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Piaras Mac Einri

Department of Geography, University College Cork


Among the realities which defined the social landscape of Ireland between the Famine and the Fifties, two were central: high emigration, and a familial, rural culture, isolationist and Roman Catholic in inspiration and practice. For many foreign observers and not a few Irish people the latter image, in particular, still constitutes their "authentic" Ireland. The 1960s were a watershed, with a rapid acceleration in urbanisation, industrialisation and economic development, accompanied by a slowing down of emigration. Since then, a kind of social revolution has occurred in the country. Irish marriage and fertility patterns are increasingly coming to resemble those of other European countries. The hegemonic rural discourse has all but disappeared and the grip of isolationist and fundamentalist Catholic thinking on Irish society has greatly weakened. New voices are being heard and alternative realities are being evoked. Irish emigration continues, but the options chosen are no longer the same, and many return. For the first time in two centuries, immigration is beginning to have an impact, modest as yet, on a hitherto relatively monolithic culture. The result of these various processes is likely to be a society which, even at present writing, is no longer particularly "exceptional" in European or world terms, but increasingly resembles, for better or for worse, other European societies. In effect, it is the timing and rapidity of the Irish demographic transition which is remarkable.


In this article I propose to consider briefly those factors which characterised traditional Irish emigration . This will be followed by a brief description of the changes in Irish society which began to occur in the 1960s and the effects which these changes have had on the Irish demographic landscape. The article concludes by examining current demographic trends, with particular reference to fertility, emigration and immigration.

My fundamental contention is that, while strong patterns of continuity may be cited, Ireland (1) is currently traversing a social and demographic revolution which in important respects constitutes a radical departure from past representations and practice.

1 From the famine to the fifties: factors which characterised traditional Irish emigration

Since the Famine and earlier, the Irish emigrated in proportionately greater numbers than any other European people(2). Most, although not all, of those who emigrated came from the less developed rural parts of the country and most, although not all, were themselves from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The destinations chosen varied at different times but the vast majority went to other English-speaking countries and most of these went to the USA or the UK.  Chart 1 illustrates this pattern, showing the geographical distribution world-wide of Irish-born (32 counties) persons between 1841 and 1951. A clearly discernible trend shows the gradual erosion of the overwhelming popularity of the United States in favour of the UK which became (after independence - ironically) the destination of choice for the majority of emigrants. From the 1960s until the early 1980s, it is likely that more than 80% of those who did emigrate went to the UK. By contrast, the Reports of the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems (the Commission sat from 1948 until 1954) dismisses the number who went to continental European countries as negligible. Mention should also be made of another category of emigrants who may not have been very numerous but whose influence was out of all proportion to their numbers: the missionary priests and nuns from various Roman Catholic orders who brought their message to many corners of the world, from China to Africa(3).

Within Ireland a Great Silence (relatively speaking) about the subject of emigration has been followed in the recent past by a Great Debate, ranging over such questions as the alleged "sanitisation" of contemporary Irish emigration (i.e. the suggestion that "new wave" migrants are mainly voluntary and are better off in various respects than the predecessors (4), President Mary Robinson’s speech Cherishing the Irish Diaspora to the joint houses of the Irish Parliament (5) (which was ground-breaking for some but also attracted criticism), and the new focus on such specific issues as the extension of political suffrage to emigrants. As I write, the Parnell Summer School (summer schools, a peculiarly but not uniquely Irish institution, allow academics, writers, politicians, activists and anyone interested to spend several days discussing an issue of topical importance) is considering the subject of the Irish Diaspora; as far as I am aware it is only the second summer school in the recent past to be devoted to this specific topic (the first, the Patrick McGill Summer School, considered the question in 1988 (6). In addition, relatively few specialist conferences have taken place: one thinks, in particular, of the Mary Murray Seminar organised by the Galway Labour History Group (7) and the Geographical of Ireland’s special conference on contemporary migration, in Spring 1991 (8). At least one regional conference of the American Committee of Irish Studies (ACIS), also addressed the topic (Atlantic region, Washington 1991).

Conventional demographic transition theory identifies a number of distinct phases through which societies, or European societies at any rate, pass in their demographic development. As Courtney (9), quoting Blacker (10) summarises, we may distinguish

    • a stationary phase in which mortality and fertility are high
    • an early expanding one when mortality begins to decline and fertility remains unchanged at a high level
    • a late expanding one, when the decline in fertility follows the decline of mortality
    • a low stationary one, when mortality and fertility are both at a similar level
    • a diminishing one, when fertility declines below the level of mortality, which ceases to decline, and so the population begins to diminish

Courtney also reminds us that for some demographers (notably Van da Kaa (11) Europe has already passed through all of the stages of the conventional demographic transition and has embarked on a new "second demographic transition":

… clearly emerging population trends and changing lifestyles are in evidence. They include later motherhood, more voluntary childlessness, declining fertility, lower replacement levels, greater longevity, an ageing population and labour force, greater female education and labour force participation, more persons living alone especially the elderly, fewer legal marriages, more consensual unions, extra-marital births and one-parent families, increasing levels of marital instability, separation and divorce, more couples gainfully employed outside the home and a greater sharing of household activities(12).

