One Island, Millions of Stories

Today in the Irish Independent see’s the release of our special magazine that charts the amazing story of Irish emigration. In this extract from part one, Patrick Fitzgerald and Brian Lambkin of the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies at the Ulster-American Folk Park write about how the Irish Diaspora were often very well prepared for lives at their final destinations.

THE story of Irish emigration is, of course, just one dimension of Ireland’s migration story. The experience of leaving the island only really makes sense when considered as interconnected with the other dimensions of migration — immigration (including return migration) and internal migration.

However, the outflow — by any measure — was extraordinary and in our mind’s eye we can imagine the ever-changing shape across the globe of the phenomenon we call today the Irish Diaspora, estimated by some as being around 80 million people. The Irish Diaspora, however sizeable, evolved as part of a wider European Diaspora. By looking at our story as part of this we can see some of its interesting characteristics as set out in more detail in Migration in Irish History, 1607 – 2007 (2008).

One feature of the outward flow is persistence. From the iconic Flight of the Earls in 1607, something like 10 million migrants have left these shores for destinations near and far. In the 17th and 18th centuries outward migration, though heavy by European standards of the time, was modest when compared with what would follow.

The Catholic continental powers and the islands of the Caribbean were gradually superseded as destinations by Colonial America and what would become the USA. What we today would recognise as genuinely mass emigration followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) and a traumatic peak was reached, irrespective of religious background, during the decade of the Great Famine (1845-55). North America remained the dominant destination during the relentless haemorrhage which continued to the Great Crash of 1929. Now two states sent most of their emigrants across the Irish Sea to Britain.

Although, in fact, only about 12% of Ireland’s emigrants since 1600 left during the Great Famine (1845-51) the exodus of An Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger) unquestionably stamped the entire Irish emigrant experience with a powerfully tragic motif. Without in any way diminishing the anguish of those who witnessed first-hand the horrors of the ‘coffin ships’ and ‘Black ’47’, we should recognise the diversity within the majority who departed outside these years.

Given the scale of emigration we can acknowledge that our emigrants went to many corners of the globe but actually most were not pioneers — more often than not they followed in the wake of siblings, relatives, friends or neighbours. Like migrants the world over they tended to go where they could get most easily.

The patterns established from each of Ireland’s 61,098 townlands were slightly different but as the 19th century progressed they tended to favour the industrialising, urbanising parts of the English-speaking world. Often the primary determinant of where a migrant might go was where their elder brother or sister was already established.

Popular culture might suggest emigrants departed the Irish countryside with a degree of naivety but increasingly after the Famine, when more and more literate migrants penned letters home, they had access to pretty good reconnaissance. Most appreciated the streets weren’t paved with gold but knew their weekly wage outstripped what they might hope to earn at home.

By the later 19th century the figure taking the boat was as likely to be Bridget as Pat. In contrast to the outflow from Europe as a whole the migration stream from Ireland was fairly balanced in terms of gender, or put another way, more women left the homeland. Whether male or female these were predominantly young people aged 16 to 25, many had already found some employment at home but went overseas in search of better prospects.

As many went to destinations where Irish networks were well developed it was far from unusual that they might find an Irish spouse. Often marriages in the New World reflected much more local Irish connections and county identity was regularly prominent in expressions of ethnic identity abroad.

A sense of ‘home’ permeated the Diaspora and children and grandchildren born outside Ireland were generally reluctant to relinquish connections with the specific locality from which they originated.

What we think of as ‘roots tourism’ today was already well underway a century ago. One very palpable expression of the desire to remember the home place was the regular flow of international mail and the many remittances which served to support struggling rural smallholdings. Alongside postal orders or dollar bills came pre-paid tickets to allow a brother or sister to join a ‘beacon’ migrant already established afar.

A regular scene witnessed in the Irish countryside involved the acting out of a ritual associated with the emigrant’s departure. The night before leaving, friends and neighbours would gather in the cabin of the migrant for song, story, keening and drink until the dawn broke and the departing soul would be ‘convoyed’ to a point in the landscape where there would be a final emotionally-charged farewell.

This kind of performed ‘contract reinforced the need for remittances to flow but acknowledged the unlikelihood of the migrant ever actually returning. We know that Irish migrants who crossed the Atlantic returned permanently much less frequently than most other European ethnic groups.

In Ireland emigration was for keeps — as the term ‘American Wake’ or Living Wake’ implied. We might speculate how the relationships established between family members divided by great distances then still affect the relationship between Diaspora and homeland today and perhaps also pose the question — how well do we today integrate migrants who seek to make a home amongst us?

Brian Lambkin and Patrick Fitzgerald work at the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies at the Ulster-American Folk Park, Omagh, Co Tyrone. The full magazine is available with today’s Irish Independent, with the concluding parts available each Friday for the next 3 weeks.

EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum is an immersive experience located in Dublin’s Docklands. Be inspired and guided on a journey through 20 interactive galleries to discover the stories of Irish emigration around the world, from early times to modern day. Open daily in The chq Building, Custom House Quay, Dublin 1, from 10am, last entry is 5pm. For a limited time, kids can go free to EPIC when a copy of the magazine is presented at our ticket desk. (One child free per paying adult).