Irish Emigration: Not such a simple story

“Certainly for all our assertions of patriotic love of country we have repeatedly proven that, given free access to any country with a standard of living higher than our own, we will readily relocate”

Professor Liam Ryan

The lives and experiences of John, Mary and Catherine Bourke, Mary Mahon, Delia Mahon, Annie Kate Kelly, Annie McGowan, Catherine McGowan, Bridget Donohue, James Flynn, Pat Canavan, Mary Mangan, Mary Canavan, Nora Fleming and Delia McDermott have allowed the community of Lahardane and the parish of Addergoole to learn more about their own history, the history of emigration from the parish and from Mayo.

Migration was a central aspect of the social and economic fabric of Irish life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’. It touched every family, every community and every county.  In their study of the history of migration from Europe, Hans Christian and Judith-Beuchler stated, that migration was a fact of life in the west of Ireland, touching every family.[i]

The romantic motif of exiled masses yearning to come home was a view more reflective of a very small minority no longer prevalent in contemporary Diaspora research. The romantic/nostalgic motif ever present in cultural Ireland is at odds with the historical literature of the Irish Diaspora highlighted by the historical fact that, according to Donald H. Akenson, the ‘bulk of the Irish ethnic group in the United States at present is, and probably always has been protestant’.[ii]

An opinion prominent amongst contemporary commentators on the Irish Diaspora is that those Irish who emigrated departed due to a desire and not because of famine, starvation or political oppression. Though these determinants were prevalent and dominant during specific periods in Irish history they were not the principle determinants found throughout the Irish Diaspora.[iii]

Those who emigrated were practical and realistic in how they viewed their future. As the late Professor Liam Ryan of St. Patricks College Maynooth explained, “Certainly for all our assertions of patriotic love of country we have repeatedly proven that, given free access to any country with a standard of living higher than our own, we will readily relocate”.[iv]

For those communities located along the western seaboard and in congested districts at the turn of the twentieth-century it was more a fact that these people had little or no choice but to emigrate to survive. Seasonal migration was an economic stop gap that would prove to only prolong the inevitable permanent migration. Permanent migration was looked upon as an opportunity to escape rather than as one of forced exile.

According to commentators of the Irish Diaspora those able and mobile, consequently those young and single, emigrated. Vere Foster, a British philanthropist who had dedicated his life to relieving distress and impoverishment prevalent in Ireland during the second half of the twentieth century, stated it was “natural and desirable for the young people to emigrate as for young bees to swarm”.[v]

An economic upturn at the end of the nineteenth-century resulted in a steadying and eventual decline in emigration figures for the provinces of Ireland though the province of Connacht proved an exception.

By the turn of the twentieth century Irish emigrants originated predominantly from the western counties of the island of Ireland, more especially those counties of the province of Connacht. According to Diarmaid Ferriter this change was reflected in the late and arranged marriages and the continued emigration of a substantial part of the young population.[vi]

Thus the communities situated along the western coast and counties of Connacht had been unable to understand, comprehend and react to the social and economic changes that occurred in early twentieth century Ireland.

The post-famine era saw a steady stream in those migrating from mid land and eastern counties and saw a heavier depletion concentrated exclusively along the west coast.[vi]

The disparity in the origin of emigrants can be attributed to social and economic reasons. Kerby A. Miller offers an astute explanation for this disparity stating that the

‘counties which were least urbanised, contained the smallest proportions of inhabitants engaged in non-agricultural occupations and exhibited the poorest farmland and, to a lesser degree, the worst rural housing conditions were the counties which experienced the highest emigration rates and together produced the majority of the exodus’.[viii]

From 1880 to 1910 emigration from Ireland declined by 15% when compared to the figures for 1856-80, it declined by only 13% in Munster and increased by FULLY 53% in Connacht’[ix][Author’s emphasis]. This disparity can be further emphasised by the fact that ‘during every ten year period from 1861 to 1910 Munster and Connacht each lost at minimum 10 percent of their populations through emigration’.[x]

Though there was a decline in annual emigration figures from Ireland, these declines were sporadic and can be understood as a lull due to economic fluctuations in the labour market in the United States.

The effect of such lulls ensured there was an insufficient amount of work for impending immigrants to the United States of America resulting in a subsequent decline in money remitted home by Irish immigrant workers. Other lulls in the emigration figures can be attributed to civil strife in Ireland during the Land War, the American Civil War and the outbreak of the Great War of 1914-1918.[xi]

Otherwise emigration from Ireland continued at a steady rate assuming pre famine figures of an annual average of 30,000. This large annual exodus of Irish migrants destined for the United States ensured that by 1890 the Irish community, those Irish born and second generation Irish, had reached its peak.[xii]

It is this author’s belief that the parish of Addergoole fits with the profile outlined by Kerby A.Miller. Nonetheless this author cannot avoid the evidence that a form of fatalism amongst the poorest communities in Ireland was ever present. Emigration had become a form of survival for many families and communities:

‘Individual emigration from Irish rural areas has usually occurred in fairly random incremental manner form the post-famine period a country-side of incomplete demographically-imbalanced households. Indeed emigration in this sense was an inherent element in the survival of rural communities, with surplus family members being ejected to allow the farm household to continue’.[xiii]


[i] Hans Christian Buechler and Judith-Maria Beuchler, Migrants in Europe, The Role of Family, Labor and Politics (Westport, 1987), p.266.

[ii] Donald H. Aeknson, ‘The Migration to North America 1800-1929’, in Andy Bielenberg (ed.), The Irish Diaspora (London, 2000), p.114.

[iii] See literature relating directly or indirectly to aspects of the Irish Diaspora by Conrad M. Arensberg and Solon T. Kimball, Kevin Kenny, Patrick J. Duffy, Roy Foster, David Fitzpatrick, Kerby A. Miller, Donald H. Akenson, Diarmaid Ferriter, Cormac O´Grada, Timmothy J. Hatton and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Timmothy W. Guinnane, Ruth Ann-Harris, Joanna Bourke, Ciara Breathnach and lastly Tony Donohoe to name but a select few…

[iv] Donal H. Akenson, The Irish Diaspora, A Primer (Belfast, 1996), p.189.

[v] Donald H. Akenson, The Irish Diaspora, A Primer (Belfast, 1996), p.412.

[vi] Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 (London, 2004), p.33.

[vii] David Fitzpatrick, Irish Emigration 1801-1921 (Dublin, 1984), p.9.

[viii] Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants And Exiles, Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford, 1985), p.349.

[ix] Kevin Kenny, The American Irish, A History (Boston, 2002), p.132.

[x] Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants And Exiles, Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford, 1985), p.349.

[xi] The locality had a connection in the American Civil War in the participation of Patrick Geraghty from the townland of Doombreedia who lost his life at the battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. Please see Mark Flora, Cold Harbor 1864, Rathkell National School Centenary (Aug, 2007), p.28.

[xii] Kevin Kenny, The American Irish, A History (Boston, 2002), p.18.

[xiii] P.J.Duffy (ed.,), To and From Ireland: Planned Migration Schemes c.1600-2000 (Dublin, 2004),p.12.

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