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Piaras Mac Éinrí
Department of Geography
University College Cork


This paper looks at the Irish community in Paris within the context of the sharply changing character of modern Irish emigration. It does not offer a lot of specific detail on the Irish immigrants in Paris, for I have done this in another recent paper (Mac Éinrí, 1989); instead it compares the contemporary Ireland-France migratory link with other Irish migration flows, and sets the "European" trend that the Paris Irish exemplify in a wider historical, geographical and cultural perspective.

In order to judge whether a community (or anything else) is aberrant, we need to define that term. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary offers two meanings: straying from the right path, and deviating from the normal type. The first of these definitions may be likened to a geographical approach, the second is more sociological. Both these definitions will be employed in due course in the ensuing analysis. For the moment I wish to focus, by way of introduction, on Professor Kerby Miller's contrasting notions of emigration and exile as modes of experience.

According to Miller (1985), the Irish world view may be seen as essentially fatalist, with Irish people seeing themselves as suffering emigration as one of the slings and arrows of misfortune, unwanted but unavoidable. Thus, Miller's distinction between "emigrants" and "exiles" is a useful one, if by "emigration" we mean the fact of leaving one's own country to live elsewhere and accepting the new reality that this implies, in contrast to "exile", which is the involuntary departure from the homeland accompanied by the refusal to accept the new reality of life somewhere else.

Related to these notions are the idea of a culture of emigration and a culture of exile and the many economic and, especially, non-economic factors bound up in migrants' self-images. For the purpose of the present paper, I am therefore primarily concerned with the migrants' own myth-making processes, not with the social and economic consequences either for the sending or for the target community.


An obvious statistical problem can be identified: there is little evidence of a really reliable kind to enable very recent emigration flows to be tracked in all their complexity, although interesting work on such questions as migration age-patterns has been done by Brendan Walsh (1989), Terry Corcoran (1989)and others and a major NESC report is now awaited. In the meantime, it seems fair to assume that most Irish emigrants are still heading for the UK. A minority, probably largely from rural, western seaboard counties, are going to the USA (although this regional bias is inevitably complicated by the lottery-style Donnelly and other special visas, many of whose successful applicants may come from non-typical backgrounds) and another minority, although a growing one, are going to continental European destinations such as Paris.

Let us now consider the case of the modern Irish migrant community in Paris and ask the question: do they represent a departure from the "right path" and /or a deviation from the "normal type"?

The first part of the question answers itself readily enough: the traditional path of emigration for Irish people (unless we go back to the eighteenth century and earlier) has been to the anglophone world: England, other parts of Britain (in fact, Scotland was historically a more important destination than England), the United States, Australia and New Zealand. One may note in passing, however, other smaller movements of migration to non-anglophone countries of which one of the most notable and interesting cases is that of the Irish who went to Argentina'.

This latter deviation apart, one had to await the 1980s before any significant new migration trend to non-anglophone countries began to appear, viz. Irish migration to other EC countries. During the past decade up to 10% of modem Irish emigrants were choosing a continental European destination, usually in Germany, the Benelux countries, or France, with the greatest number going to Germany. While final figures must await work currently being carried out by the ESRI, it seems that continental Europe may now rank as an equally significant, if not more important destination, in terms of numbers, than the United States. The widespread media concentration on the situation of Irish "illegals" in the USA has tended to obscure this emerging trend, although it would also be fair to say that the two regions of destination, the USA and the European mainland, are by and large chosen by persons of very different regional and social backgrounds. In addition, there is of course the perennial problem of inadequate statistics. In particular, while there are various methods of verifying (to a certain extent) crude statistics for net out-migration, global out-migration and the target destinations chosen are notoriously difficult to identify.

To sum up thus far, one may note that the spatial movement of Irish emigrants has undergone a major shift, and that the choice of Irish persons who go to Paris - while it might have been regarded as eccentric in the past and is still a minority option - can no longer be regarded as aberrant.

