The Culture of Migration in Ireland

Ireland is a country with a tumultuous past littered with violence and political upheaval. It has always been a place dominated by English colonization and eventually on their achievement of independence. One of the biggest elements of Irish culture, however, is the fact that Irish people have been scattered throughout the whole world, for myriad reasons, which I will attempt to extricate with historical analysis, literary and artistic analysis, and with anecdotal evidence gathered while in Ireland. I will focus on the largest mass migration of this nation’s history, the famine. I will also look at the contemporary life of emigration in Ireland. Lastly, I will add a personal touch by recounting to the best of my ability the experience of my great-grandfather who emigrated over in the first half of the twentieth century. In the end, I hope to get a detailed perspective on the way in which the Irish have been moved, and have decided to move around in this world.


The most famous moment of the Irish diaspora is undoubtedly the mass exports of people which occurred during the Great Famine. From 1845-1852 there was a famine which was caused by an agricultural system which was based upon creating crops for the English to export; the system is mostly responsible for the famine because the problem was not based on the fact that Ireland couldn’t grow crops, just that the peasants only ate potatoes and in those years there were terrible potato blights, hence the famine. Ireland was still exporting crops in those years.

A great example of British negligence towards the Irish during the Famine is the point that the Queen only contributed £1,000 towards relief efforts. That basically set a cap for any other aristocrat who wished to send relief. It was not an outright refusal to help, however, it definitely fits into the colonial narrative which originally set out for the indigenous Irish to be put out of existence.

According to an article on, which quotes the book of an Irish historian;

“Between 1845 and 1855, approximately one-quarter of the inhabitants of an entire European nation, amounting to some 2.1 million persons, were permanently removed from their homeland…Over 95% of those who left Ireland during the Famine traveled across the Atlantic and about 70% of all emigrants who arrived in the United States settled – typically in cities of over 100,000 – in seven northerly states: New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Massachusetts…Approximately 1.1 million died and over a million emigrated during the Famine. The population of Ireland plummeted from almost 8.2 million in 1841 to 6.5 million in 1851…A great number of these emigrants had never previously ventured outside their own local areas…Suddenly, they found themselves transported thousands of miles away: from a rural to an urban landscape, to a very alien social environment where the inhabitants didn’t speak the same language and, frequently, showed a deep loathing for their Irishness and their Catholicism. This was bewildering and devastating to them…Chief among the stigmas endured by the Famine Irish and inherited by their children, was the “brand of their Irishness” and, consequently, their inferiority. But for them – and subsequent generations – this was eased by the succour of Irish neighbourhoods, particularly the trinity of the Catholic Church, Irish cultural societies and major political organisations, until demography, democracy and economic success enabled the Irish to tentatively assimilate within the majority society.”

From this we can infer that the emigrants from the Famine went through a very specific struggle, one that is dominated with an arduous journey followed by an intensely new and uncomfortable surrounding which the Irish eventually had to become accustomed to. It is a narrative of perseverance, of unity through adversity, and through abject suffering which was ignored by so many around the world. It is also the largest mass emigration of a Western European country of that century. It is a landmark event which changed the way in which Ireland would define its national identity. It also stands as a marker for American-Irish identity. Many Americans are of Irish descent and as children we learn of the Famine in school and it resonates with a deep cultural history for those who connect with their Irishness.  As for the note in the article about the ease of struggle through large Irish Catholic neighborhoods, I can confirm that families would band together and help each other to bring up the whole community. My mother grew up in Rockaway, Queens which is predominantly Irish, and she has told me many stories of how everyone knew everyone and if you were in need you could knock on a neighbors door and they would help you. There is still solidarity among the Irish in those communities where there are large numbers of them.

In Ireland the Famine is commemorated in a variety of ways. There is the Famine museum at Strokestown park, where they do a great job of capturing the events that happened there and discussing how representative they are of the whole country. They have a replica of a room on a ship which they would cram Irish people into. They also have many accounts from the townspeople of how terrible life really was. There are models of the workhouses which the poor Irish were forced to go into if they had no work and no food. There are even original plans and documents from the time period. All of these elements paint a narrative of oppression, they tell a sad story of the way in which landlords viewed the issue economically, and the conclusion was that it was cheaper to get a ship and send them away than to pay taxes for them to be in the workhouses. This is a story which happened all over Ireland. Walking through the Big House at Strokestown, where the gardens were bountiful and the house was made to look larger than it actually is, just to send a message, made me realize the arrogance, the ignorance, and most importantly, the negligence practiced by these aristocratic Anglo-Irish landlords. Another interesting note about Strokestown is the fact that they have the widest street in all of Ireland, and on this street they would parade into their Big House; when they would do this, there would be a person who would inform the townspeople that they must vacate all public areas and hide in their houses because the landlords did not want to see the people who worked under him. It is this head-in-the-sand approach which I find to be most disturbing.

