by Douglas Murphy
When traveling around Ireland, as I have done many times in the past, I cannot help but remark on its beauty and the friendliness of its people. My brother and I scheme over beers about our future plans to retire there and open a small business. It would just be something to make a living off of, not a killing off of. We’d go someplace like Castletown Bere, a small town on the Beara Peninsula. It has a beautiful landscape, a few good pubs, and it isn’t too far from some of the smaller cities. It would be a slow life, but a good one.
I often remark too, though, on a stark reality that is both incredible and saddening: that at one time, over 170 years ago, there were millions more people living there than there are today. In 1840, there were 8.5 million people in Ireland, compared with only about 6 million today (this is considering the entire island.) While most countries’ populations had been steadily rising, Ireland’s had been steadily falling. In the 1920’s, it was less than half what it had been a century earlier.
We’ve all heard of the Great Potato Famine of the 1840’s, and know that many died, and that many also left the country as a result. But how can one explain the 80 million people worldwide that consider themselves at least partly of Irish decent, with 41 million of them in this country alone? How can such a small country have had such a huge impact?
Facts and figures can’t completely explain this epic diaspora, and they certainly can’t help one understand what the mindset was of those who departed—by choice or by force—with many never to see their homeland again. In most cases it was simply survival or economics; but there were other powerful influences as well, and the overall picture paints a centuries-old national disaster.
The stage is set
I spoke with Patrick O’Sullivan, an amateur historian living in County Cork, and found that the diaspora had really had its beginnings all the way back in the middle of the 17th century. England had ruled Ireland for several hundred years, but their power had been waning, and the Irish were becoming more self-governing. The re-conquest of Ireland at the hands of Oliver Cromwell was exceptionally brutal, with estimates of between 15% and 25% of the population dying during the several years of conflict. Massacres of soldiers and townspeople were common, and the “settlement” led to incredibly harsh conditions for the survivors, with many oppressive penal laws being instituted.
Most lands held by Catholics—85% of the population at the time—were confiscated and given to Protestant English settlers that set up plantation-style fiefdoms. Catholic landownership, already low, was thus reduced to a paltry 8%. The Irish had essentially become tenants in their own country.
Catholics were not allowed to enter professions, hold public office, buy land, or live in towns. They were not allowed to teach or be educated, and Catholicism was banned completely. “They had hedge schools and rock masses,” Patrick told me. “They had to gather in secret to celebrate mass, at a rocky outcropping somewhere, something that resembled an altar. If they were caught, they were, at worst, hung…at best, they were sent off (to prisons in Australia.) If you were an Irish man or an Irish woman trying to educate Irish kids, teach them to read or write, you would risk being hung or imprisoned. That’s where the hedge school came from—from hiding behind the hedgerows (in fields.)” Especially targeted was the Irish language, and even up into the 1920’s speaking it was a criminal offense. “They wanted to kill the Irish language off,” Patrick explained. “They pretty much did almost succeed. It’s only made a comeback just recently. ‘Oppressive’ is an understatement. They were kept uneducated. They had nothing. They (the English) did everything they could to keep the Irish down.”
The Penal laws were so severe, that people were hung for very small crimes. “If you were poor and got caught stealing a loaf of bread,” Patrick told me, “that was enough to get you maybe 10 years in prison. You might get sent off to Australia in a prison ship. They served their sentence in Australia, but back in those days you couldn’t hop on a flight, could ya? You were gone forever.” Many Irish were deported into slavery or indentured labor to Caribbean plantations (especially in Jamaica, Montserrat, and Barbados), or to Australia, New Zealand, and the English colonies in America.
With the Penal laws began significant emigration from Ireland, over and above those forced to leave.
an Gorta Mór
The Great Famine ushered in one of the most defining moments in Irish history, demographically, politically and culturally. Massive unemployment, extremely poor living conditions, and then the failure of the potato crop—the principle sustenance for a majority of the Irish at the time—over several years caused a humanitarian crisis on a momentous scale.
From 1845 to 1849, up to one million Irish died. Many died from starvation, but many more died from diseases like cholera, measles or tuberculosis that ran rampant through a weakened, malnourished population. (To put the numbers in perspective, imagine that the state of Massachusetts suffered a massive crisis, and every inhabitant of Boston died.) To exacerbate the situation, when families could not pay their rent, they were evicted from their meager cottages, and their homes were set fire to and demolished before their eyes. The middle of the famine saw the height of evictions. Although there are no eviction records for the famine years, 250,000 evictions were recorded for the years 1849-1854.