I would now like to turn to the second concept, "deviating from the normal type ", to consider how it applies to the Irish in Paris. Two ideas arise here: first, the his torically defined "normal type"; second, the shift in the current pattern of emigration and the identification of various sub-groups within the global community of migrant Irish. I shall be suggesting that while Irish migration to Paris is certainly aberrant in historical terms, it is nonetheless, in contemporary terms, probably typical of an identifiable migrant sub-group which functions according to new motivations and criteria but whose behaviour, paradoxically, is largely conditioned by predictable traditional patterns, especially in the manner and functioning of social networking within the emigrant community.

Seen in this light, the Paris Irish are an example of a new phenomenon, i.e. migration led by a sub-group (the urban, well-off, well-educated middle class) which was not historically significant as a leader in mass migration movements. This community may now provide the basis for the achievement of the necessary "critical mass" to transform the Paris Irish community into an Irish
migrant community of a very typical , contemporary kind, even if differing in important respects from the classic model. Paradoxically, the eighteenth century Irish migrant community in France, if Hayes (1940), Swords (1 989) and other evidence are examined, was similar in some respects to the current Irish community there, particularly when one considers the class factor. Let us turn to the evidence.


I lived in Paris from 1985 to 1989 and noted the rapid growth in numbers of Irish living in the city during that period. Today there are probably more than 6,000 Irish migrants in the Paris region, and, while projections must always be treated with care, the figure could well grow to over 15,000 by the mid-l 990s, the size of an average Irish town (see Mac Éinrí, 1988).

In a number of important respects, the Irish presence in Paris has already generated an impact. Apart from the population just mentioned, other factors have combined to make them more noticeable. At the last count there were seven bars with Irish associations, up from zero ten years ago. In a general sense, the increasing familiarity of Ireland to the French, mainly through tourism, and growing coverage of Ireland and Irish affairs, whether Northern or EC-related, have created a more general awareness of the country and its people. By and large, it is a favourable awareness. The fact that the Irish in Paris nowadays constitute an identifiable emigrant community among the many found there is attested to by such phenomena as a France Inter programme on "different" minorities in 1989 which focused, inter alia, on the Paris Irish and the regular space given to Irish
groups, political and non-political, on the private radio station Radio Libértaire. However, the proportional size of the Irish community should not be exaggerated. Compared to the Portuguese (900,000 at least),the Irish are a very small community. Even the Greeks, considered mere minnows among Paris-based migrant communities, number an estimated 20,000.

Fieldwork which I carried out in Paris in the spring of 1988 was focused on an analysis of the proposition that once the decision to emigrate has been taken by the individual, three factors are likely to influence his or her choice of target country of emigration:
economic opportunity in the chosen region; a pre-existing network of family connections and/or friends or other contacts; a degree of cultural familiarity with the chosen region.

The first factor is normally an essential prerequisite. If it is not present that region will simply be ruled out as an option. The second factor would appear to be by far the more important of the other two, for a number of reasons. The available evidence tends to indicate that people will generally tend to emigrate, to the extent that they are able, from the familiar to the familiar. This creates a strong inertial tendency for emigration to continue to be towards those places where it is already established. Furthermore, Irish emigration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been almost exclusively to places which were "culturally familiar", at least in linguistic terms, thus reinforcing the inertial factor and making it all the more unlikely that a place which is culturally unfamiliar will be chosen.

Irish emigration to France has up to recently been on a rather small scale and could not have been said to conform to the points made above - or there were too few emigrants to enable any generalisations to be made. This is now changing.

My interpretation of the proposition described above suggests that, while the three factors outlined may hold good when considering Irish emigration generally and may explain in part the continuing attraction of the United States, the Paris situation at
present is not an exceptional case or an aberration, as it arguably was in the past, but represents the beginnings of an important shift in the pattern of emigration. In particular, the Irish community now coming into being in Paris demonstrates two things.

