In 1908, the French writer Louis Paul-Dubois’s book Contemporary Ireland referred to emigration as the “fundamental characteristic of contemporary Ireland”. He examined the region of Clifden in Galway where it was estimated that £10,000 per annum was received in emigrants’ remittances, which was over half the amount owed for rents from the 3,300 families in the district. He commented wryly, “Throughout the west of Ireland, the landlord’s rents are often merely a tax levied on the filial piety of child emigrants from the peasant families.”
Who knows how deep that remittance well was in the long history of Irish emigration? Between 1850 and 1913 more than 4½ million men and women left Ireland for a new life overseas. Calculating the money sent back home by emigrants has always been problematic and remains so, judging by this week’s controversy sparked by the comments of Noel Grealish in the Dáil on remittances from Ireland to Nigeria, which he erroneously claimed amounted to €3.54 billion in the last eight years.
The landlord's rents are often merely a tax levied on the filial piety of child emigrants from the peasant families
Historians and statisticians have, at various stages, attempted to quantify the Irish remittance traffic, but with much qualification. Arnold Schrier’s Ireland and the American Emigration (1850-1900), published in 1958, calculated that the Irish in America sent more than $260 million back to Ireland during the latter part of the 19th century, described as “the greatest transatlantic philanthropy of the 19th century”. While some statistics on remittances were gathered from the mid-19th century, not all the money was traceable. Such was the importance of the enterprise that Irish emigrants established the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank in New York in 1850; Schrier suggests that in 1860 alone it dealt with over $600,000 in remittances; the bank’s parent body, the Irish Emigrant Society was a philanthropic operation with banking experience through its remittance business. The records of the bank were transferred to the New York Public Library in 1995 and reveal much about the financial circumstances of Irish-Americans of that era.
Schrier’s book was published in the midst of another era of sustained emigration during which the report of the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems (1954) observed that emigration “has provided the remaining population with a reasonably satisfying standard of living” which, it argued, made people apathetic about domestic underdevelopment.
In 2014, it was estimated Irish emigrants in the United Kingdom sent the equivalent of €5.7 billion back to Irish families between 1940 and 1970. Figures compiled by the Central Statistics Office for that period were converted to 2012 prices using an inflation calculator, suggesting that remittances and inheritances sent from the UK to Ireland averaged the contemporary worth of €183 million every year. However, as CSO statistician Stephen McDonagh pointed out, notwithstanding such computations, the relevant data for 1940-70 is still quite sparse and it can be difficult to reach confident conclusions.
In 2014, it was estimated Irish emigrants in the UK sent the equivalent of €5.7 billion back to Irish families between 1940 and 1970
In any case, it was never just about money. Economic transfers from America in the 19th and early 20th centuries did of course contribute to relief of poverty at home but were also about providing passage for younger siblings; what the great historian of Irish emigration David Fitzpatrick described as a chain migration that was “the main agency transplanting the young adults of each generation”. Also of relevance were post-Famine changes in land and inheritance practices when the division of farms became quite rare and it was more likely one child would inherit the family farm, leaving others to seek their livings elsewhere. There was also a sense that remittances could provide a form of compensation for the loss of a family member and could facilitate access to healthcare and education.
When he published his landmark book, Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia (1994), covering letters from the period 1843-1906, David Fitzpatrick noted that pursuing this kind of history – in the form of analysing letters to and from emigrants – is partly about eavesdropping on “semi-private conversations, filling in some of the silences and decoding inexplicit messages . . . A central function of emigrant correspondence was to assert the writer’s continuing stake in the ever-dispersing networks stretching out from ‘home’ . . . Letters were used to influence home decisions, to tease out news of family enterprises, and above all to regulate future emigration. Parents in Ireland, sometimes no less isolated than their emigrant children, likewise interfered with decisions in Australia. The traffic in money, as well as moral suasion, occurred in both directions . . . the letters reveal startling complexity in the stratagems by which emigration was organised.”
Emigrant and remittance history is knotty, multilayered and contradictory, encompassing guilt, shame, mobility, progress, dislocation, tragedy, separation and adjustment. We, of all people, should decry the use of these issues to climb the greasy poll of local politics and the shameless, populist reductionism and prejudice that makes a mockery of our own complex transnational history as well as the forces underpinning contemporary immigration.