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From the Report of the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems, 1948–1954

From theReport of the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems, 1948–1954


The Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems was appointed in 1948 to examine various aspects of Ireland's population, but in practice it concentrated almost exclusively on emigration. Although most of its work was completed by 1950, it did not report until 1954 because the members were unable to agree on a report. The eventual report is more valuable as a historical record than as a blueprint for ending emigration; few of its recommendations were implemented.

SEE ALSO Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Migration: Emigration from 1850 to 1960; Migration: Emigration and Immigration since 1950

While the fundamental cause of emigration is economic, in most cases the decision to emigrate cannot be ascribed to any single motive but to the interplay of a number of motives. As between one person and another these motives undoubtedly differ in importance and intensity, depending on outlook, temperament, family background, education, age, sex and conjugal condition, as well as on economic, social, domestic and other circumstances. It is not possible, therefore, to attribute emigration to a single cause that would account satisfactorily for the decision to emigrate in all cases. The causes put before us in evidence were very many—principally economic, but also social, political, cultural and psychological. . . .

There has been a great demand for labour in the United States of America and more recently in Great Britain, countries which, in general, presented the Irish emigrant with no difficulties of language or barriers due to race, thus causing him a minimum of personal and social adjustment in his new environment. The existence of employment opportunities more attractive than those at home became increasingly well known—in the case of America from the family connections which have continued since the original heavy post-Famine emigration to that continent, and in the case of Great Britain because of its proximity and easy accessibility. . . .

Generally throughout the country there is a lack of opportunities for employment to absorb the natural increase of the population. . . .

The other principal reason for emigration is the desire for improved material standards together with a dissatisfaction with life on the land, whether in its economic or its social aspects. Migration from rural to urban areas is a feature common in most countries, but it does not always bring about a progressive decline in the numbers remaining on the land as in this country . . . nowadays, fewer people are satisfied with a subsistence standard of living and they find an easy alternative in emigration. Very small holdings of poor or marginal land are tending to become amalgamated. Modern technology can provide rising material standards of life more easily in urban than in rural areas and hence, the world over, life in agricultural districts is proving less attractive. In the eyes of many, particularly of those who do not own a farm, agriculture has serious disadvantages; it does not appear to provide a sufficient income, it makes great demands on time, and it involves much physical effort in return for relatively small remuneration. . . .

While the fundamental causes of emigration are economic, social amenities are also an important factor. There are differences between rural and urban areas in the standards and availability of housing as well as in services such as electricity, water supplies and transport. . . . Again, modern urban life has developed high standards of organised entertainment and a wide range of recreational facilities. By contrast, and particularly to the young mind, rural areas appear dull, drab, monotonous, backward and lonely—a view, however, many would regard as superficial. . . .

Tradition and example have also been very powerful influences. Emigration of some members of the family has almost become part of the established custom of the people in certain areas—a part of the generally accepted pattern of life. For very many emigrants there was a traditional path "from the known to the known," that is to say, from areas where they lived to places where their friends and relations awaited them. This path they followed as a matter of course without even looking for suitable employment in this country . . .

Apart from tradition and example, there is a widespread awareness of the existence of opportunities abroad and a realisation of differences between conditions at home and in other countries. This is confirmed and encouraged by the reports of emigrants who return well-dressed and with an air of prosperity, by glowing accounts in letters of high incomes and easy conditions and by practical demonstration in the remittances which are sent home. These accounts, which rarely paint any other side of the picture—and there is another side to it—are frequently exaggerated, and make a strong impression on the minds of young people. . . .

Although female emigration, like male, is the result of a variety of causes, the purely economic cause is not always dominant. For the female emigrant improvement in personal status is of no less importance than the higher wages and better conditions of employment abroad and some of the evidence submitted to us would suggest that the prospect of better marriage opportunities is also an influence of some significance. Large numbers of girls emigrate to domestic service in Great Britain because they consider that the wages, conditions of work and also the status of domestic service in this country are unsatisfactory. Many others emigrate because the opportunities of obtaining factory or office work are better than here, and in the nursing profession numbers leave the country because the remuneration, facilities for training, pension schemes and hours of work in this country are considered to be unattractive. . . .

While some emigrants have deliberately weighed the pros and cons, and have come to the conclusion that on balance they will be better off elsewhere, others emigrate for different reasons. A natural desire for adventure of change, and eagerness to travel, to see the world and share the enjoyments of modern city life, to secure financial independence by having pocket money and by being free to spend it in one's own way, to obtain freedom from parental control and a privacy not obtainable in one's home environment, to be free to choose one's own way of life—such matters affect a proportion of young people everywhere and they appeal strongly in a country where there has been, for so many years, an established tradition of emigration.

Reprinted in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, vol. 5, Irish Women's Writing and Traditions, edited by Angela Bourke et al. (2002), pp. 583–584.

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