Migration: Emigration and Immigration since 1950

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Emigration and Immigration since 1950

The evolution of Irish society since 1950, north and south, was shaped fundamentally by the continued experience of emigration. Immigration was always less significant in both societies, though by the end of the twentieth century independent Ireland was an immigrant country. In the early 1950s, as they watched thousands of young people leaving Ireland for new lives elsewhere, few contemporaries could have foreseen this development. Irish population history since the mid-twentieth century vividly illustrates how the wider economic environment determines the levels of either emigration or immigration.

The years following the end of the Second World War witnessed the large-scale movement of Irish emigrants to Britain. The late 1940s and the 1950s constituted a remarkable era of mass emigration. Over 500,000 people left independent Ireland between 1945 and 1960—stark evidence of the poor state of the Irish economy at this time. The following decade saw reduced emigration, a significant decrease that, together with substantial return migration in the 1960s, contributed to a rise in the population of independent Ireland by 1971—reversing the downward trend since the late 1840s. In the 1970s the numbers immigrating remained, for a sustained period, higher than the numbers leaving. This inflow was due mainly to the return home of emigrants who had left in the 1940s and 1950s. The 1980s and 1990s were a watershed in Irish population history. Emigration again became a major feature of life in the 1980s—the so-called new wave of Irish emigration. By the mid-1990s, however, as a consequence of the rapid economic growth associated with the Celtic Tiger, the inflow again exceeded the exodus. For instance, in 2001–2002 the population rose by 58,100 people, and the net inflow of 28,800 accounted for roughly half of this increase.

Similarly, Northern Ireland experienced large-scale emigration in the 1950s, although the northern exodus remained at less than half the rate of the southern state. In the 1960s the level of emigration decreased, mirroring the trend in independent Ireland. In the 1970s the numbers leaving Northern Ireland rose, and this trend continued into the 1980s, leading to a slight decrease in the total population by 1991. Throughout the 1990s the gross outflow averaged roughly 17,000 people, although this was offset by a slightly larger inflow of migrants.

Where did Irish emigrants travel in the second half of the twentieth century? From the 1940s on, roughly three out of every four Irish emigrants were destined for Britain, and one out of eight for the United States, with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand accounting for most of the remainder. It was only in the 1980s that the United States regained its popularity as a destination for Irish emigrants, with many of them entering the country illegally. In the 1980s about one in seven leaving independent Ireland traveled to the United States. The redirection of emigration across the Atlantic was a reflection of the employment opportunities available there, and the severity of the economic recession in Ireland and Britain. One significant feature of the "new wave" of Irish emigration of the 1980s and early 1990s was the greater variety of destinations. Mainland Europe received small but significant numbers of young Irish people in the 1980s and 1990s.

It was only with the establishment of the Assisted Passage Scheme (1947–1971) that Australia again became an attractive option. Under this scheme, which aimed to attract white settlers to Australia, emigrants were provided with assistance toward the cost of the fare, hostel accommodation on arrival, access to public housing, and voting rights within six months. Citizens of Northern Ireland, as British subjects, paid only £10 to migrate to Australia, with all their other expenses being defrayed. An agreement reached with the Irish state in November 1948 limited assistance to £30 for each adult fare for Irish citizens. The numbers leaving both parts of Ireland for Australia peaked in the 1960s and early 1970s, and by 1981 the Irish-born population amounted to almost 68,000 people.

Most other European migrant flows were dominated by single males, but Ireland, north and south, differed in this key respect, following a pattern established in the nineteenth century. In Northern Ireland the gender differential was more marked in the 1950s and 1960s, with a greater number of males emigrating than females, though by the 1980s this gap had narrowed. Throughout the 1990s roughly equal numbers of males and females emigrated from Northern Ireland. An over-riding characteristic of the emigrant profile was their relative youth. Young people made up the great bulk of the outflow, as in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Detailed information on the socioeconomic profile of Irish emigrants after 1950 is not available, although it appears that the majority came from poorer backgrounds, especially in parts of western and northwestern Ireland. Throughout this period the emigration of highly skilled workers was also significant, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, reflecting the huge expansion in secondary and university education in the 1970s and 1980s.

In Northern Ireland the failure of the traditionally higher birth rate among Catholics to produce a substantial rise in the Catholic share of total population is generally explained by the higher level of Catholic emigration up to the 1960s. But patterns shifted over time. In the 1950s almost two-thirds of emigrants were Catholic. In the following decade the differences narrowed somewhat, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s Protestants emigrated from Northern Ireland at a higher rate than Catholics, a trend that continued into the 1990s and reflected the demand in Britain for skilled labor and the preference of young Protestants for education at English and Scottish universities.

Inflows into independent Ireland from the 1960s onward were mostly composed of emigrants returning from Britain or the United States. In the 1970s a net inflow of over 100,000 people was recorded. From the late 1980s until the mid-1990s immigration averaged 30,000 persons per annum. Between 1997 and 2002 the average annual inflow rose to 45,000 persons. Returned Irish emigrants were the largest immigrant group throughout the 1990s, although the proportion of non-European Union (EU) nationals increased steadily from 1999 onward. The attractions of rapid economic growth together with higher living standards ensured that immigration from other parts of Europe and non-EU countries gradually increased. While the immigration of large numbers of skilled workers received little attention, the arrival of relatively small numbers of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers from eastern Europe, Africa, and elsewhere has generated much public controversy. For Northern Ireland the annual gross inflow between 1975 and 1990 fluctuated between 6,000 and 10,000 persons. In the 1990s immigration into Northern Ireland increased and averaged 19,000 persons per annum, many of whom were migrants returning after spending time living and working in Britain.

Emigration was a defining feature of Irish life after 1950. For most of this period it ensured that a significant proportion of each generation born in Ireland would in time leave for other countries, and only in the 1970s and 1990s did substantial immigration reverse this well-established historical pattern. From the mid-1990s the immigrant flow has included an increasing number of economic migrants from other countries—a remarkable discontinuity within the past two hundred years. For a country accustomed to bidding farewell to so many of its young citizens, welcoming immigrants, especially from non-EU countries, proves to be an extremely difficult process and remains one of the central ironies of contemporary Irish society: a nation of emigrants now displays a remarkable reluctance to embrace non-European nationals and to accept that immigration is an inevitable outcome of economic success.

SEE ALSO Celtic Tiger; Diaspora: The Irish in Australia; Diaspora: The Irish in Britain; Diaspora: The Irish in North America; Family: Fertility, Marriage, and the Family since 1950; Social Change since 1922; Primary Documents: From the Report of the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems, 1948–1954 (1955)


Delaney, Enda. Demography, State and Society: Irish Migration to Britain, 1921–1971. 2000.

Delaney, Enda. Irish Emigration since 1921. 2002.

Enda Delaney

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