The Irish Diaspora


Sir, - Occasionally a correspondence on historical issues intersects with the implications of major policy debate. Such is the case with the argument between Tim Pat Coogan and Robert Vance over emigration, development and sovereignty in the century 1850-1950. It does cast light on the current issues raised by Mary Harney, Sile de Valera and Ronan Fanning on the exact nature of our interactions with the EU.

At a time when the transatlantic economy was first booming between 1880-1914 (as Prof Kevin O'Rourke and others have shown), three nations suffered disproportionate emigration in an age of general migration and labour transfers. These were Ireland, Scotland and Norway, which in 1921 had respectively 30 per cent, 15 per cent and 14 per cent of their native-born populations living abroad. Since these consisted almost entirely of those who emigrated as young adults, while domestic populations included high numbers of children and over-65s, one can safely say that a half of Irish adults, and almost a third of Scots and Norwegian adults, lived overseas in precisely these harbinger years of modern prosperity.

In short, more was involved than natural labour transfers for these countries. Their shared political characteristic was that each of them was governed by a metropolitan power; granted, they were (in per capita terms) better off than countries with less emigration such as Greece, Italy and Portugal. At the very least, one might hazard that these nations, before autonomy and/or independence, were not free to optimise locally the improvements to which they were committed by trade and ideology. This may not be irrelevant as the Franco-German economic dynamo starts to out-source many of its lower-tech opportunities and tasks to a Europe expanding eastwards, just as the United States has done in Mexico and elsewhere.

It would be foolish to romanticise our pre-1973 situation. But it would be equally foolish to ignore the late 19th-century precedent. We should draw balanced conclusions from both. - Yours, etc.,

David Doyle, The Meadow, Woodpark, Dublin 16.