Economic Pressure by Sean Keating

Figure 1: Economic Pressure by Sean Keating.


Throughout Ireland’s history, the country has experienced an exodus of its people disproportionate to its size. The prospect of emigration was preferable to the low wages and underemployment of the farm labourer and the other service classes. Kerby Miller, sums up the Irish emigrant as crossing the Atlantic not as an involuntary exile, but as voluntary emigrants in search of better economic and social opportunities.[1]

Ireland’s propensity for emigration encouraged chain migration through the family and relatives effect. Past immigrants wrote to their loved ones, telling about life in America, emphasizing that it was a country for young people, particularly those unmarried and who were capable of long years of hard work. Some letters offered advice to intending voyagers and many enclosed remittances to help pay for the cost of passage.[2] These overseas contacts reduced the stress of the impending departures from Ireland with the reassurance of lower emigration costs and support on arrival to find accommodation and employment.


During the period 1851 and 1920, 4,338,199 males and females emigrated from Ireland which was equivalent to 83% of the average population of the country.[3] Unlike the male dominated emigration from other European countries, Irish emigrants were composed almost equally of males and females.[4] The breakdown of the 4,338,199 emigrants was 52% male to 48% female. Of the four provinces, Munster had the highest percentage of emigrants with 111.5 per 100 of the average population or a total of 1,493,460. Within Munster, Kerry was the largest contributor with 126.7% followed closely by Clare at 117.7% and Cork at 113.2%.[5]

Minnie O'Connor with Frank O'Connor as a baby.

Figure 2: Emigrants to every 100 of average population 1851-1920, by region.

The considerable migratory statistics had huge effects on Ireland’s demographics and economy. The country experienced population decline and a shift in age structure. Additionally, the migration curbed Ireland’s industrialisation and also altered the occupational mix with so many small farmers and unskilled labourers leaving.[6] According to Karl Marx,

England, a country with fully developed capitalist production, and pre-eminently industrial, would have bled to death with such a drain of population as Ireland has suffered. But Ireland is at present only an agricultural district of England, marked off by a wide channel from the country to which it yields corn, wool, cattle, industrial and military recruits.[7]


Emigration Queenstown

Figure 3: Scott's Quay, Queenstown, Cork.

The main destination for emigrants was the United States. The probable reason for this was the historical precedence set during the Famine. Many ancestors who not only survived the Famine but prospered in their new home, provided tangible evidence of the gold on the sidewalks by sending generous remittances home both sustaining their relatives and eventually bringing to America those still at home. Additionally, the other significant trend was the direction of the emigrant, coming from rural Ireland and settling in urban America. This is borne out by the population abstract for the United States census of 1910, whereby 85% of Irish born dwellers settled in cities. In fact, the abstract shows that in five large urban cities, Ireland has a large representation of the foreign born residents.

Foreign born population, United States census 1910

Figure 4: Foreign born population, United States census 1910.[8]


The typical Irish person leaving the country at the start of the twentieth century was young, unmarried and poor. This fact is borne out by the analysis of emigrants in 1910. Of the 32,457 natives who left Ireland to seek their fortune and change their destinies, 41% were aged between twenty and twenty-five, 91% were single and 67% had occupations in the‘General Service Class’ which was comprised of 11,150 labourers and 10,485 servants and others.[9]

32,457 Emigrants by Class, 1910

Figure 5: 32,457 Emigrants from Ireland by Class, 1910.

Emigrants 1910 by age

Figure 6: 32,457 Emigrants from Ireland by Age, 1910.


Before the outbreak of the First World War, emigration from Ireland was approximately 7% per 1,000 population. However, when warfare began in July 1914, the Irish emigrant’s favoured destination changed. The precarious nature of traversing the Atlantic Ocean had a dramatic effect on the numbers of people immigrating to America. The sinking of the Lusitania would certainly have been a sobering reminder of the inherent dangers. Emigrants to the United States fell to a low of only twelve souls in 1918 but in 1920 emigration was back to pre-World War I statistics, with 12,288 leaving Ireland.[10]

However, the war had a material effect on immigration to the United Kingdom, with numbers peaking in 1915. The decline in permanent emigration was offset, however, by the migration of Irish servicemen towards the front and of Irish labourers to work in Britain’s armaments industry.[11]

Figure 7: Effects of World War 1 on Irish emigration.


From 1926 to 2011, net outward migration has exceeded net inward migration in the main. However the years 1971-1979 showed net inward migration of 14,000 per year, returning to normal levels until 1991, when once again inward migration exceeded outward.

Figure 8: Net migration 1926 - 2011 in Ireland. [12]

In most cases, Irish people emigrated for economic reasons, however depending on age, sex, social class, there are a variety of other motives, such as social, political and psychological. It is important to bear in mind that the effects of emigration were not only felt in the receiving country but also in the leaving country. In Ireland, the effect of emigration was immense with a whole generation disrupted. With a depleted generation of young, healthy and strong workers, Ireland’s economy felt the full force of the loss of its young people. The statistics of the early twentieth century where Ireland exported its twenty year olds was repeated after the fall of the Celtic Tiger and this trend will repeat itself in years to come.

[1] Kerby A. Miller, ‘Emigrants and exiles: Irish cultures and Irish emigration to North America, 1790-1922’ in Irish Historical Studies, vol. 22, no. 86 (Sep., 1980), p. 100.

[2] Arnold Schrier, Ireland and the American Emigration, 1850 – 1900 (Minneapolis, 1958), p. 21.

[3] Emigration Statistics of Ireland for the year 1920 [Cmd. 1414.], H.C. 1921, p. 4. Average population of Ireland is computed based on census returns for 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911.

[4] Hatton and Williamson, ‘After the Famine: Emigration from Ireland, 1850-1913’, p. 587.

[5] Emigration Statistics of Ireland for the year 1920 [Cmd. 1414.], H.C. 1921, p. 3.

[6] Cormac O’Grada and Brendan M. Walsh, ‘Economic effects of emigration: Ireland’ in Beth J. Asch (ed.), Emigration and its effects on the sending country (Santa Monica, 1994), p. 140.

[7] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, On Ireland (London, 1971), p. 105.

[8] United States Bureau of the census, Thirteenth Census of the United States 1910 (Washington, 1913), p. 200.

[9] Emigration Statistics of Ireland for the year 1910 [Cd. 5607.], H.C. 1911, p. 12.