The first is that the degree of "cultural unfamiliarity" is in fact diminishing.

The second is that the same inertial force already referred to, with the continuing ability of emigrants to "network" in order to establish themselves when abroad, is tending to create an Irish community in Paris which is approaching that critical mass of numbers which, when attained, will lead to the implantation of a permanent, growing, broadly-based and self-sustaining Irish presence in Paris and other similar European centres.

The hypothesis just set out was tested by a semi-random survey carried out in Paris in March-April 1988, involving a 49-item questionnaire answered by 132 respondents. The survey looked at the social, regional and educational background of respondents, their reasons for emigrating and for choosing France, and their degree of social and personal integration since settling in France.

The results showed that the hypothesis set out above was basically accurate. There were important qualifications, however, especially insofar as the members of the Irish community in Paris were relatively unrepresentative of Irish emigrants generally, having better than average educational and social opportunities. Nonetheless, the survey noted that the trend in Paris was
towards the formation of a more broadly-based Irish community. This factor, combined with the likelihood that Paris would continue to be economically attractive, suggested that, with the dominant role of networking already noted, the Irish community in Paris is no longer an aberrant one in terms of social and personal choices and may well experience a period of rapid growth.

The broad conclusions of the research (set out in more detail in Mac Éinrí, 1988 and 1989) can be summarised as follows:
  The Paris Irish are a community in transition. Taken collectively, they are untypical of Irish emigrants. Their integration into French society is remarkably rapid. In spite of the above, the patterns of social networking developed by the Irish in Paris are strikingly similar to those found in Irish emigrant communities in more traditional destinations.


Irish political response to the emigration debate is still muted. Although all parties in the last General Election condemned the "scourge of emigration" and promised to do something about it in government, actual policy initiatives have in general been reactive rather than pro-active. Thus, welfare organisations dealing with Irish emigrants in Britain now receive a small annual financial subvention (about IR£100,000)to help with their running costs. Critics have pointed out that the amount involved is a small fraction of the social welfare costs to the Irish state which would have arisen if the emigrants being assisted had actually remained at home. The Irish Government is also actively lobbying the American Government to accept greater numbers of Irish immigrants than allowed by the present immigration regime and to address the problem of Irish illegals already in the USA. Again, critics have suggested that Ireland is in a somewhat invidious position as a supposedly modem economy having to go cap-in-hand to another government to ask that more of its own emigrants, who cannot be given employment at home, should be allowed into that country.

Emigration is frequently represented in the media and in the political and public debates about the matter as being either a good or a bad thing. The latter view points to the many underprivileged and under-equipped emigrants driven abroad by circumstance, sometimes subsequently under-achieving and dependent on the welfare services of other countries whose ways they cannot easily understand. To quote Tríona Nic Giolla Choille (1989: 52):

Emigration is not just an accident. It is not just an individual problem. Emigration has arisen and increased as a direct result of the failure of the social and economic policies of successive governments on this island. Their failure in recent decades has been compounded by their lack of honesty and energy in tackling the issue in the 1980s. Despite discussion of emigration during the general election of 1987, policy documents and pronouncements since then, the political parties have failed to address seriously the notion that we have any choice in how to respond to emigration. The notion is put forward, and generally uncritically by the media, that emigration is unavoidable, inevitable and long-term. The notion is unacceptable to those of us in Emigrant Advice and is an insult to those who feel compelled to emigrate.

This contrasts sharply with the view put forward in October 1987 by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Brian Lenihan:

I don't look on the type of emigration we have today as being of the same category as the terrible emigration of the last century. What we have now is a very literate emigrant who thinks nothing of coming to the United States and going back to Ireland and maybe on to Germany and back to Ireland again. The younger people in Ireland today are very much in that mould... It (emigration) is not a defeat because the Irish hone their skills and talents in another environment; the more they develop a work ethic in a country like Germany or the US, the better it can be applied in Ireland when they return. After all, we can't all live on a small island.

