Britain’s shrinking, ageing Irish population

It’s the biggest Irish community abroad, but Brexit and demographics are remaking it

With less than three weeks to go until Britain is due to exit the European Union, it is a time of uncertainty for the almost 400,000 Irish-born people now living there.

Despite assurances that no changes will be made to the Common Travel Area agreement, and that Irish people will retain the right to live and work in the UK after March 29th, the Brexit vote has led to apprehension among many Irish about the potential impact on travel and healthcare, or their job security and investments, as well as renewing the focus on their status as immigrants.

Who are the Irish in Britain today? What are their key concerns around Brexit? And could this mark a turning point of sorts for the largest Irish-born community outside of Ireland?

Britain has been the obvious destination of choice for the large majority of Irish emigrants for centuries, whatever their reasons for leaving.


By 2018, just 11,400 people moved to the UK from Ireland, compared with 20,100 going in the other direction

The most recent wave of economic emigrants from Ireland post-2008 was no exception. Since 2008, 165,100 people have moved from Ireland to the UK, more than Australia and Canada combined. (The UK includes Northern Ireland but "Irish-born" in this case refers only to people born in the Republic.)

The reasons for moving were fairly consistent with what has drawn the Irish historically; it was close to home, no visas were required to work there, and, despite its own economic recession, jobs were more readily available than in Ireland, particularly in health and education sectors affected by recruitment embargoes in Ireland, as well as in finance and information technology.

But since the Irish economy began to recover in 2013, the trend has reversed. In 2016, the same year as the Brexit vote, the numbers moving from the UK to Ireland overtook those emigrating there. By 2018, the gap had widened to 76 per cent, with just 11,400 people moving to the UK from Ireland, compared with 20,100 going in the other direction.

Grace Bermingham

I moved to the UK in 2013 to further my studies as an opera singer. I hadn’t planned to stay five years, but I did and it was great. I voted in the Brexit referendum and felt so proud to have been able to do so.

Waking up to the results, my heart sank. I knew this was the beginning of the end for my stay in the UK. I was teaching at the time and students kept asking me if their families would get deported, their young minds filled with worry.

Around this time, I had met a Swedish man, and we moved to Birmingham for work. We spent two years there and we could see people’s minds change. I remember a conversation we had with a British couple in a bar. They were delighted with the prospect of a “free Britain” and couldn’t wait to “reclaim their country”. They had just returned from a six-month stay at their holiday home in Spain.

Two years passed and my Swedish partner and I decided to move to Stockholm. It was the best decision we made. Although the UK provided great opportunities for us, we could see things changing and wanted to leave.

Overall, migration between Ireland and the UK has pretty much balanced out in the past decade. Yet, the overall number of Irish-born people living in the UK is in rapid decline as the population ages.

In 2001 the Irish were the largest foreign-born group in the UK, still bolstered by the hundreds of thousands who had moved there in the 1950s and 80s.

Since then, as the 1950s generation has aged and died, the Irish-born population has shrunk by almost a quarter, overtaken by Poles, Indians, Pakistanis and Romanians.

In the most recent census in 2011, 430,309 people living in Britain identified themselves as Irish-born, down 37 per cent from a peak of 683,000 in 1961. The Annual Population Survey carried out by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in 2018 put the Irish-born population for the UK at just 380,000.

With an estimated 42 per cent of Irish-born people living in the UK now over the age of 65, the numbers are only going in one direction.

It’s no surprise that the Irish population is concentrated in London; one in three Irish-born people living in the UK between 2013 and 2015 was residing in the capital, according to ONS data, followed by the southeast and northwest.

About 22,000 were living in Scotland and 8,000 in Wales.

Of the 149,000 Irish-born people employed in the UK in this same period, one in three was working in the public administration, education and health sector. One in five worked in banking and finance, followed by construction and hospitality.

One-third of the Irish-born workforce in the UK was in “professional occupations” which require a degree, post-grad qualification or formal training, compared with 20 per cent of the overall labour market.

The most common professions for Irish workers were teaching, nursing and midwifery, and information technology. About 16,000 Irish-born people work in construction.

Unaccounted for in these employment figures are the "commuter emigrants" travelling back and forth on a weekly or monthly basis for work, or those on short-term contracts; in 2015 alone, 12,000 visits of between one and 12 months' duration were made by Irish-born people to work in England and Wales, according to the International Passenger Survey.

The median age of 53 recorded among “white Irish” in the 2011 census is much higher than other ethnic groups, including “white British” (42), Black Caribbean (41), Indian (32) and Pakistani (26). The ageing profile means a disproportionately large percentage is vulnerable to illness, with more than 27 per cent of Irish-born people declaring they were “not in good health” in the 2011 census.

An estimated 10,000 Irish people in England may be living with dementia, according to the Irish in Britain organisation. Death rates by suicide for men and women from Ireland are among the highest in England, and the Irish also have higher mortality rates relating to most types of cancer than the rest of the population in England and Wales.

