The rise of the Irish diaspora
Ireland is home to just 4.5 million people, yet over 70 million individuals living worldwide claim Irish ancestry.
In the US alone, 30 million people believe themselves tied to Irish migrant bloodlines.
Ireland has sometimes attracted migrants, too – the country enjoyed a period of major in-migration from eastern Europe between 2004 and 2008.
Thanks to a period of strong economic growth, the "Celtic Tiger" became an attractive destination for young Poles in search of work. But the global credit crunch of 2008 brought this growth to an abrupt end. Ireland's economy has since fallen into crisis and the centuries-old spectre of out-migration has returned.
Exploring the Irish diaspora: the growth of a global community
Ireland and the credit crunch: new trends in out-migration
AS/A2/IB migration practice essay question
“Diaspora” (from the Greek word “to scatter”) is defined as any group of people that has dispersed outside its traditional homeland. In recent years, the concept of an Irish diaspora has been widely used to describe Irish emigrants and their descendants around the world. The out-migration that has built this diaspora is a constant theme in historical and geographical narratives of Ireland to the extent that the Irish are very much seen as a cultural group who have “gone global”.
When studying a diaspora such as Ireland’s, it is important to distinguish between:
overseas migrants who were actually born in the source country (in this case study, that would be people born in Ireland who have recently migrated abroad).
people born in a diaspora host country, such as the USA, who claim distant Irish ancestry based on their own knowledge (sometimes partial) of the geographical roots of their ancestors.
Causes and characteristics of Irish diaspora growth
The major host nations for the Irish diaspora are:
USA During the 1800s, the United States of America was the most popular destination for Irish emigrants. In 1891, 1.8 million native-born Irish people were already living there. Out-migration from Ireland during this period is historically linked with a widespread Irish famine (with complex causes). Today, around 30 million Americans are wholly or partly descended from Irish settlers of that period and 11% of all Americans claim some Irish ancestry - the equivalent of seven times the population of Ireland itself! Far smaller in comparison is the number of actual Irish-born people currently living in the US: just 156,000 (very few people have left Ireland for the USA since the 1980s, in part due to Ireland's own economic success and a marked fall in Irish birth rates).
UK Twentieth Century migration from Ireland to its neighbour is historically linked with high birth rates in Catholic Ireland occurring alongside job shortages (especially during times of economic difficulty in the 1930s and the 1970s). There are four times more native-born Irish people in the UK than there are in the USA – amounting to around half a million people. British census results suggest that an even larger number - between five and six million British people - have an Irish parent or grandparent. The number of people with much older Irish roots living in the UK may even be as large as 14 million people (around 1 in 4 people). However, it is important to remember that a great many of those people are either unaware of the fact or would choose not to describe themselves as being part of the Irish diaspora.
Australia, New Zealand and Canada These three countries all host a population descended in part from English-speaking migrants from the British Isles (UK & Ireland). Australia is home to the third largest Irish-born population currently living outside Ireland, as well as millions of diaspora members who are the descendants of 300,000 free emigrants and 45,000 prisoners who sailed to Australia from Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries. Canada is home to nearly 4 million people who today claim Irish ancestry from the same historical period.
Argentina Interestingly, there is a large Irish-descent population here (as well as some in Uruguay and Brazil): as many as half a million people in South America have some Irish ancestry dating back to a time in the late 1800s when around 45,000 Irish arrived in Argentina.
Consequences of diaspora growth
There are consequences for both the source nation, Ireland, and also for the major hosting nations (UK, USA, Australia, Canada and others).
Economic benefits for Ireland include remittances (monies sent home from abroad) and tourist spending by diaspora members holidaying in Ireland.
Economic losses for Ireland include the loss of many talented young Irish people and their earning potential (which can lower GDP).
Cultural benefits for Ireland come from diaspora members helping Irish music, literature and sport to gain global recognition. The members of rock band U2 are Irish; support from the diaspora helped the band to succeed in building a global fan base, especially in North and South America.