The above two quotes clearly reflect a radical difference in how the phenomenon of contemporary emigration is perceived. On the one hand, emigration is seen as an essentially involuntary phenomenon, brought about by economic and social mismanagement in Ireland and the subsequent forced departure of the emigrants. By definition, it is suggested, if it were not for unemployment and the parlous economic state of the country, the emigrants would have stayed at home. On the other hand, the Lenihan statement presents a "free-market" view of emigration. This sees the emigrant as essentially making a rational individual choice based on the perception of superior economic opportunity elsewhere and the assumption that the emigrant is equipped and able to meet the challenge.

Of course, both of the views expressed above are simplistic. The reality is far more complex and one cannot speak with any accuracy of the phenomenon of contemporary emigration, although it is true that until recently on could probably have summed up the majority of Irish emigrants with the phrase: ignorant, rural and poor (Mac Einrí, 1989 : 59). Such a phrase is in no way meant pejoratively, but is a reflection of a socio-economic reality and of the ill-equipped nature of the Irish migrant as she or he left for distant shores - a reflection, it need hardly be said, of the often disgraceful inadequacies of national policy.

The fact that, once abroad, the Irish should have risen as rapidly as they did is a tribute to a number of factors, some self-motivated and some arbitrary. These include the knowledge of English possessed by most, the obsession with education and self-betterment, and the extraordinary political and social networking skills demonstrated by the Irish, from Tammany Hall to the British trade union movement (O'Connor, 1974).


If an effort is made to analyse the more complex patterns of contemporary migration, a number of quite separate sub-groups may be identified as follows.

The first type are the well-educated middle-class emigrants who have emerged as a numerically important group over the past 10-20 years. As late as 1970 most of those surveyed in Hannan's classic work had not completed their second-level education. Matters have changed dramatically since that time. Modern emigrants are likely to be comparatively well-educated and to include an important minority of highly-qualified graduates. They are as likely to be urban as rural. The Irish middle classes which, as Fintan O'Toole has noted, had managed to reproduce themselves and their power-structures for decades since independence, apparently impervious to the waves of change breaking over the country, have themselves seen their cohesion start to disintegrate and have joined the general throng of emigrants. The motivations of the middle-class emigrant are as likely to be non-economic as work-driven.

A second group consists of migrants from those communities which have always left Ireland. Relatively ill-educated (even in the modern age) and ill-equipped to deal with life in a foreign environment, Irish social and educational conditions have largely failed them and have condemned them to the same path of exile as their parents and forbears before them.

A third, sometimes neglected group continues to leave: those who do not have the education and life-skills needed to survive in an alien environment but who, if they come from a ravaged urban community in Ireland, may paradoxically possess fewer of the social networking skills needed to get by in an unfamiliar environment than their country cousins of previous generations. These
dispossessed working-class urban emigrants constitute the third type.

The fourth type are "re-emigrants" or what I prefer to call "reverse-reverse" migrants. These are persons who belong to the first three groups above who come back to Ireland and leave again for various reasons.

To a large extent these types dichotomise into involuntary working-class emigrants on the one hand and voluntary or semi-voluntary middle-class emigrants on the other. The involuntary migrants of the traditional kind, with minimal education and few opportunities in Ireland, head mainly for the larger English cities and other parts of Britain. The motivation is likely to be primarily economic, although given the stultifying rigidity of much of Irish society (e.g. the lack of toleration of sexual or
religious "deviance" of any kind) other reasons may come into play. Voluntary and semi-voluntary middle-class migrants are characterised by a new pattern of economic and non-economic factors underlying the decision to leave. Some factors represent the new economic realities, which have even affected the traditionally secure middle classes, especially the running-down of opportunities in the public sector in areas such as teaching. Other factors may be either new or represent the wider
application of what until recently was the province of the few. Thus, many migrants who could have stayed if they wished appear actively to reject life in Ireland for reasons that may be variously described as economic or fiscal (high tax rates etc.), social or personal (religion, divorce, the social rigidities of small-town life etc.), or a perceived lack of creative professional opportunities in the home environment.


