Migration: Emigration from 1850 to 1960

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Emigration from 1850 to 1960

Irish emigration between 1850 and 1960 is best divided into three periods: 1850 to 1854, when most migrants still responded to the Great Famine's immediate effects; 1855 to 1929, when (as in 1850 to 1854) the great majority of Irish migrants went to the United States; and 1930 to 1960, when Irish emigration flowed primarily to Great Britain.

In the years 1850 to 1854, between 900,000 and one million Irish emigrated overseas (i.e., to destinations other than Britain), an average of 180,000 to 200,000 per year; not until 1855 did overseas migration decline to prefamine levels. Of these, some 80 percent emigrated to the United States, another 10 to 12 percent to British North America (Canada), and most of the remainder to Australia. In addition, an unknown number settled in England, Wales, or Scotland, and by 1861 Britain contained more than 800,000 Irish-born residents (up from 416,000 in 1841 and 727,000 in 1851). About twofifths of the overseas migrants left Munster, with another 13 percent from Connacht, and 23 percent each from Leinster and Ulster. In terms of its 1851 population Munster was overrepresented among the overseas emigrants, and Ulster was underrepresented, but the northern province probably contributed a disproportionate share of the migrants to Scotland and the north of England. Catholics likely constituted an overwhelming majority of the 1850 to 1854 migrants, as during the famine itself. Much of the migration between 1850 and 1854 reflected the famine's aftershocks—the effects of high poor-rates imposed on Irish farmers generally and of continued distress and evictions in western Ireland. However, large numbers (probably the great majority) responded to remittances and prepaid passage tickets sent by Famine emigrants who strove to reunite their families abroad. Thus, although most of the migrants of 1850 to 1854 were single men and women in their twenties and early thirties, family reunions help explain why about 40 percent were under age nineteen and 13 to 14 percent were over age thirty-five.

Between 1855 and 1929, the classic period of postfamine emigration, nearly five million Irish men and women emigrated to overseas destinations. The great majority, about 85 percent, settled in the United States; about 7 percent migrated to Canada, another 8 percent to Australia and New Zealand, and the remaining 1 to 2 percent to South Africa, Argentina, and other countries. In addition, scholars (for example, Cormac Ó Gráda) estimate that between 500,000 and one million unrecorded emigrants settled permanently in Great Britain. In all, more than two and one-half times the number of Irish people left their native land between 1855 and 1929 than had emigrated in all preceding periods combined. As a result, Ireland's population fell from 6.55 million in 1851 to merely 4.23 million in 1926. Although other European countries also experienced mass emigration in this period, only Ireland suffered what amounted to demographic catastrophe.

Except during World War I, annual Irish migration overseas in the period 1855 to 1929 never fell below 23,300 and was rarely less than 35,000. However, emigration fluctuated in response to economic conditions at home and abroad. Most notably, there was a surge in departures in the late 1870s and early 1880s; this was associated with poor harvests, evictions, agrarian turmoil (the Land War), and, most important, the steep price declines for Irish farm products that followed a period of relative prosperity in rural Ireland. Another fluctuation resulted from the U.S. economic depression of 1873 to 1877. Overseas migration normalized after 1883, but in the 1890s more than 427,000 Irish journeyed to the United States alone, and annual departures averaged about 43,000 from 1900 to 1913, and about 25,000 between the end of World War I and the Great Depression. In general, the origins of postfamine migration shifted steadily to the south and west of Ireland. Whereas most prefamine emigrants had left Ulster and Leinster, slightly more than half the overseas migrants from 1855 to 1929, perhaps 60 percent from 1880 to 1929, came from Munster and Connacht. A disproportionate share, especially from the late 1870s on, left the most impoverished and socially and culturally archaic "congested districts" in western Ireland and almost equally poor counties such as Cavan, Longford, and Tyrone. At least four-fifths of those who migrated to the United States between 1855 and 1929 were listed on shipping manifests as laborers and servants; the great majority were single men and women in their late teens and early twenties. Unusually among contemporary emigrants, women comprised about half the Irish migrants—slightly more than half after 1880. The overwhelming majority were Catholics, and given their regional origins, a large minority were Irish-speakers. In contrast to those general patterns, however, Ulster migration rose sharply in the 1870s and early 1900s, when it is probable that Protestant emigration also increased. In addition, it appears that relatively affluent, skilled and/or educated Protestants (and Catholics) from Ulster and Leinster were disproportionately represented among migrants to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, whereas poorer Ulster men and women probably comprised a majority of migrants to Britain.

Postfamine emigration was encouraged by cheap, improved transportation: Transatlantic steamships called regularly at Queenstown (now Cobh, Co. Cork) and at Moville (Co. Donegal), crossed the ocean in merely 10 to 15 days, and charged fares as low as 1 or 2 pounds. Most overseas migrants paid their passages with remittances or prepaid tickets sent by relatives abroad; between the Great Famine and 1900 the value of these from the United States alone exceeded 52 million pounds (260 million dollars). This in turn reflected the growth, stability, and relative prosperity of an Irish-American society, concentrated in northern centers, able to offer the newcomers shelter and employment. Also, the peculiar evolution of postfamine Irish society virtually mandated massive out-migration, even during the U.S. Civil War and the U.S. depression of 1893 to 1897. Continued deindustrialization provided no alternative to underemployed or unemployed rural and urban dwellers, only a minority of whom could be absorbed in northeast Ulster's industrialized but highly selective and sectarian job market. Most important, the increasing commercialization of Irish agriculture exposed Ireland's tenant farmers to international price fluctuations. It persuaded them (even in the west of Ireland after 1880) to adopt impartible inheritance and late-marriage patterns, which consigned most of their sons and daughters to emigration. It also dictated a pronounced shift from tillage to pasture farming, which in turn sharply reduced both employment and opportunities to rent land among agricultural laborers and noninheriting farmers' children. More broadly, the commercialization and concomitant anglicization of rural Irish society eroded the emigrants' familial, social, and cultural bonds to their homeland. These converging trends made emigration more a fundamental imperative—rooted in the inequities and processes of Irish society—than a matter of personal choice. Irish nationalists wrongly believed that winning self-government alone could bring prosperity and full employment; continued migration in the 1920s, after the creation of the Irish Free State, demonstrated that its causes were structural.

Irish migration to the United States dropped sharply after 1929 and never recovered its former levels. In the decade from 1931 to 1940, according to U.S. data, Irish emigrants to the United States numbered merely 13,000 (versus 23,000 to Australia and New Zealand), rising only to 27,500 in 1941 to 1950, and to 40,000 in 1951 to 1961. However, the Irish economy stagnated from the 1930s to the 1950s, and Britain's relatively early recovery from the depression and its enormous need for labor (and wartime nurses) during the war and in postwar reconstruction persuaded at least 634,000 Irish men and women to settle in the United Kingdom. Between 1931 and 1961 Britain's Irish-born residents increased from 505,000 to 951,000. In 1948 the Dublin government created a commission to propose policies to stem emigration, but not until the 1960s would Irish economic growth check a floodtide that had been flowing since the Great Famine.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1845 to 1921; American Wakes; Diaspora: The Irish in Australia; Diaspora: The Irish in Britain; Diaspora: The Irish in North America; Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Great Famine; Migration: Seasonal Migration; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Rural Life: 1850 to 1921; Town Life from 1690 to the Early Twentieth Century; Primary Documents: From the Report of the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems, 1948–1954 (1955)


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Kerby Miller

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