A shocking fact of the famine was that Ireland was, throughout the crisis, a net exporter of food. “There was plenty of food in Ireland,” Patrick told me, “it’s just that it was all on the English landlords’ land. There was plenty of food being produced, but that was all going to England.”
In light of the disaster at home, as well as the persecution and the lack of freedom they had to endure, the emigration of Irish increased dramatically. From the famine years until 1914, an estimated 5 million Irish traveled to the U.S. alone. Leaving for the United States became known as the ‘American Wake’, as the majority would never see Ireland or their families again once they had left. America became the dream for many, as word came back about the great opportunities to be had there.
“The links got stronger and stronger.” Patrick said. “Even though a lot of them (the Irish) got to the States, and were poor and badly treated when they got there, they didn’t have an army or a military or a whole race trying to beat them down, persecuting them. There were signs, ‘No Irish or dogs,’ but at least they didn’t have a gun to the backs of their necks.”
Early 20th Century
With Ireland’s independence—conflicted as it was with the Civil War that followed—emigration continued as it had before, though the nature of it changed somewhat. Ireland experienced a creative awakening that was like a dam bursting, and many felt a great desire to see the world and experience new things. “As the world became more modernized,” Patrick explained, “word came back…different experiences…all the stories coming back from America…’come to us’, they said.”
And come they did. Although politically free, the Irish continued to emigrate to the U.S. throughout the century, though in fewer numbers in the latter half due to unfavorable U.S. immigration laws. Economics still played a major role for the Irish deciding to emigrate, but there was also an undeniable desire to simply live a different life than what they had known previously.
“We can’t all live on a small island”
Brian Lenihan, Minister for Foreign Affairs, infamously made the above statement in 1987. There was a debate at the time about Irish emigration, and whether it was an economic necessity to avert an economic crisis, or simply a national tragedy. Ireland’s unemployment rate was particularly high at 17% nationwide, and some counties reported rates as high as 30%. In 1988 alone, it was reported that 70,000 had emigrated—a huge increase over previous years.
To talk about Irish emigration in more recent years, I interviewed Michael O’Dea, an entrepreneur who spends his time between the U.S. and Ireland. As a young man, he traveled extensively, and he came to the U.S. in the late 80’s because he “just had to see it.”
“There are two hundred-odd years of connection between the two countries,” Michael told me. “For the people, it wasn’t good enough not to be able to touch it. ‘I want to go see the place.’ I had heard so much, people that had been away, stories about different places. All the cities were so big, and the trains and cars, and the craic (Irish for “fun”) you could have. I got there and wanted to see more of it. I wanted to see as much as I could.”
A lot of the Irish he knew here at the time hoped to go back to Ireland when things got better there. But they felt things never really improved, and so they stayed on. One of their chief complaints was the political system in Ireland. “The political system in Ireland has never truly improved,” Michael explained. “It is an extremely corrupt and divided sort of society. We got rid of them (the English), but they did leave a legacy here. English lords still have land here. I mean look, Blarney Castle is still owned by an English lord.”
“In the States, you can ‘live the dream,’ as they say,” Michael continued. “You’re not as interfered with when you’re trying to achieve something. You have a far better chance of being left alone to do it in the States. If you try opening a bar in Ireland, there’s not just red tape like everywhere else. Everybody going would have his hand out looking for a back-hander (kickback). There’s an oppressive cloud. There always has been.”
Even during the time of Ireland’s boom years, from the middle of the 90’s to the recent economic crisis, emigration still continued—albeit at a much slower pace. Ireland’s great economy attracted a lot of returning emigrants, as well as many Eastern Europeans, causing a small surge in the population. The few that did emigrate at that time were mostly unskilled workers who hadn’t benefited from the boom. They were seen as young kids who were just bored. Many left without having gotten their leaving cert (high school diploma), and were less likely to be politically aware, or to want to stay in the U.S permanently.
Now with the boom years behind them, and unemployment reaching 14% in Ireland, there is a fear that the push to emigrate will surface again strongly. Most European countries are particularly aware of their aging populations, and that is very true for Ireland as well. They have a great need to retain young, skilled workers as their economies mature.
Perhaps today, however, there is not as much fear of a permanent loss in their population. With travel and communication so much more available than in times past, the links that bind the Irish to Ireland can remain strong no matter how far they travel. “The dynamic has changed,” said Michael. “There are thousands of people who are back and forth a lot.”
At the end of our interview, Michael said “We’re already into a two hundred-odd year history. As much as Americans perceive their ancestral homeland as Ireland…I think the Irish feel at home in America. And what they have achieved in America is incredible.”