Why is there no Irish unrest? “Because we shrug and go, shrug and go, shrug…”

Great piece on Irish emigration by Fintan O’Toole on the Irish experience of migration on the BBC’s Archive HOur, which effectively only began in great numbers with the Irish famine…

There can be few Irish families which don’t contain someone who recalls the scarring experience of pre war ‘American wakes’… and the emptying out of whole families from small, but once densely packed townlands… to start new and unregarded lives in Glendale, Dorchester, Yonkers or Somerset…

And he finishes on what has latterly we’ve become accustomed to regard as the pressure valve for a small island economy, the ejection of the young from the domestic nest…

The quote in the title is from the writer Colm Toibin, with which he argues that Irish people do not demand enough from their political leaders, but instead prefer to simply shrug, and go…

Well worth the hour it takes to listen

  • An interesting and enjoyable programme. I did manage to listen to it whilst working.

    I felt that there was a little bit of distortion in relation to the discussion about the Irish economy.

    The economy actually started growing significantly following the Whitaker reforms of the late 1950s. Of course, employment is a lagging economic indicator but it was growing in Ireland by the 1960s.

    The trough in the decline of the Irish population occurred in the mid 1960s. After that, the population steadily increased even though emmigration continued. This highlights a distinctive feature of Irish people in the 20th century – the fact that they were still having very large families.

    Ireland was one of the last countries to legalise contraception. The average Irish family is still a little bit larger than that of one in Great Britain but the patterns of birth increase are now much closer to European norms. Thus when the Celtic boom came about, there were not enough young people to fill the new jobs, hence a decade of Immigration.

    Emmigration is stated to have re-started since the recession began 3 years ago. If that is the case, I think it will be a much more temporary phenomenon and not the “scarring” of the Irish Nation as happened in the historical past.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Irish experience of migration…which effectively only began in great numbers with the Irish famine”

    Wasn’t there (proportionately) massive emigration from Ulster to the North American colonies in the eighteenth century?

  • Mick Fealty

    Yes, but nothing on the scale of population movement post famine. Those earlier movements were largely (though not exclusively) amongst Ulster Scots. One reason why Ulster Scots ancestry provides such a proportionately large chunk of those who self identify as Irish Americans is that they’ve been out there for several generations longer.

    There was relatively speaking no real tradition of wider Irish out migration beforehand. Afterwards, for the longest time most of it was driven by flight from poverty rather than journey towards prosperity/freedom.

    If there is a difference now from then, there seems to have been a qualitative shift in that respect.

  • Harry, here’s a website that highlights mainly Ulster emigration from 1718 onwards. It’s likely that the Scotch-Irish brand arose from a desire to draw a distinction between these immigrants and the mainly Catholic Irish who arrived later. AFAIK the latter group is more likely to use the Irish-American label with the former opting for American with Irish and other roots.

  • Drumlins Rock

    was recently looking at the poulation figures for 60 rural townlands in South Tyrone, the population has dropped between 70 & 80% since 1831, with a 30-40% drop between 1841 and 1871, as the no of household dropped by a similar extent we can presume it was emigration rather than famine deaths. The interesting factor was the population drop (this is a mixed area 60% rc 40%p) was higher in the protestant towlands than the Catholic ones even at this late stage, there never was a real hault in the “Ulster Scots” exodus, but possibly it was overwhelmed by southern Catholics during the famine period.

  • Drumlins Rock, it might be interesting to look at the fate of various families as well as the impact of industrialisation. There would have been an exodus to the towns and cities locally as well as overseas. Just look at the growth of Belfast.

    My father grew up on a small farm; he moved two miles and my mother, from a larger farm, moved eight miles. That was quite a bit further than their parents did though nothing like that of some of their uncles, aunts, greatuncles and great aunts. My father was one of a family of nine: one went to Australia via Belfast; four went to England directly or via Belfast with two of them spending some time in South Africa; one went to Belfast and three didn’t venture too far from home – with the youngest son inheriting an expanded home farm. My father’s father was one of six; he, as the youngest, took on the home farm and added to it; one sibling stayed near home and four siblings emigrated to the USA with three returning to different parts of Antrim and Armagh. This gives you a small flavour of the complexity of migration.

  • Barnshee

    “one of a family of nine” , “one of six”
    There might be a clue there as to the need for emigration

  • Barnshee, William and Nancy, my greatgreatgrandparents, were married in 1833 in the Kingdom of Moyle. I’ve identified five of their children and forty of their grandchildren; the youngest child was born in 1846 and AFAIK all survived the famine. William leased an eight acre farm. His youngest son took on the lease sometime around the 1880s and it was split in two in 1917 with the eldest getting a half-share. All five raised families within a few field’s length of each other.

  • Damian O’Loan

    Excellent programme. I could only point to one facet that wasn’t really explored.

    Discourse regarding emigration tends to focus on the economic factors that give rise to it. This is understandable as they no doubt form the most common motivation. However, there are those who leave for cultural reasons.

    You can’t grow up in Ireland without the feeling that what really counts on a global scale happens elsewhere. Culturally and economically, Ireland follows and does little to innovate, let alone have the critical mass that would create a feeling of being in a society that was ahead of its time.

    Then there is the well-documented reality of insular attitudes and closed-mindedness, one area in which the Irish are close to leading Europe. The nationalist identity has much to answer for here. This is, for me and I’m sure others, a large part of the reason Ireland is not a great place to live.

    If the economic case for emigration has been well researched to the end of attracting back bright minds, it may be worthwhile to look at the social phenomena that render Ireland, in some ways, a less than hospitable environment for its own citizens and for potentially valuable immigrants.

  • Barnshee


    “eight acre farm” “forty of their grandchildren”
    if they all hung around there would be 1/5 acre per person less housing provision etc to support them god bless emigration

  • Barnshee

    “You can’t grow up in Ireland without the feeling that what really counts on a global scale happens elsewhere.”

    World population oh say 7 billion –Ireland 4/5 million Remote rain soaked island best known as a pain the butt to its next door neighbour

    “Ireland follows and does little to innovate” what else do you expect?