Ireland was a long way from the second demographic transition in the 1950s. In fact, it can be said that the country, far from having reached the final phase of the classic first demographic transition, had not even entered the third phase, "late expanding", when a decline in mortality is supposed to be followed by a decline in fertility and hence a gradual slowing down in population growth. Certainly, the population was failing to grow, but this was due to a unique combination of social and marital practices and to the loss of population which the country suffered through constant emigration. At least, it may be described as unique if we confine ourselves to states: many examples may be cited of internal migration within states (e.g. the Massif Central in France), where the effect on the region of origin was not dissimilar to the effect on large parts of Ireland of constant substantial out-migration.

In reality, Ireland’s unique demographic profile, in European and even world terms, might be said only to have lasted from the Famine of the 1840s to the 1950s. This period was characterised by low marriage rates and a late age of marriage, high rates of fertility within marriage and equally high rates of sexual abstinence outside it (as well as sexual prudery, as demonstrated by the newly independent state’s draconian censorship laws), and high rates of emigration (13). This may be contrasted with post-war European experience, with a rapid recovery to historically high marriage rates, falling fertility rates within marriage and rising levels of births outside marriage, and the development of large-scale immigration in a number of European societies.

2 Changes in irish society from the 1960s

The 1960s.

After the low point reached in the 1950s, when half a million emigrated, the climate of the time was one which understandably saw emigration as Ireland’s principal social problem (although very little was actually done about it), followed by a concern with the flight from the land and the exceptionally low marriage rates (not to mention the advanced age at which many Irish men, in particular, got married). Few seem to have considered what might happen if economic and social circumstances were to change in such a way that marriage became a feasible option for substantially greater numbers of young people, but where fertility rates within marriage did not (at least at first) change(14). Yet this is precisely what occurred during the 1960s.

The publication in 1958 of T.K. Whitaker's (First) Programme for Economic Expansion (15), was a watershed, calling as it did for the ending of Ireland’s traditional policy of economic isolationism and adopting the view that the only way forward lay in the modernisation of the economy and, because of its under-capitalised nature, the development of policies designed to attract foreign investment, industrialisation and the development of an export-driven economy. Ireland was fortunate in the time it chose to develop these initiatives: the 1960s were a boom period for the world economy and the Irish one benefited as well, illustrating the dictum of the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Seán Lemass, that a rising tide would carry all boats. Money flowed into the country and foreign investment led to substantial creation of employment in the new industrial sector and a rapid growth in exports. This is not the place for a detailed discussion of the impact of the First Programme: readers may consult a number of authorities e.g. Lee’s chapter on "Expansion: 1958-1969" in Ireland 1912-1985 (16).

It was not only the economic climate which was to change dramatically, however. The 1960s saw many other changes: Vatican II and the leadership of a reforming Pope, the advent in Ireland of a national television broadcasting service in 1961, the arrival of a consumerist culture and a greater emphasis on individualism, the sixties-inspired winds of change of music and protest, and the beginning, to some extent, of post-Civil War politics. Urbanisation and suburbanisation became dominant trends in social geography. Old ties began to loosen: even in remote regions of the country the meitheal, or communal work network (consisting of extended family, neighbours and friends, who would carry out such tasks as hay-saving and turf-cutting on a non-monetary, co-operative basis) gave way to the "contractor". It was the end of an era.

It would be a mistake to read all of this "progress" as uniformly positive. John Healy’s journalism, and his autobiographical Nineteen Acres (17) poignantly chronicles the impact of change on his part of impoverished Mayo. Even the condition of women did not automatically improve on all fronts - Carmel Duggan points to the actual diminution in status experienced by many farming women in this period, compared to their previous state whereby certain cottage industries had given them a degree of financial autonomy and status (18). The rigidity of the Irish socio-economic power structures, carefully hidden behind the facade of an allegedly classless society, did not change much either.

What is undeniable, however, was the general improvement in economic opportunities evident in the period. As Lee says, living standards rose during the 1960s by about 50% (19). Put simply, the new jobs allowed people to stay in Ireland and to marry and have children, whereas previously they would have emigrated. The figures speak for themselves. Lee points out that in the period 1961-1971 the number of families rose by 48,000 compared to a rise of only 11,000 in the years 1946-61 (20). At the same time (see Chart 2) net out-migration fell sharply over the decade of the sixties.

The really dramatic change was in the marriage rate. This jumped from 14,700 in 1957 to 16,800 in 1966 to 22,000 in 1971 (an increase of almost 50% in the annual marriage rate over the period). Measured by the usual standard, the number of marriages per 1000 of the population, the rate increased from 5.1 in 1957 (an extraordinarily low rate by world standards), to 5.8 in 1966, 6 in 1967, 7 in 1970 (for the first time since Irish records began in 1864). The age of marriage also fell in the period 1961-1973: from 30.6 to 27.2 for males, 26.9 to 24.8 for females.