A total of 62,000 people identified themselves as “gypsies and Irish Travellers” in the 2011 census. Some 10,000 university students from the Republic were in higher education in Britain in 2016-17, and in March 2018, 728 Irish-born people were in prison in England and Wales.

Mary Sharrock

Growing up on a small farm in the west of Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, I never dreamed that I would spend all of my adult life in England.

I left school in 1976, with a Leaving Cert but no maths qualifications. My options were limited. Through a family friend I found out about a job in a children’s home in Merseyside and successfully applied. Soon I was on my first ever flight, my first time outside Ireland.

My new boss was a young, energetic and caring Irish nun. My co-workers were young and streetwise. During this time of IRA bombs in Britain, anti-Irish comments were something I heard fairly regularly, but rarely to my face. I needed to get tough and I needed to blend in, so I did, losing the accent and the mannerisms which made me different. 

I missed the green fields where I used to escape and walk for hours. Now, I was rarely alone. There was the feeling of being an exile; knowing there was no going back was not easy. 

Soon after, I successfully applied to train as a nurse. The NHS was generally great to work for. I felt appreciated by the patients and I liked the people I worked with. Soon I was married, my husband having no Irish connection. I was a young, stay-at-home mother in my 20s. The children grew up fast and before I knew it they were adults, doing well, one an NHS GP. Now I am a 60-year-old grandmother.

These days I think about where I grew up and what a different country Ireland is to the one I left in the 1970s, almost unrecognisable. I worry about the future with Brexit looming; what will it mean for my grandchildren? Only time will tell.

More than 120 Irish organisations exist countrywide serving these diverse community needs, providing a range of services and activities from welfare support to business networking, sports to culture.

"The long-standing, traditional organisations provide social and pastoral care to the ageing Irish population in cities including Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool," says Brian Dalton of the Irish in Britain representative organisation. "But in the last few years, new organisations include gypsy and Traveller groups, abuse survivors, mixed-race Irish organisations, LGBT groups, and media like The Jam Irish radio station in London."

Past generations of Irish immigrants often created enclaves in the big cities, where the local Irish club or pub provided a physical space for them to socialise. In the past 20 years or so, the importance of these centres has much diminished for newer arrivals, overtaken by social and professional networks organised through social media.

Some of the biggest Irish centres in the main cities, including the London Irish Centre (LIC) in Camden, and the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, have diversified to successfully cater for all age groups.

The LIC’s activities range from playgroups for toddlers as Gaeilge to elderly befriending services, but intergenerational activity is limited in many of the more traditional organisations. A new volunteer hub set up by Irish in Britain aims to bridge the gap, by pairing young and skilled volunteers with organisations in need, providing them with valuable experience in return.

Because of its proximity to Ireland and lack of visa restrictions, Britain still attracts the highest number of vulnerable emigrants from Ireland, perhaps with limited education, or weak employment records. Some have problems with drug or alcohol dependence, or can end up homeless without adequate finances to support themselves on arrival. The London Irish Centre recently published a new Moving to London guide in an attempt to better prepare people before they go.

Jennifer McAree

My partner, Luke, and I left Ireland in 2016 to live in the Netherlands, before moving to the UK in 2018, after Luke accepted a lecturing role at the University of Nottingham. Before that, we lived in Dublin for several years. While our Dutch experience was worthwhile, we both feel much more at home in Britain. People here seem warmer, friendlier and more polite.

Britain is very multicultural. On the surface, there seems to be a strong sense of successful integration. Being Irish has proven positive so far, and Luke has settled well with his new British colleagues. I will only begin working and mixing properly with British colleagues in the coming weeks, when I start my new job.

On a practical level, the cost of living here is lower than in Ireland. We can afford to rent a lovely little house in a beautiful area, 15 minutes’ walk from Nottingham city centre. In Dublin, even as a working couple, we could only afford to share a flat with others in the suburbs.

The job I have just been offered, in the environmental field, is rare at home. It can sometimes feel like it’s “who you know” in Ireland, whereas opportunities appear to be more plentiful here, for now at least.

We’ve experienced a few conversations with Brexiteers, but it’s difficult to relate to their viewpoint. After growing up watching British TV and learning about Anglo-Irish history at school, it feels like we know much more about them than they do about us.

We remain clueless of what lies in store if the UK does eventually leave the EU, but for now we are staying positive and embracing the British experience. We are certain of one thing at least – as Irish nationals, we’ll still be EU citizens.

Ask any Irish community representative about Brexit concerns among the people they work with and the one word they all repeat is “uncertainty”.

Breege McDaid of Irish Community Care in Merseyside, whose clientele ranges from the elderly Irish, to Travellers, prisoners and students, says Brexit is raised daily in conversations at the centre with people expressing worry about the future.

“What will Brexit bring? How will our status as Irish people here in UK be affected? What about our neighbours, friends and colleagues who have come from all over the world and have made their home in the UK? What will the impact be on community cohesion? Will the rise in the cost of living mean I might lose my home?

