes were underpinned by the development of a vast empire. The Irish were key to the British Empire, and many of those who left Ireland did so in the service of imperialism.
Whether serving in the military or the police, working in the imperial supply chain or employed as civil servants, the Irish made a huge contribution to the British Empire. This meant that the Irish settled wherever the Union flag flew, from the islands of the Caribbean, across Africa and through the Indian sub-continent.
In terms of Empire, the Irish were also forcibly removed from Ireland and sent overseas. From the first white settlement of Australia, the British used that vast continent as a penal colony, and by the 1860s it is reckoned that as many as 50,000 Irishmen and women had been transported there as punishment for their crimes. Once released from penal servitude these men and women populated Australia, and also New Zealand. Their numbers were further bolstered by the economic opportunities available. During the Australian gold rush of the mid-19th century, over 100,000 Irish arrived in the decade from 1851.
Much emigration from Ireland to the mid-19th century was about seeking better material conditions, steady employment and opportunities that didn’t exist at home. This changed dramatically with the onset of the Great Famine in 1845. Caused by potato blight and exacerbated by poor land management, discrimination against Catholics, eviction, an over-dependence on a single crop and the spread of disease, the famine would leave approximately one million people dead.
For those who survived the direct effects of the Famine, many chose to emigrate. While Britain and its colonies were often the destination, it was North America that attracted the bulk of Irish emigrants in the second half of the 19th century. By 1900 some two million Irish had settled in the United States alone.
Despite the establishment of an independent Ireland in 1922, emigration continued with peaks in the numbers leaving in the 1940s, 1950s and 1980s. The fragility of the Irish economy and its inability to afford its young people opportunities for work that was evident in the 20th century was revealed once more after the economic crash of 2008 with 34,500 people emigrating in 2009.
Emigration from Ireland is sadly the historic norm. Ireland is one of the few countries in the world whose current population is smaller than it was in the mid- 19th century. While most European countries’ populations have grown (eg the French population has grown by 76pc since 1850), the Irish population is now 28pc lower than it was in 1841.
For those millions that left Ireland’s shores, and those who claim Irish heritage, their experiences in new lands were often hard. Many faced discrimination, struggled to adapt, couldn’t move out of poverty and failed to improve their lives. Others did find work and improved their lot. The Irish, wherever they have gone, have entered politics and other branches of civic life, have been successful business people and entrepreneurs or else have found fame in the worlds of sport or entertainment. The history of Irish emigration is a deep and complex story, but one that has left a legacy that means there are few corners of the world where the Irish can’t be found and St Patrick’s Day won’t be celebrated.
Professor Mike Cronin is the Academic Director of Boston College in Ireland and the author, with Daryl Adair, of ‘Wearing the Green: A History of St Patrick’s Day’ (Routledge, 2002)