The results were immediately apparent. The number of children in primary school rose from 496,000 in 1960 to 544,000 in1973, a staggering increase of 9.68%. The country had experienced a more or less constant loss of population from the 1840s onwards: this was now decisively reversed (see Chart 3). In fact, the population grew by about 25% between 1961 and 1986.

In short, the 1960s were a period of growth and change. The real revolutions, however, were yet to come.

The 1970s.

The emergence of the Northern crisis, Ireland’s accession to the EEC in 1973, and the growth of a strong women’s movement, among other significant social, cultural and political phenomena, posed new questions. These very rapid changes, over a shorter time-scale than had been the case in other European states, precipitated various debates and crises about the nature of Irish society itself and engendered major change. Crucially, economic and political change were followed at a distance of some years by changes in other social spheres, as newly-empowered women, in particular, moved to improve their position in society, and as modernisation and new ideas brought changes in underlying attitudes.

Nowhere have these changes been more important than at the interface between public and private sexual morality and behaviour, and between State and Church, from patterns of marriage and fertility to homosexual rights. The impact on family structures and fertility choices was particularly significant. As Inglis suggests,

It is the family which has been the continuing link between the Church and individual Catholics. More specifically, it has been Irish mothers who have produced each new generation of Irish Catholic souls. When, as has been happening since the 1960s, Irish women are no longer dependent on the Church for power (having gained access to political and economic power), and consequently, the Church loses its ability to control them and their sex, then one of the pillars, if not the foundation, of what has held the Church above modern Irish society begins to crumble and decay (21).

In retrospect, it is evident that economic change seems to have preceded social change by at least a decade. The 1960s may have been a period of startling economic growth, but ideology and social forms are slower to alter. The immediate effects of the sixties were a rise in marriage rates and a fall in the age of marriage, but little change in fertility rates within marriage. One should not forget, either, that the liberal agenda of Vatican II did not extend to a liberalisation of Catholic teaching on contraception; all forms of artificial birth control were still banned (Humanae Vitae, 1968). It was only after a certain lapse of time that the more fundamental changes which Inglis is referring to above began to occur. One such key shift was the Supreme Court decision (the McGee case) in 1973 to strike down, on constitutional grounds, legislation forbidding the sale of artificial contraceptives to married couples. The barrister for the plaintiffs was a certain Mary Robinson.

This décalage between economic and social change is well illustrated by a consideration of fertility rates in Ireland at this period. Chart 4 illustrates total fertility rates for a number of European countries and for the EU as a whole. The really striking features of Irish fertility rates are (a) that they were indeed so much higher than those of other European countries, including Catholic states like Italy which currently has one of the lowest total fertility rates in the world and (b) that the boom of the 1960s did not immediately lead to a change in Irish fertility practices. The result, as Marsh had predicted back in the 1950s, was the population boom of unprecedented proportions to which I have already referred. Total fertility rates actually rose during the 1960s and stayed at a high level until the early 1970s. A young, active, marrying population (the age of marriage, as pointed out earlier, also fell in the 1960s) led to the maintenance of the crude birth rate in Ireland at a level of over 21 per thousand (see Chart 5) at a time when it was falling virtually everywhere else in Europe.

Migration in the 1970s

As is well-known, the 1970s were a period, for the first time since before the Famine, of net immigration (see Chart 2). This was probably caused by a number of factors: the general "feel-good factor" of EEC membership, skills shortages, expansionist economic policy and the effects of the guaranteed price support system of the Common Agricultural Policy and the additional transitional five-year regime from 1973, during which huge sums of capital were injected into the Irish economy. It should also be noted, however, that if one examines the key age cohort viz. the 18-25 age group, emigration did not stop within this group, it merely slowed down.

What in fact seems to have happened is that a large number of individuals with skills returned with their families. Thus, for every typical 18-year old putative emigrant, there may have been an entire family returning, complete with young children - another factor in the big increase in school enrolments.

It is noteworthy that there is little evidence of any new-found enthusiasm for "Europe" in the choices made by 1970s migrants (if one excepts certain elite categories such as those who joined the administrative services of EC organisations). It seems to have taken some years for the possibilities of EC membership to "trickle down" and affect migrant decision-making processes. Equally, there was only a limited interest in immigration to Ireland from continental Europe at this time.

The 1980s.

In the 1980s a number of factors combined to create a very difficult economic climate. A large part of the blame must be attributed to a massive increase in the public debt. This can be dated back to the General Election of 1977, when a "give-away" election manifesto led to the abolition of most local taxes. The increase in debt came at a period of painful re-structuring within Irish industry and at a time when the need to reform the Common Agricultural Policy was becoming a dominant EU theme, not least because of Mrs. Thatcher’s efforts. At the same time, emigration, which some had thought to be a phenomenon of the past, rose very sharply and rapidly became one of the cultural and social issues of the day, even though many politicians were slow to understand the implications (22).

