Migration: Seasonal Migration

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Seasonal Migration

Irish emigration has long been a subject of study, though the short-term seasonal and temporary movement of workers has not received the same attention. This is surprising considering the great number of agricultural workers involved during the heyday of seasonal migration in the nineteenth century and the interchange of ideas, values, and customs that occurred.

Although there is some evidence that Irish farm laborers were already traveling to Britain in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, their numbers increased only with population pressures in Ireland during the second half of the eighteenth century. With the establishment of the first regular passenger steamship service between Britain and Ireland in 1815, the one serious obstacle to reaching places where work was available—the expense of the journey—was removed. Already by the 1830s, by conservative estimate there were 35,000–40,000 Irish people working on a temporary basis in Britain, and numbers continued to increase to more than double this figure by the 1860s. In many areas of Ireland, especially in Counties Mayo and Donegal, people were dependent on earnings from seasonal work well into the opening decades of the twentieth century. The introduction of "new" agricultural crops to Britain in the late nineteenth century fostered a mutual dependence: Britain needed seasonal laborers to plant and lift potatoes, hoe turnips, pick fruit and hops, and ready crops for transport to the local market. In Scotland the extension of the railway resulted in the rapid growth of the potato industry after the 1860s, providing plenty of seasonal employment for Irish migrants. The Irish had worked as reapers of corn in the Scottish lowlands during the Napoleonic war years and had become general agricultural laborers, working from seed-time to crop gathering, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century. They were still working as "tattie hokers" in the Scottish potato fields in the 1940s and 1950s.

Equally significant were the travels of seasonal migrants within Ireland, predominantly from western areas to counties in the east. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets mention these spailpíní, as the workers were generally known. Their numbers were greatest during the difficult years of the 1820s and 1830s. On the whole, the seasonal workers were people who had close ties to the land: small farmers, cottiers, agricultural laborers, and generally poor people with family responsibilities and no means of earning cash at home. Women began to participate as workers to an important degree only in the middle of the nineteenth century, in the Scottish potato fields. Although there were few women migrant workers before this time, women were nevertheless an essential part of the movement in other ways: they provided support for the men by traveling with them; they begged for food and money to keep themselves and their children alive until the men returned home, and they undertook and organized essential farm work back in Ireland, thereby maintaining the small holding of land as the family home.

SEE ALSO Markets and Fairs in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; Migration: Emigration from the Seventeenth Century to 1845; Migration: Emigration from 1850 to 1960; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Rural Life: 1690 to 1845; Rural Life: 1850 to 1921


Collins, E. J. T. "Migrant Labor in British Agriculture in the Nineteenth Century." Economic History Review 14, no. 1 (1976): 38–59.

Harris, R. A. M. The Nearest Place that Wasn't Ireland: Early Nineteenth-Century Irish Labor Migration. 1994.

O'Dowd, Anne. Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers: History and Folklore of the Irish Migratory Agricultural Worker in Britain and Ireland. 1991.

Ó Fiaich, Tomás. "Filíocht Uladh mar Fhoinse don Stair Shóisialta san 18ú Aois." Studia Hibernica 11 (1971): 80–129.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. "Seasonal Migration and Post-Famine Adjustment in the West of Ireland." Studia Hibernica 13 (1973): 48–76.

Anne O'Dowd