“How will my business be impacted? Will I still have a job, or will my company relocate? Am I entitled to work and study here in UK? Even, do I have to go back to Ireland? And how will Ireland be affected? They know how damaging a return to borders and divisions would be. People understandably want clarity.”

Irish people with non-Irish or British partners are concerned about access to employment and immigration permissions after Brexit, according to Sarah Owen of Crosscare Migrant Project, a Dublin-based organisation providing information about emigration and return.

“In a similar vein, our immigration information team has increasingly been hearing from British citizens contemplating a move to Ireland with non-EU family members,” she says.

“Legislation has been introduced to safeguard social security arrangements between Ireland and the UK, but Crosscare is still receiving queries from Irish people concerned about what will happen to their British state pension.”

They have also noticed a growing number of queries from intending Irish emigrants who are reconsidering a planned move to the UK.

An EU research project on migration by young people within the bloc, headed in Ireland by Piaras MacEinri of University College Cork, found that young Irish migrants in the greater London area were "seriously concerned by the change in climate for migrants, including themselves, brought about by Brexit".

Dalton says there is some evidence of a rise in anti-Irish sentiment since the Brexit vote, which a researcher in Britain is investigating. “We are hearing about people being verbally abused, that the Irish are somehow a fly in the Brexit ointment because of the Border issue. Their Irishness is being disparaged.”

He believes the Irish have a responsibility to stand up against such anti-immigrant rhetoric. “As difficult as it has been for us, we have rights and entitlements (under the Common Travel Area) that our EU neighbours won’t have,” he says. “We have a duty to call racism out when we hear it.”

The decision to stay in Britain or consider moving on elsewhere can be “divided roughly along age lines”, according to Dalton.

“There is a young, progressive and engaged Irish community here who have been appalled at the decision to leave. It goes against all their European and international instincts. Many of them will be saying, sod that! I’m off; I’ve got skills and can work anywhere. They see themselves as mobile, internationalist, European, and will move to follow the work. But that doesn’t cut across for older members of our community that have families here, or different skill sets that are not as transferable.

“The older Irish ain’t going anywhere. A lot of us consider ourselves to be part of the solution. We vote, we’re involved with the community, why would we be going anywhere? This is our country, for good or for bad.”

George Sheerin

September 1966 saw me leave Dublin for London on the mailboat. The year had begun with the Bishop of Clonfert objecting to a woman on the Late Late Show revealing that she had not worn a nightie on her wedding night. Nelson’s Pillar was blown up, the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising celebrated, and de Valera re-elected as President. Across the pond, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party got a new majority and England won the World Cup.

I had left “a job for life” as an insurance official in Ireland for adventure and advancement, to escape cronyism, the baleful influence of the Catholic clergy, and the general sense of sexual repression. I first worked with Unilever, followed by a brief period as a small builder, before 25 years in social housing where I ended as managing director of a housing association in east London.

There was discrimination and prejudice against the Irish, which I usually dealt with by firm putdowns and humour. I was soon aware of the much more serious plight of my fellow immigrants from the West Indies and Asia.

When Britain and Ireland joined the EU in 1973 I voted against what I saw as a large club for financiers and the advancement of corporations over democracy and accountability. Forty odd years later I still hold the same views, even more fiercely after the EU’s treatment of Greece and Ireland following the 2008 financial crisis.

Despite the odious anti-immigration campaigns, I voted for Brexit.

In his Irish Times column last month the economist John FitzGerald wrote that Brexit could be about to reverse a 150-year-old pattern of migration between Ireland and the UK, if the Irish labour market and standard of living become more attractive than it is in Britain.

There is no doubt that Irish migrants are returning in increasing numbers, and migration to the UK has slowed. But it is difficult to say how much of this is due to Brexit, compared with other factors such as the improving economy in Ireland, or the life stage that many post-2008 emigrants are now at; a large proportion are in their mid-30s and deciding where to buy their first home, or raise their children.

MacEinri believes the changes may be temporary.

“The UK economy could experience a major downturn in the event of a crash-out Brexit. In the short term that might well impact on opportunities for Irish emigrants in the UK, although it’s possible that fewer job opportunities would be offset by fewer immigrants from other EU countries looking for them and we could still emerge as ‘privileged outsider insiders’ in that context,” he says.

“Britain remains an eminently accessible destination for Irish emigrants. It’s the nearest place that isn’t Ireland, we have a common language and partly common culture, and are generally well regarded, especially after 20 years of peace on this island. Emigration itself is still rooted in Irish culture as a default option when the going at home gets tough. We are more likely to move than our English or Welsh counterparts, for instance. The very nearness and familiarity of Britain isn’t going to change, even after Brexit.”

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny, founding editor of Irish Times Abroad, a section for Irish-connected people around the world, is Editor of the Irish Times Magazine