Since that time, emigration has not ceased to be a subject of public debate. Much of the focus in the 1980s was on Irish "illegals" (undocumented aliens) in the USA and ignored the fact that the majority of emigrants still went to the UK. The NESC (23) report suggests that in the 1981-1990 period 68% of all emigrants went to the UK, 14% to the USA and 18% to other countries. This is not the place to examine the statistical difficulties in tracking Irish emigration flows, except to stay that the data which is available is incomplete and difficult to dis-aggregate.

Ultimately, the problem of Irish undocumented aliens in the USA was largely resolved by a number of measures: the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, which amnestied certain categories of illegal aliens including many Irish, and the various special programmes which have had the effect of creating new opportunities for Irish would-be migrants to the States - by the early 1990s up to 16,000 visas annually were available to Irish immigrants. However, the last of these programmes is about due to expire and one must wonder if the next few years will see a resurgence of the "illegals" phenomenon. For the first time since the 1950s, there is now a large, young, Irish immigrant population in several American cities. They are well organised and politically astute. Research indicates that, irrespective of their social and economic status, the social networking skills of the Irish, wherever they are, are still a key factor in determining choices of destination (24) The mere presence of such large numbers of young Irish is likely to encourage their younger counterparts to follow them.

During the mid-1980s a particular controversy broke out about the number of Irish "illegals" in the USA - was the figure 40,000 - 50,000, as the Government claimed, or more than 100,000, as a number of emigrant action groups asserted? Most commentators (including the present author) thought the lower figure was closer to the truth at the time, but the availability of better data from the 1991 Census has, if anything, lent weight to the higher figure.

This is because the 1980s, the years of emigration, were also paradoxically characterised by a phenomenon whose sheer scale had not been predicted by any commentator: substantial, even massive, inward migration. In effect, the number who left the country was even higher - by a great deal - than had been thought, but this was masked by the fact that far more persons than was imagined either came back to Ireland, or immigrated to the country as nationals of other countries. As pointed out by Courtney (25), there were approximately 472,300 emigrations from Ireland (26 Counties) between April 1982 and 1993; in the same period, there were approximately 263,500 immigrations.

The implications of this latter figure are stunning and have yet to be fully considered. It is one thing to consider the impact on Irish society of the absent Irish - and they are no longer so absent anyway, for a variety of reasons to do with mass communication and transport and the way we define "Irishness" nowadays . But the combined impact of the return migration of Irish people and a considerable leavening of foreign-born immigrants (whether of Irish descent or not) is bound to have major implications for the future of Irish society and culture. This phenomenon continues (see chart 6 and commentary below).

In retrospect, there was evidently a strongly demographic element in the return of emigration in the 1980s. As I have earlier pointed out, there was an unprecedented rise in births in the 1960s in Ireland. Even if the economic climate had been favourable, the fact was that more and more school-leavers - the baby-boomers of the 1960s - were entering an already over-crowded labour market in the 1980s. But the economic climate was not favourable and there was difficulty even in retaining existing employment. New job creation on the scale which would have been required was never in prospect (26). This is not intended to absolve the Irish government and Irish society for a phenomenon whose sheer scale shows that very large numbers of young people became involuntary migrants from a society which had no future to offer them. In the single year 1989 more than 70,000 people left the country, probably the highest figure for any one year this century.

Meanwhile, the choice of destinations of Irish emigrants has undergone a sea-change. The relative importance of the UK has declined while continental Europe has emerged as a major new factor in the equation; up to a quarter of Irish emigrants in some recent years went to the USA. While the latest statistics show a continuing high level of emigration, balanced by a continuing high level of in-migration, the overall impression must remain one of an extraordinary volatility. Chart 7 illustrates this trend (see also more detailed comments below).

Changes in fertility from the mid-1980s.

In 1994, it was still possible for one commentator to write that

Although Irish Catholicism has been analysed extensively, its impact on women has received less analysis. Yet a major feature of Irish exceptionalism has been a persistence of high fertility rates within marriage. In 1987, Irish fertility was the highest in any developed country with the exception of the USSR and Albania (27).

Nevertheless, it is evident from the 1985 figures onwards that major change was already under way. As Courtney says,

If the 1961 total marital fertility rates endured there would have been about 95,000 births to married couples in 1991 instead of 43,155 in the Republic of Ireland, a decline of almost 55% in thirty years(28).

He reminds us that

The reduction in fertility has been facilitated by the liberalisation of family planning legislation which was introduced in the Republic of Ireland as recently as 1979 (29) (this was the result of the McGee case).

and goes on to comment on this change in fertility:

Specifically, fertility changes in the Republic of Ireland are attributed to varying patterns of nuptiality and migration, occupational changes from agriculture into production and service industries, increasing regional development and urbanisation, EU membership with greater general receptivity to new ideas and increasing numbers of married women in the labour force (30).