Cultural challenges for Ireland include meeting the expectations of tourists with Irish roots who want to see “shamrocks, Guinness and leprechauns” when they visit. Sensing business opportunity, a large part of Ireland's tourist industry embraces nostalgia; however, some young Irish people object to this “fossilisation” of their nation’s cultural heritage.
Economic benefits for host nations are derived from the arrival of a young and ambitious migrant work force with a strong work ethic that has persisted over time. Irish work gangs helped build the London Underground (in the late 1800s and early 1900s) as well as great American achievements that include its railways and the Hoover dam.
Social and cultural benefits for host nations may include the fusion of migrant music and cuisine into the national cultural “melting pot”. Early Irish settlers brought the fiddle with them which later became a major feature of Appalachian folk music, for instance. St Patrick’s Day brings a major parade to cities with large Irish populations such as Boston. Many people of non-Irish origin also celebrate the day in company with their Irish-American friends.
Political benefits for host nations can include improved international relations. US President John F. Kennedy was the great-grandson of Irish immigrants. Ex-President Bill Clinton claims Irish-American ancestry too. Such high-level connections have been politically beneficial for both nations (Clinton played a role in the peace process for Northern Ireland).
What is meant by ‘diaspora’?
One important aspect of cultural globalisation is the world-wide scattering or dispersal of national populations and their descendants as a result of migration or changes to political geography (the nomadic Baloch people became a diaspora population when the creation of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India divided the territory of Balochistan into three parts).
Important examples of migration-led diaspora include the Jewish diaspora, the “Black Atlantic” diaspora (described by Paul Gilroy as a transnational culture built on the movements of people of African descent to Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas), the Chinese diaspora and the UK’s Celtic fringe diasporas (Ireland, Scotland and Wales have all birthed significant global diasporas, despite these nations' relatively small population sizes).
Over time, each diaspora's cultural traits are preserved (albeit in a modified form) and connections are maintained between groups of peoples with common ancestry living in different territories. Diaspora members may experience a sense of transnational identity (TNI).
During 2008-09, the global economic crisis known as the credit crunch resulted in many once-thriving economies "going into reverse gear": Ireland was one of them. When the good times came to an abrupt end many eastern Europeans headed home from Ireland, as construction projects faltered and firms laid off workers. For the first time in many years, significant numbers of native-born Irish began to leave the country too. Have the 'bad old days' of out-migration come back to haunt Ireland?
The global credit crunch was an international financial crisis with roots in the mismanagement of mortgage markets in developed world economies - as well as the enormous trade imbalance that has built up between the USA and China over time. During the “golden years” of globalisation, Ireland prospered. Between around 1990 and 2008, Ireland became a wealthy and modern industrial state (dubbed the “Celtic Tiger”), reversing a century-long trend of economic stagnation. A low tax regime lured in TNCs looking for a low-cost European base. This fuelled both employment growth and housing construction, making Ireland a very popular destination for eastern European migrant workers.
But then, as the Guardian (03 January 2010) commented: “the tiger's roar turned to a whimper”. What happened?
Like other credit crunch casualties, Ireland’s economy had become dangerously over-dependent on the housing market and financial services.
Irish banks funded an unsustainable property boom throughout the “noughties”, resulting in an over-supply of new apartment blocks in the Dublin area (aimed at buy-to-let investors).
When banks and lending institutions all around the world began to fail in 2008 – including Lehman Brothers in the USA and Northern Rock in the UK - Irish banks such as Anglo-Irish also faced the sudden danger of running out of money (shares in Anglo-Irish fell by 98% during 2008).
Ireland’s government was forced to bail out the country’s banking system by guaranteeing the deposits of the five biggest financial institutions - including housing loans for properties now worth much less than their owners paid for them, following a collapse in the value of property-related investments.
The cost of creating its own “toxic bank” to soak up these loans crippled the Irish government economically, forcing massive spending cuts (BBC News, 23 July 2010).
Since 2008, government tax receipts from property have fallen; while unemployment costs for the government have soared as the percentage out of work has risen from 5% to 13% (BBC News, 11 November 2010).