Many of the Irish in Paris surveyed in 1988 belong to the sub-strand of well educated, well-qualified, voluntary and highly motivated emigrants who go abroad for purely personal and career reasons. Even within this category, however, the picture is a complex one. Thus, as suggested above, certain well-qualified people such as members of the teaching profession have become involuntary emigrants through changes in education in Ireland. Furthermore, along with many other highly-qualified people, they do not necessarily perform the same work, for equivalent or better pay, as they might have hoped to do in Ireland.

Using the yardstick of "voluntary" or "involuntary" is thus dangerously crude even though it may serve as a convenient starting-point. Some voluntary emigrants leave for non-economic reasons, such as the religious or moral climate in the country. In this regard, I have been struck, although my evidence is purely anecdotal and/or based on random personal observation, by the number of Irish gays in Paris. Some involuntary emigrants, on the other hand, are hardly involuntary in the sense that they have not made a reasoned personal choice, but rather because they come from a background where the "culture of emigration" has disposed them to perceive it as an inevitable natural path. Both amongst educated graduates and for the rural or urban unskilled, the "culture of emigration" may heavily influence an individual's choice of whether to leave or stay by the simple fact that emigration may be the norm amongst family or peers. Emigration is certainly the norm in many regions of the country and indeed may be said to be virtually a national norm for Ireland.

The question of how exactly to categorise the various kinds of emigrants is of the greatest importance in determining appropriate responses in Ireland to the various problems posed by emigration. The question of whether high rates of personal taxation are a disincentive becomes less relevant, for instance, if it can be demonstrated that potential high-earners would tend to leave anyway, at least for a period. The question of social costs is also of considerable importance: how should the State deal with the high-earning migrant who has in many cases been educated and has gained his/her earning ability at a very considerable cost in public funds, compared to the low-earning involuntary emigrant who has absorbed a much lower level of State support in education and training?


According to the economist Brendan Walsh (1989) there are compelling demographic, economic and cultural reasons for suggesting that the rate of emigration from Ireland will remain high for a number of years yet. But the "problem" of emigration cannot be summed up either by clichés about the awful scourge of forced departure or by the sunny optimism of Brian Lenihan's remarks. There is a need to define a whole series of specific questions, such as:

  • Who are those who would not wish to emigrate but feel forced to do so?
  • Where is this category most likely to go, and why?
  • Who are those who would wish to emigrate in virtually any circumstances?
  • Where is this category likely to go, and why?
  • What are the precise factors which influence the intermediate category of persons who belong to neither of the groups just cited?
  • What might constitute appropriate policy responses to the different situations defined above?

An example of the influence such data might have on policy formulation might be the following. If it proves possible to identify a group whose behaviour indicates that it is almost always likely to emigrate, and if that group is in the potential high-earning category, should the financing of the education of the members of this group be undertaken on a different basis? A possibility would be some kind of part-loan arrangement, with remission for each year spent working in Ireland.

Following our earlier debate on voluntary versus involuntary emigration and the notion of an Irish "emigration culture", one could certainly say, in a very general way and with important qualifications, that the culture of migration underlying the choices made by traditional migrants is largely a culture of need and that the culture of emigration informing attitudes among new middle-class migrants is a culture of choice. The two cultures are separate at least to some extent, a fact which is probably far more obvious in a centre of traditional migration (where traditional gender and regional attitudes are well summed up by the classic question still encountered in many pubs "what countyman are you?") than in one of the new target destinations such as Paris where there is a tendency to close ranks, as it were, leading to a blurring of what in other circumstances might be quite clear social distinctions.