There can be no doubt that during the later 1980s the Irish birth-rate began to fall to levels never previously experienced (see chart 5). The crude birth rate is not a reliable measure of comparative fertility, for a variety of well-known reasons, but it does provide an indication of changes over time within a particular society. In the Irish case the evidence is dramatic: the birth rate has fallen from a consistent figure of over 21 per thousand up to the mid-1980s, to 15.7 in the 1986-1991 period and only 13.9 in 1995. This is still higher, of course, than the European average of 11.54 in 1991(31) but, as chart 4, total fertility rates, demonstrates, there is (so far) a clear convergence between Irish and other EU fertility rates.

The implications of this change are difficult to tease out as yet. At the very least, however, it may be asserted that the specifically demographic element (the 1960s and 1970s baby boom) which caused such a dramatic increase in emigration in the 1980s is unlikely to recur in the near future. Instead, Irish society seems more likely to follow the conventional European pattern, at one remove, so to speak: it cannot be long before Ireland, too, begins to experience some of the labour shortages which have brought about the major social changes of the post-war period elsewhere in Europe viz. the absorption of more and more women into the paid labour-force and the acceptance of immigration.

Migration - the 1990s.

Newspaper reports, in particular, have a tendency to treat a fall to low levels of net out-migration as if out-migration had actually ceased. In fact, it only demonstrates that the gap between the numbers leaving and the numbers arriving here is narrowing.

Chart 6 illustrates this point. Whereas net migration is currently negligible - in fact the latest figures show a small net positive surplus for the years 1991-1996 - emigration is still running at a substantial figure, to the order of 40,000 per annum. Moreover, this figure has been fairly steady since 1991 and there seems to be no reason to foresee an early change. Even job creation in Ireland, currently at supposedly record levels, is not necessarily going to help: the number of return migrants indicates that it is they, and not school leavers or long-term unemployed, who have the better chance of finding work.

What has changed for Irish migrants (Chart 7) is the choice of destination. As Hazelkorn and others have pointed out (32) there is a correlation between the availability of job opportunities in the UK and the levels of emigration to that country at any given time, and, correspondingly, the levels of emigration elsewhere. She also points out, however, that "for those with little or no qualification, their place in the secondary labour market has been entrenched" and says that this group

has been strongly represented among present Irish immigrants to the US, constituting a migrating under-class of labour, and having a major impact on the broad socio-economic and occupational distribution of Irish immigrants in the UK/London (33)

An additional factor is the distorting element introduced by the various American special visa programmes: these would appear to have attracted applicants from all socio-economic classes and from all regions of the country.

One may ask whether the tendency for under-qualified Irish to choose the UK as their destination, combined with the fairly broad appeal of the USA as a destination, might suggest that Irish migrants to continental Europe continue to be disproportionately drawn from upper socio-economic categories and those with better qualifications. This certainly did seem to be the case in 1988, when I carried out my own fieldwork on the Irish in Paris - about half of all those surveyed had some kind of post-secondary educational qualification and respondents were drawn to a disproportionate extent from upper socio-economic groups.

However, later evidence suggests that something more complex is now happening. As Chart 7 shows, the diminution in the relative importance of the UK as a destination in the 1990s has been quite remarkable and suggests that in 1995 only 40% of Irish migrants went there. This is partly due, of course, to the fact that 26% went to the United States, but the other remarkable statistics for that year are the 14% who went to continental EU countries and the 19% who are classified as having gone to the "Rest of World". We do not even know where the "Rest of World" migrants went, although anecdotal evidence would suggest a rise in Irish emigration to Central and Eastern Europe.

I would suggest that the figures for 1991-1993 are particularly instructive. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the ensuing social and political revolution, particularly in Germany, has created a strong new construction boom there. It cannot be a coincidence that the early 1990s, which saw a British construction industry largely in the doldrums, showed a major jump in Irish migration to continental EU countries, reaching an astonishing high of 22% in 1992. At the same time, this factor should not be exaggerated: a breakdown by gender suggests that both men and women participated in equal measures in this upsurge.

It is appropriate at this stage to mention the very considerable difficulties in obtaining a detailed picture of current migration practices. The year-on-year statistics are based on a number of sources, particularly the Labour Force Survey, which make it impossible to give a complete country-by-country breakdown with any degree of accuracy. This applies to analysis both of incoming and outgoing migrants. It might be thought that statistics from those countries where residence registration is required would be more reliable but, for a variety of reasons, this is not the case. One is therefore dealing with incomplete or anecdotal evidence much of the time. Thorough fieldwork is the only solution but this is expensive and comparatively little research has been carried out (34).