Impact of the economic slow-down on migration
According to BBC News (23 July 2010), around 5,000 people are leaving Ireland every month in search for work, now that the economy faltered. The small village of Gneeveguilla in County Kerry has a population of just 230. In the first half of 2010, 12 young people moved away.
In County Kerry, as across Ireland as a whole, the construction industry has collapsed. This has triggered a negative multiplier effect that damages sales in other industries as well – all resulting in reduced employment opportunities for the young.
Many of the leavers belong to a group of 200,000 eastern Europeans who migrated to Ireland between 2004 and 2008. It is believed that up to one quarter of these have already departed, taking their spending power with them. But it is not just the eastern Europeans who are leaving Ireland. According to Ireland’s Central Statistics Office (CSO), of the 65,300 people who emigrated in the year to April 2010, Irish nationals accounted for 27,700 (or 42%).
BBC News (23 July 2010) quotes an Economic and Social Research Institute report, commenting that: “Some will be Eastern European workers going home. But increasingly young Irish people are going too… Many will settle abroad - as young Irish people have done for generations, leaving their parents and grandparents behind.”
Smaller families, bigger impacts
Past waves of out-migration did not always damage Ireland’s social fabric on account of large family sizes. While many young people left rural villages and moved abroad in the 1800s and 1900s, some always remained in situ and local family bloodlines were carried forwards. However, birth rates fell in line with the rest of Europe during the 1990s and many Irish families now have just 2 or 3 children. If these youngsters should leave, entire communities will face an unsustainable future.
One Irish news reporter noted that “this wave of emigration risks hitting the villages especially hard. In the past, families in this area (County Kerry) tended to be large – (local man) Tom Sheahan is one of nine children. He tells me of a local woman, now in her eighties, who had 23 children, so not all would leave. This time, when Irish families are smaller, it seems almost an entire generation are heading out.” (BBC News, 23 July 2010)
Many in Ireland are undergoing ‘enforced emigration’; skilled workers are having to leave in search of the jobs that are not available to them at home. Where are they heading to? Early attempts to identify a pattern suggest that booming Asia may now be a destination, as well as established Irish diaspora sites including Australia and Canada (Irish Central, 13 November 2010). Some are moving to other parts of Europe, taking their skills and knowledge with them (BBC 09 January 2011).
Examine the positive and negative impacts of out-migration for a source country that you have studied. (10 marks)
Examiner’s tips Using Ireland as a case study allows you to write an answer with a wide variety of economic, social and cultural ideas, thanks to the long period (around 200 years) over which out-migration has occurred.
Try to incorporate the following themes into your essay plan:
Provide a good balance between positives (remittances, the alleviation of over-population and the reduction of unemployment levels) and negatives (loss of youthful population and its talent and earning potential) over the whole time period.
Note that out-migration today (linked to the new economic recession) could be more socially and economically damaging than past waves of migration because family sizes are now smaller; some rural villages could be left with an elderly population structure as a result, as the BBC reported.
Make the growth of the Irish diaspora an important theme, highlighting a range of economic, social, cultural and even political benefits for Ireland, as well as some challenges (such as a risk of “fossilisation” of native Irish culture).
Meet Ireland's most prolific high king - you may be descended from him. Irish Central 09 August 2010
Five countries that crashed and burned in the credit crunch face a hard road to recovery Guardian 03 January 2010
Ireland's new exodus BBC News 23 July 2010
EU would support Irish 'if needed' BBC News 11 November 2010
Irish emigration hits highest level in two decades. Irish Central 13 November 2010
Leaving home... the new wave of emigration. BBC 09 January 2011
BBC Irish historical records emigrating online 17 March 2001
Will these Irish migrants be different from the past? BBC 23 November 2010
Emigration returns to crisis-hit Greece and Ireland. BBC 13 April 2010
Central Statistics Office Ireland
Irelands Roots: Ireland's Diaspora
The Global Irish
BBC Born abroad: an immigration map of Britain – Republic of ireland
Leaving Ireland, and returning as a tourist. BBC 21 May 2011
Written by Dr Simon Oakes, a senior A-level examiner who teaches at Bancroft’s School, Essex
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