Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Traditions of emigration: The Irish habit of going away

Historian Enda Delaney puts this current wave of emigration into historical context.

Irish Immigrants arrive at Ellis Island, New York, early 20th century. Image courtesy of Library of Congress via pingnews (no known restrictions).

Wed, Nov 2, 2011, 15:05


Irish Immigrants arrive at Ellis Island, New York, early 20th century. Image courtesy of Library of Congress via pingnews (no known restrictions).

Historian Enda Delaney puts this current wave of emigration into historical context.

There is a story told that when the Irish scholar Sedulius Scottus arrived at a monastery on the continent in the 9th century, the abbot Strabo asked why he had left his native land. Was it because of the “unsettled state of the country or the Irish habit of going away”? It will be scant consolation for the generation now departing from Ireland but they are part of a historical tradition of “going away” stretching back over centuries.

In eras of economic crisis, the Irish have left in their millions for new lives overseas. In the twentieth century mass emigration reached levels during the 1940s and 1950s that were reminiscent of the 1850s, in the aftermath of the Great Irish Famine. Again the 1980s were another “lost” decade characterised by emigration and unemployment. It is difficult to predict how many will leave or indeed how long the current exodus will last, though all the early indications are that it will be yet another peak in the long history of movement out of Ireland.

A couple of historical parallels with the contemporary exodus are striking. Generally it has been single young people in the late teens and early 20s who left. Women and men were equally as likely to leave. And lastly, a sobering thought for today’s Irish politicians is that those who did go subsequently blamed the political elite for their exile.

During this time of economic downturn the political establishment is very keen to “reach out” to the Irish global diaspora, particularly to attract investment, and that is without doubt a sensible strategy.

The other side of this relationship is not so positive. One thing that the emigrants can be certain about is that the Irish state will have little interest in their plight once they emigrate. Since 1922 governments, regardless of the political party in power, have consistently done only the barest minimum to assist Irish citizens residing abroad, mandatory consular services and limited grants to welfare organisations. Irish citizens who have left the country are no longer voters and no political party has ever championed their cause.

But there are also important differences between past migrations and the current situation. An emigrant who left in the middle of the 19th century was unlikely to see friends and family ever again. Today it is a very different world with instantaneous communication. The IT revolution now enables the diasporic Irish to maintain regular contact with family and friends by text messages, email, social networking sites and internet telephony. Someone based in Sydney can now see, and chat to, family members living in Ireland.

Irish airlines have routes across Europe and the affordability of even long haul journeys make regular visits home within the reach of most migrants. To do so means, however, you must be legally resident in the destination country. Heartbreaking stories emerge of young Irish illegals in the US who, since the tightening up of American immigration controls after 9/11, cannot take the risk of visiting home for fear of detection.

At particular points in time such as the 1840s and 1850s the Irish exiles faced violence, systematic discrimination and widespread distrust on arrival in Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia. Unlike previous generations few will encounter the virulent anti-Irishness that characterised the experiences of the diasporic Irish. Anti-Irish prejudices were still evident in Britain until recently, and while such attitudes rarely disappear completely much of this hostility is now directed at Muslim communities.

Irishness is now a global brand seen as culturally innovative but the parents and grandparents of the current generation will remember how things were very different. Before the global branding of Riverdance, the Irish pub, and the marketing of “craic” and conviviality to the tourist market, Irish identity was seen as threatening, especially in Britain, where most of the emigrants settled in the twentieth century. Many people testify to encountering deeply ingrained anti-Irish prejudices on arrival in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s.

Ireland too has changed. Before the mid-1990s immigration of non-Irish born people was virtually non-existent. Now coming from a multi-ethnic society, this generation has experience of living in a society with different ethnic groups and exposure to a diverse range of cultural influences.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, anti-English views were almost universal. These were the dark days of the H-block hunger strikes, unrelenting violence in the Troubles, and the IRA bombing campaign in England.

That is all part of history now and its passing has important ramifications. It seems very likely the majority of “Generation Emigration” will go to the UK. You don’t need language skills or an entry visa. British employers quite rightly have great respect for Irish qualifications, and despite the financial austerity measures imposed by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition public and private sector employers are still recruiting. The educated Irish are in a good position to get these jobs. And you can be home in a shorter time than the train journey from Dublin to Cork.

The British-Irish human encounter this time will be very different. It will be a meeting of equals, and the legendary Irish “inferiority complex” should play no part. Young Irish people are as equipped as their British counterparts in terms of education and skills. They are no longer from the sheltered backgrounds from which previous generations came and have the confidence that their predecessors often lacked.

But the UK will be only one of the many destinations for the new Irish diaspora. Traditionally Britain and the US and to a lesser extent Canada, Australia and New Zealand were the places to go. We hear stories every day of young Irish people living and working in Asia, South America, continental Europe and the Middle East. This dispersal will be spread widely across the globe.

A final point worth considering is this generation had no expectation of having to emigrate. Until the 1990s virtually every person growing up in Ireland knew that the day might come when they have to emigrate. In the boom times this expectation receded in consciousness and the speed of the economic collapse left most people disorientated. Those who always anticipated that their working lives would be spent in Ireland, only now find that they must leave to find work. If this latest wave of diasporic Irish become bitter towards the government and society that created this situation, that is all too understandable.

Enda Delaney has written extensively on the history of Irish emigration and his most recent book is The Irish in Post-war Britain (Oxford UP, 2007). He is an Associate Director of the Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies and Reader in Modern History at the University of Edinburgh.