‘Jumping ship’ has helped keep the ship afloat
Again and again, emigration has bailed Ireland out in times of economic hardship, writes Shane Lynn
Few people at home are aware that Rowan Gillespie’s haunting sculptures of famine victims on Dublin’s Custom House Quay are part of a set. A twin memorial stands on the shores of Lake Ontario, in Toronto’s Ireland Park. The Great Famine of the mid-19th century is central to Ireland’s concept of a ‘diaspora’ – the trauma of forced migration, the catastrophic failure of an economic philosophy, and the wilful neglect of government. It is fitting that the city should commemorate the importance of Irish migration to its history – per capita, Toronto was among the most Irish cities in North America.
But the Famine does not tell the whole story. The vast majority of arrivals to the city between 1845 and 1850 quickly moved on elsewhere. Unlike the southern Famine migrants, well over half of Toronto’s Irish were, and always have been, Protestants – indeed the same is true for Canada generally. The Famine induced the acceleration of a process of mass migration which had already been underway for several decades, and which resumed thereafter. The idea of a flight from hunger and crushing poverty may have captured our imagination, but the reality is that most Irish migration in the past two centuries has been the fruit of carefully considered, individual responses to a lack of opportunities at home, by those with the means to purchase their passage and create a new life elsewhere.
This process has recently been traduced by some in Ireland as “jumping ship” when times get tough. Ironically, however, the tragedy of mass emigration has arguably helped keep our island afloat, and continues to do so today. The commercialisation of the Irish agricultural economy in the 19th and early 20th centuries was achieved through the consolidation of small farms into more lucrative cattle-grazing ranches – a process facilitated by emigration, as small farmers sold up and left, and all but the eldest sons of those remaining were disinherited. Irish nationalist movements, from O’Connell to Sinn Féin, were repeatedly sustained by the vast fundraising campaigns of migrant communities in the United States and elsewhere.
Irish-American money helped avert a second great famine in 1879-80. In the 1920s, 5 per cent of the Free State’s incoming balance of trade was in emigrant remittances – an indispensible support for the poor in a country where the Minister for Industry and Commerce could infamously declare: “People may have to die in this country and may have to die from starvation… it is no function of government to provide work for anybody.”
Today, the renewed flood of emigration considerably alleviates the financial burden of state support for those whose opportunities have been decimated by years of regulatory oversight, and subsequent ham-fisted attempts to remedy it through the misguided policy of austerity. Again and again, emigration has bailed Ireland out, sustaining the complacency of the most comfortable, while giving the poorest a shot at survival. “Jumping ship” has helped keep the ship afloat. What, then, can Ireland do for its emigrants? The approaching tranche of constitutional reforms offers an opportunity to acknowledge their importance to the polity. Ireland is one of only three European countries to deny its emigrants the vote. Extending the franchise in Presidential elections, and those for a reformed Seanad, would serve the dual purpose of granting Irish citizens abroad a voice in the future of their home, while lending new meaning to two largely symbolic branches of the Oireachtas. It may have an ameliorative effect on the stultification of Irish political culture by repeated, easy recourse to the export of disaffection through the “safety valve” of emigration. Ireland has long listened to the jingle of change in its diaspora’s pockets. It’s time Ireland listened to its voice.
Shane Lynn, originally from Wexford, is a postgraduate scholar in the history of the Irish diaspora at University of Toronto. He is a member of the social media campaign group We’re Coming Back, launched last week advocating voting rights for Irish citizens abroad. The campaign is linked with youth activist group We’re Not Leaving.