It might be thought that, as a result of the constant decline in the Irish population from the Famine to the fifties, there would have been some willingness to consider an active policy of accepting immigrants, at least those of somewhat similar background and culture. After all, France did this in the 1920s, when there was a very significant influx of Belgians, Poles and Italians, among others, to make up for the depleted workforce after World War 1. The French experience was not without its difficulties or without its arrières-pensées about who constituted the vrais Français (one thinks of the various debates about pays légal/pays réel, Français de souche, etc.) but in spite of some difficulties integration took place, at least for the following generation. Whatever about the current debate about immigration in France, few would question the Frenchness of a Michel Platini, or a Marie Jose Perec, not to mention a Beckett (35)

In the Irish case, the Commission on Emigration and other population problems considered the matter. It sat from 1948 to 1954, when population had declined constantly for more than a century: its members could not know that change was just around the corner. Their attitude towards the possibility of remedying Irish population problems by allowing immigrants (or, in legal parlance, "aliens") was robust: they were not wanted. As the Reports of the Commission put it,

Such information as we have in regard to immigration indicates that it does not constitute a demographic feature of any significance...

.. In 1946 the number of persons residing in the Twenty-Six Counties who were born outside it was 98,900: of these, 33,500 were born in the Six Counties. Accordingly, residents born outside Ireland numbered about 65,000 or only 2.2 per cent. of the total population. No fewer than 49,000 of these were born in Great Britain and, of the remaining 16,000, the number born in the United States of America was 8,500. ...it seems likely that the majority were of Irish parentage...It is obvious, therefore, that immigration is of small dimensions (36).

Lest it might be thought that the Commission’s attitude was a merely pragmatic one, it adds that,

In our view, it would not be desirable to try to increase the population by increased immigration of aliens. While Ireland, with great numbers of her people living in other countries, should be slow to refuse admission to desirable immigrants, the present immigration policy is, in our opinion, as liberal as the circumstances permit (37)

The attitude of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, as expressed by Dr. Lucey, Catholic Bishop of Cork, was equally unequivocal:

...Population increase can come about only through an increase in the birth rate or a diminution or cessation of emigration - immigration we rule out,(38)

This is not the place for a detailed account of Irish policy and experience in these matters. It will suffice to point out the following relevant features.

Irish policy towards "aliens" (particularly the policy of the Department of Justice) before, during and after the Second World War was largely negative and, specifically, anti-Semitic. Even after the Holocaust was common knowledge, little sympathy was shown for the plight of Jewish refugees. Apart from various foreign intellectuals (including some Jewish intellectuals) admitted because of De Valera’s personally liberal views and sympathies, the first group of "aliens" to be accepted were a small number of individuals of dubious political backgrounds, who were allowed to settle in Ireland in the 1950s. A number were non-Germans who had collaborated in various ways and for various reasons with Nazi Germany. The only significant group of immigrants, although technically temporary, accepted by Ireland in the 1950s were about 500 Hungarians who came to Ireland after the failure of the 1956 rebellion. In spite of a degree of public sympathy they were effectively detained in military camps. Their treatment can most charitably be described as callous by default or neglect; they subsequently left for other countries. Later, Ireland accepted a small number of Chileans after the Allende government was overthrown in 1973. While official attempts to assist them were inept - there was no infrastructure to assist them - attitudes were generally more benign. Some Vietnamese "Boat People" were accepted in the late 1970s as a matter of international policy. Little was done to assist them to integrate. Today many remain but rely for the most part on strong familial networking to sustain themselves. Integration has not been particularly successful.

Bosnians, who now number several hundred in Ireland, have been the first group of refugees to have been accepted in a more positive and policy-driven way. It is early to say, but it would appear that official policy has made some strides towards the acceptance of multi-culturalism and the need to provide mechanisms for the integration of non-indigenous residents. More recently (1995), Government policy towards refugees and asylum applicants in general has changed from one of active hostility and a somewhat cavalier attitude to the provisions of the 1951 UN Convention for Refugees to a more thoroughgoing (if as yet incomplete) Government policy, providing at least for that respect for international law and procedures which had previously been largely lacking in the practices of the Department of Justice, which sometimes jailed asylum applicants and frequently failed to inform them of their rights.

Mention should also be made of the position of British subjects in Ireland, which was and remains an anomalous one. They have full civic and social rights in Ireland, including the right to vote in all except presidential elections and referenda. Reciprocal rights are extended to the Irish in Britain, even though Ireland has had no formal relationship with the UK since 1949, when it left the Commonwealth. This unusual arrangement undoubtedly reflects the over-riding need for labour in the UK economy of the time. Under the terms of the 1951 Common Travel Area Agreement (C.T.A.) full freedom of movement and the absence of passport controls is granted to Irish and British citizens and subjects moving between the two jurisdictions. However, the operation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (P.T.A.), which also applies to U.K. subjects from Northern Ireland and provides in certain circumstances for the expulsion of Irish people (north and south) from the "British mainland", modifies these freedoms. The British community is the largest immigrant community in Ireland, as the Irish are in Britain.

On a more general level, it is worth noting that there has been a significant shift in the direction of greater immigration to Ireland from continental EU countries. Chart 8 shows in-migration by nationality, insofar as data is available. Due to the fact that the Labour Force Survey, from which this data has been compiled, is based on a sample and that the actual numbers of immigrants are not enormous, it is not possible to give a country-by-country breakdown: the categories used are Returned Migrants, UK, USA, Other EU and Other. There is an additional problem in interpreting this data, in that a returning household may well consist of more than one category viz. Returned Migrants and (say) USA, the latter being children born to Irish migrants while their parents were living in the USA. Finally, it should also be said that a number of persons in the UK and USA categories, in particular, are of Irish descent.

