Ciara Kenny

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

Britain still attracts largest number of Irish emigrants

Almost 90,000 people have moved across the water since 2008. How are they getting on?

Newer arrivals are more likely to settle in London, where professional work opportunities are highest, meaning ageing Irish communities outside the capital are not being replenished. Photograph: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 00:00


Ciara Kenny

Stories about emigration trends since the recession hit tend to focus on the number of young people going to Australia and Canada, but Britain still attracts the largest percentage of migrants leaving Ireland today.

Almost 22,000 people moved from the Republic to our closest neighbour in 2013 alone, bringing the total over the past five years to 89,400. Has this influx reinvigorated the ageing Irish community across the water, and how are these newly arrived migrants interacting with their predecessors who established thriving Irish communities in a different period?

“People often tend to characterise the Irish community in Britain in very broad strokes, an older generation and the younger professional arrivals. But things are much more mixed up than that,” says Liam Kennedy, director of the Clinton Institute at University College Dublin, which recently produced a report entitled Supporting the Next Generation of the Irish Diaspora.

As part of a review of how Irish populations around the world have changed since 2008, and how the Goverment can support them, the institute spoke to emigrants of all ages over the past year, as well as to people working with Irish welfare, cultural and business organisations.

For the half-century from 1951 to 2001 the Irish were the largest foreign-born group in Britain, mostly because of the hundreds of thousands who moved there in the 1950s. The diminishing population was boosted when recession hit Ireland again in the 1980s, but it has since been in steady decline. In the 2011 census, 407,357 people identified themselves as Irish-born, down 40 per cent from a peak of 683,000 in 1961.

Their median age is 61.7, the oldest of any ethnic group in Britain. Almost 65 per cent of Irish-born people arrived before 1981, a statistic made all the more startling by the fact that it predates two very significant recession-driven waves of emigration from Ireland, in the late 1980s and after 2008. Almost one in three Irish is now over 65, compared with one in six in the general population.

The ageing profile means a disproportionately large percentage is vulnerable to illness, with more than 27 per cent of Irish-born people declaring that they were “not in good health” in the 2011 census.

Perhaps surprisingly, the highest rate of poor health was reported by people aged between 50 and 64 – most of whom arrived in the 1980s emigration wave – with 30 per cent of men reporting a long-term disability. Previous studies of this group, often referred to as the forgotten Irish, have revealed high levels of depression and social problems, especially alcohol abuse.

The Clinton Institute report also cites social isolation among elderly Irish as a concern, with increasing numbers of pensioners living alone and not engaging with local community services. Dementia is another growing problem.

Labour diaspora

The 1950s Irish are often referred to as the “labour diaspora”, with men in manufacturing and construction and women in domestic and care work. Although areas of employment have diversified considerably since, there are still concentrations in certain occupations.

Construction remains one of the most prevalent sectors, employing 11.2 per cent of Britain’s Irish population, with wholesale and retail trade at 9.7 per cent; professional, scientific and technical activities at 8.5 per cent; education at 12.3 per cent; and health and social work at 15.4 per cent.

But the Irish are also taking up more professional and managerial roles. The 2011 census shows that 12.8 per cent of “white Irish” (a category available on the UK census) in employment are managers, directors and senior officials, with 27.5 per cent in professional occupations and 13.4 per cent in associate professional and technical roles.

They are also more highly educated than the general population, with one in three possessing a Level 4 qualification or higher (compared with 27.2 per cent of the population overall). This figure rises significantly the younger the migrant is.

Some service providers were keen to emphasise the status of those who arrived after 2008 as economic migrants forced out of Ireland, but others, especially those involved in business networks, stressed a big influx of young, educated Irish, who are likely to have travelled to further their career. Many have a casual attitude towards moving between countries and see themselves returning to Ireland or moving on somewhere else in the future.

An increase in the number of people commuting back and forth between a job in Britain and a family or other commitments in Ireland was also noted. These workers are most likely to be in their late 30s or 40s and employed in mid-level to senior positions in London, because of a lack of similarly paid opportunities at home.

Unprepared migrants

Not all recent arrivals are privileged. Its proximity to Ireland and lack of visa restrictions has always made Britain the most popular place for Irish emigrants with little educational, familial or financial means. Service providers told the researchers that people with low education and weak employment records are still arriving in large numbers, and that many of them also have issues with alcohol or drug dependence.

Even among the well-educated, many young Irish are arriving unprepared, with a lack of knowledge about the cost of accommodation and how to find it, or the need for a national-insurance number, the equivalent of a Personal Public Service number.

Previous generations of Irish emigrants created their own enclaves in the big cities, where socialising largely revolved around the local Irish pub or club. But a lot has changed. Newer arrivals are more likely to settle in London, where professional work opportunities are highest, meaning ageing Irish communities outside the capital are not being replenished.

Even within London, new immigrants are no longer choosing to live in areas traditionally popular with the Irish, such as Kilburn or Cricklewood. This has created a divide between the young and older generations. “Those older communities are very happy to see new arrivals from Ireland, but they don’t feel they interact with them very much,” Kennedy says.

But there was promising evidence of interaction between the generations, particularly in places with shrinking Irish communities. “We were hearing about younger Irish people, especially students, who were offering to help with [Irish community] organisations,” Kennedy says. “They do it as a way of reaching out to the Irish who have gone before them.”

Where previous generations sought out Irishness in a physical space, this generation is more likley to reach out to other Irish through social media or professional networks.

But despite the growing popularity of social networking, many people still feel dislocated and isolated after moving away from friends and family in Ireland, especially those who feel they didn’t have a choice to move.

“People have a lot more choices, but if you are a young 18-year-old struggling in London, have those choices changed so radically? Have those feelings of isolation, of being alone, gone away simply because you can go on Facebook? I am not so sure they have,” Kennedy says.

Are your experiences of moving to the UK reflected in the Clinton Institute’s findings? Let us know in the comments section below.

This is the first in a series of country profiles based on the Clinton Institute report, and appears in Weekend Review today. Read more: Some recent emigrants suffering isolation and hardship and analysis, A stronger diaspora still needs the mother ship, about how Irish people living abroad may be better off than in the past but they still require support.