These two cultures are thus different phenomena and different policies are needed to address them. However, there are real and perceived common points, which may in some cases militate against any real understanding of the differing processes underlying them. Thus, the general fact that a culture of emigration exists in the country has consequences for national morale as a whole and does indeed represent a vote of refusal by young people, a statement that Irish society is in fundamental ways perceived to be a flawed or hopeless option -however much we may comfort ourselves with references to the minority who return "to bring up their children in a safe country".

It is also true that the acceptance of a generalised, blurred vision of a culture of emigration may lead us to draw inappropriate conclusions about the remedies to be followed. This may be especially the case for the new middle-class migrants. The popular cliché is still that people leave because they have no jobs or money and stay away because they cannot afford to return because of the punitive rates of Irish tax. These reasons are not without validity, but it must be asked whether many of these people would return even if the jobs were there and the tax situation was reformed. The Paris survey, which was undoubtedly biased towards middle-class Irish people, demonstrated that most of those surveyed had in fact left jobs (and often quite good jobs) when emigrating. Furthermore a cursory examination of Parisian salaries and lifestyles hardly supports the idea that many of those surveyed would rush off to Ireland if the tax rates were reformed. Life in Paris is very expensive for those on modest incomes, mainly because of the cost of accommodation, and a high disposable income is not within the reach of any but a few (Mac Éinrí, 1989).

The fact that the Irish middle classes are now emigrating to places such as Paris is a vote of no-confidence in contemporary Irish society. Traditionally, those who had to leave did so. Now people who do not have to leave choose to go just the same. It would be a mistake to conclude that the solution is simply a different tax régime. It might be equally mistaken to conclude that continuing public support for such emigrants, in the form of heavily subsidised education and other social costs, will continue to be accepted.


  1. See Shorter Oxford Dictionary. Oxford : Oxford University Press (3rd ed. 1985).
  2. Even today, third- and fourth-generation Irish-Argentinians still speak in the recognisable accents of the Irish midlands. Although the popular consciousness of this wave of emigration appears to have almost completely disappeared in Ireland, it has not entirely vanished in Argentina. Indeed, hurling was a popular game among Irish-Argentinians until the last war put an end to the exports of Irish-manufactured ash hurleys. A regular journal, the Southern Cross, is still produced by Irish-Argentinians in Buenos Aires. Another non-anglophone destination was French Canada which, particularly before 1830, received a significant number of Irish Catholic immigrants who switched from Gaelic to French as the primary language and integrated fully into the dominantFrench community.
  3. Informal estimates from various church and official sources.
  4. Interview in Newsweek, 13th October 1987.
  5. Irish Times, 5th April 1990.


  • Corcoran, T. (1 989) "Tracking emigration flows". In Mulholland, J. and Keogh, D. (Eds) Emigration Employment and Enterprise. Cork: Hibernian University Press, 29-34.
  • Hannan, D. (1970) Rural Exodus. London: Chapman.
  • Hayes, R. (1940) Old Irish Links with France. Dublin: Gill
  • Mac Éinrí, P. (1988) Current Irish Emigration to Continental European Community States: an Examination of Recent Trends in the Paris Region. Paris: Université de Paris III, unpublished Master's thesis.
  • Mac Éinrí, P. (1989) "The new Europeans: the Irish in Paris today". In Mulholland, J. and Keogh, D. (Eds) Emigration Employment and Enterprise. Cork: Hibernian University Press, 58-80.
  • Miller, K.A. (1985) Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Nic Giolla Choille, T. (1989) "Emigration is no accident". In Mulholland, J. and Keogh, D. (Eds.) Emigration Employment and Enterprise. Cork: Hibernian University Press, 52-57.
  • O'Connor, K. (1974) The Irish in Britain. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.
  • Swords,L.(1989) The Green Cockade: the Irish in the French Revolution. Dublin:
  • Glendale Press.
  • Walsh, B. (1989) "Emigration: an economist's perspective". In Mulholland, J. and Keogh, D.Eds.) Emigration Employment and Enterprise. Cork: Hibernian University Press, 14-28.

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