In effect, therefore, there is no way, using current data, of estimating the number of foreign immigrants with no Irish connection who have immigrated in the 1990s. However, we know from fieldwork (39) carried out by geography students in the south-west of Ireland (not a representative area, as there is a relatively high concentration of continental immigrants) that the number of continental immigrants in rural parts of Ireland can reach high levels in particular places: place-centred micro-studies have identified levels of up to 10%. Pending the carrying out of further local studies of this kind, and the publication of full data from the 1996 Census (at least 12 months from now) more detailed comments cannot be offered at this stage.


Whatever the negative consequences of modernisation (and leaving to one side the contentious question of how the term is to be defined), the late 1950s and 1960s marked the beginning of an ineluctable process of rapid change which is as yet unfinished. In their marriage and fertility patterns Irish people are no longer atypical. Ireland is slowly becoming a country of immigration - with as yet unforeseeable consequences - as well as one of continuing emigration. The current generation of Irish emigrants are both more likely to choose new and more varied destinations and are also more likely to return. In time, Ireland will experience the same dilemmas of an ageing population, soaring social security costs and skills shortages as other European countries - the major difference being that it will experience these problems a generation later than everyone else.

Ireland is still a part, in some respects at least, of the British labour market. There is still a significant migratory movement which is largely non-voluntary and which consists of under-skilled people for whom Ireland has provided few opportunities but who also find themselves at a relative disadvantage in the UK. It also remains the destination of choice for a wide range of latter-day Irish migrants, both voluntary and involuntary.

Continental Europe now constitutes a realistic and significant option for a large minority of Irish young people. Even if they are not totally representative, the base is broadening constantly and rapidly. However there is a danger that this may merely lead to the swapping of an Ireland-UK periphery-core relationship for an Ireland-Continental Europe one.

The above comments notwithstanding, the outstanding feature of recent Irish migration is its extraordinary volatility. The USA continues to be an attractive destination for a very significant minority, while year-on-year trends can fluctuate widely.

Return migration is a significant feature: Irish people were less likely (about 6%) at the beginning of the century to return than any other category of European migrant. This has now completely changed and return migrants are likely to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years.

Migration is not purely a "rational", economically-based decision. Irrespective of stated intentions, it seems likely that migration for at least a period is a life-option for significant numbers of young Irish people

Emigration is, however, a complex and ultimately individual process. While there is a demonstrable link between high unemployment and high emigration we should be cautious in establishing linkages: many socio-cultural factors intervene and deterministic models are dangerous: post hoc and propter hoc are not the same. Thus, those most likely to be unemployed are not, in fact, the most likely to leave, whereas the urban middle classes, with better job opportunities, are highly mobile. Farmers show a low propensity to emigrate but persons from rural Ireland generally do not. It is important to guard against an over-simplistic application of structuralist perspectives such as world systems approaches, whereby all migrants tend to be represented as disadvantaged victims. Equally, the interpretation of migration as the "rational" choice, freely made, of persons wishing to better themselves economically, is simplistic and inaccurate and does not attend sufficiently to socio-economic and cultural influences. Finally, there has not been sufficient space in this brief survey to focus on non-economic factors but one may cite such cases as those women migrants who left Ireland because of an unwanted pregnancy or were disillusioned with social progress, persons suffering from AIDS who preferred to be in the UK or elsewhere because of better treatment and a more accepting social climate, and gay men and women who felt restricted by Irish attitudes (even though the law has changed and social views are slowly evolving).

Modest but significant numbers of people who are not of Irish ancestry are now immigrating to Ireland. Their impact is out of all proportion to their numbers as many settle in non-urban areas as counter-cultural migrants of a new kind. These and other kinds of immigration, even if only on a modest scale, are likely to continue. This raises important questions about identity and community which have previously been avoided. The Irish record of tolerance towards difference, as evidenced by attitudes and policies concerning the travelling community within the country, is, to put it mildly, mixed.

Finally, the Irish Diaspora is itself more visible in Ireland nowadays. This is fuelling a fascinating debate about identity, place and community - does "Irishness" repose in the specificity of place, one grandparent’s blood, or the ephemeral unity of thousands of people cheering a soccer team of mixed accents and mixed race, something which would have been unthinkable in the Ireland of the 1950s (40)?

Sources for Statistical Data used: CSO Dublin/Cork, Eurostat Luxembourg.

1    For the purpose of this paper, Ireland refers to the 26-county state. This is not because of any particular political conviction of the author’s, but because the demographic and social conditions in Northern Ireland are fundamentally different in a number of important respects and would require a more detailed and separate treatment than space will permit here.

2    There are numerous works on this matter. Internet users may find my bibliography (http://migration.ucc.ie/bibliography.htm) useful for further sources. See Akenson, D. (1993) The Irish Diaspora Institute of Irish Studies, Belfast, also Fitzpatrick, D. (1984 ) Irish Emigration 1801-1921, Dundalgan Press, Dundalk, which includes a critical review of much of the literature on the subject.

3    Comparatively little has been written on this under-researched topic. See Hogan, E.M. (1990) The Irish Missionary Movement: An historic survey 1830-1980. Gill and Macmillan, Dublin.

4    The case has been made, in particular, by McLaughlin, J. (1994) Ireland: The Emigrant Nursery and the World Economy. Cork U.P., Cork.

5    Address to the Houses of the Oireachtas on a Matter of Public Importance, 2 February 1995. The text may be found at www.bess.tcd.ie/ireland/presiden.htm (thanks to Paddy Waldron).

6    The results of its deliberations have been published in Keogh, D, and Mulholland, J. (eds.) (1989) Emigration, Employment and Enterprise Hibernian University Press, Cork.

7   The Emigrant Experience (1991) Galway Labour History Group, Galway.

8   Geographical Society of Ireland Special Publications No. 6 Dublin.

9    Courtney, D., (1995) "Demographic Structure and Change in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland", in Irish Society: Sociological Perspectives. Institute of Public Administration, Dublin, p. 41.

10    Blacker, C. P., (1947) "Stages in population growth", Eugenics Review, Vol. 39, pp. 81-101.

11    Van da Kaa, D.J.,(1987) "Europe’s Second Demographic Transition", Population Bulletin, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 3-57

12    Courtney, D., op. cit., p. 42

13    Kennedy, R.E. (1973) T he Irish: Emigration, Marriage and Fertility. University of California Press, Berkeley.

14    One contributor to the Reports of the Commission on Emigration and other Population Problems, Mr Arnold Marsh, did. His remarkable prescience is borne out by the following, where he refers to the significant increase in population (together, he says, with significant costs) which

"…is what we must be prepared to face if our emigration is stopped, our motherhood pattern unchanged and our marriage pattern normalised…" Reports, pp. 211-212

15    Programme for Economic Expansion, Dublin, 1958.

16    Lee, J.J. (1992) Ireland 1912-1985. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 329-410.

17    Healy, J. (1978) Nineteen Acres, Kennys, Galway.

18    Duggan, C., in Curtin, C. et al (eds.) (1987) Gender in Irish Society, Galway U.P., Galway, pp. 54-69.

19    Lee, J.J., op. cit., p. 360

20    Lee, J.J., op. cit.., p. 360

21    Inglis, T. (1987) Moral Monopoly. The Catholic Church in Modern Irish Society Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, p. 213.

22    Probably the best illustration of this blindness is Foreign Minister Brian Lenihan’s famous interview with Newsweek magazine of October 1987. The last reported sentence of the excessively upbeat interview "after all, we can’t all live on a small island" became a catch-phrase which launched a bitter debate.

23    NESC (1991) The Economic and Social Implications of Emigration. Dublin.

24    See Corcoran, M. (1991) "Informalisation of metropolitan labour forces: the case of Irish immigrants in the New York construction industry" Irish Journal of Sociology Dublin. See also MacEinri, P. (1991) "The Irish in Paris: an aberrant community?" Geographical Society of Ireland Special Publications No. 6 Dublin.

25    Courtney, D., op. cit., p. 69

26    I make no claim of originality for this argument, which was put forward by other commentators (notably, Garrett Fiztgerald) at the time.

27    Mahon, E. (1994) Ireland: A Private Patriarchy? in Environment and Planning A, volume 26, pages 1277-1296

28    Courtney, D., op. cit., p. 54

29    Courtney, D., op. cit., p. 56

30    Courtney, D., op. cit., p. 54

31   Eurostat, Demographic Statistics, 1993, p. 85.

32    Hazelkorn, E. (1991) "British labour and Irish capital: evidence from the 1980s", The Emigrant Experience, Galway Labour History Group, Galway, pp. 124-141.

33    Hazelkorn, E. op. cit., p. 136

34    Apart from my work in the late 1980s there is relatively little work on the Irish in continental Europe. Two notable exceptions are Kockel U. (1991) The Irish in Southern Germany and Stein, T. (1995) Iren in Munchen: Eine Sozialgeographische Analyse einer wachsenden Einwanderergruppe, unpublished thesis, University of Bonn, Bonn.

35    For a discussion of anti-immigrant feelings in the 1920s see Lequin, Y., (ed.) (1988), La Mosaïque France: Histoire des Étrangers et de l’Immigration en France. Paris, Larousse, pp. 390 et seq.

36   Reports, p. 132-133

37   Reports.., p. 132

38   Reports, pp. 335-366

39    See, for example, Hegarty, H.(1994) A Geographical Analysis of the socio-cultural interface between locals and incomers in West Cork Unpublished M.A. thesis, University College Cork

40    See Bolger, D. (1990) "In High Germany", in A Dublin Quartet, Penguin, London, for a powerful evocation of this theme.

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