Elsewhere in Ireland there is a Famine memorial on the Sidewalk. In Dublin, right in front of the Customs House, there are seven statues of emaciated people walking with their belongings. Each statue has a plaque in front of it which gives the family name and a small bit of their story. In Toronto, there are the exact same statues. This is representative of the transatlantic nature of Irish emigration during the Famine. It is also representative of the way in which the Famine is remembered in Ireland and abroad. There is a direct parallel between the memory of the Irish in Ireland and the memory of the Irish in America and Canada.


You can see how bedraggled all of these people look. There is a look of terror on all of their faces. Many are carrying children and their belongings, and there is even a dog statue. Everything that these people knew was shattered. Their lives were turned upside down and they had to build up from nothing a whole new life in a whole new place. It truly is a great tragedy of the 19th century.

In the Famine museum there was a painting done by an American-Irish artist which is representative of the American memory of the Famine. It is titled, “Farewell, farewell, and what more receive my blessing from this shore. Here shall I weep by the sea, waiting your return to Erin and me.”


I apologize for the quality of the photo. The little plaque beside it reads as follows:

“In the second half of the 19th century, emigration became the single most important reality of Irish life. It also became a resonant political image, used by nationalists, to indict British rule in Ireland. This political characterization of emigration became a potent one for Irish emigrant populations abroad, who saw themselves as the ‘poor banished children of Eve’, victims of heartless British policy.

In this American image, Ireland is represented, characteristically, as a female figure, weeping over the miseries of Ireland as the sun sets. The various antique fragments, the round tower, the ruined abbey, are all that is left of a once great culture which has endured centuries of hardship and which still suffers the loss of its brightest and best through emigration. On the shore, an old man and some children weep while the able-bodied young men row out to the ship which will take them across the Atlantic. This image illustrates how deeply the emigration experience shaped the consciousness of both Ireland and Irish-America, and how it functioned as a highly charged political and national symbol.”

The narrative on both sides of the Atlantic is always one which grapples with the political nature of the Famine. It is also one which has a view of the British as unhelpful and at fault for the tragedy.


With such a tragedy there were obviously effects which continually influenced the population. Those that survived the famine found themselves in a position where they were guilty because they witnessed so many people die, and many experienced the shattering of families and the loss of their homes. With this fragmented Irish Catholic population there was still a large number of immigrants. With organizations like the Fenian Brotherhood forming in America, along with the large number of Irish who had emigrated during the Famine, the Irish population still had factors which were pulling them to the other side of the Atlantic.   According to Paul Milner’s study, “Irish Emigration to North America: Before, During, and After the Famine”, : “[The] Highest areas of emigration [were] from west Munster (Kerry, Cork & Clare) and parts of Connaught (Leitrim & Galway). During the US Civil War Union recruiters encouraged Irish laborers to emigrate. During this period increasing numbers of young marrieds and single women, plus many widows and parents emigrating to join families. Between 1851-1891 – 4 million emigrants sailed from the shores of Ireland.”

According to Irial Glynn,  in the portion on Ireland in her study titled “Emigration Across the Atlantic: Irish, Italian, and Swedes 1800-1950” the population dropped from 6.5 million in 1851 to 4.4 million in 1911.  She continues; “Post-Famine emigrants departed for more varied reasons, including the declining demand for agricultural labour, the fall in wages in Ireland relative to the United States, the desire to avoid or postpone marriage, and the accumulation of extensive contacts between Ireland and the Irish community in North America.” She also cites the decline in domestic industry, the shift in farming from tillage to pasture, and the increasingly impartible nature of Irish inheritances whereby farms were passed on in their entirety to the eldest son rather than being divided among all sons as other reasons for continual emigration. She also notes how things changed after Independence, “People of all religions continued to depart the newly independent southern Irish state even after it gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1922. Catholics left because of the prospect of greater prosperity elsewhere; Protestants emigrated because of the prospect of an Irish Free State dominated by the Catholic Church and more limited economic opportunities. A major shift in the direction of Irish emigration occurred from the mid-1920s onwards due to new American immigration quotas and the effects of the Great Depression in America throughout the 1930s. Consequently, many Irish people chose instead to move to the United Kingdom, as no travel restrictions applied between the two countries.”

The period directly after Independence and the Irish Civil War which ensued is when my great-grandfather on my mother’s father’s side emigrated over. The year was 1926 and he came through Canada and two years later his wife joined him in New York City. We know that his wife was on the ship known as Laconia, but we are unsure of the name of the ship he came over on. They lived in Yorkville and he worked as a subway motorman for forty years. Yorkville is located in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He lived there until the 1950’s at which time he moved out to Queens County, specifically the Sunnyside area.

He was heavily involved in the creation of the Transport Workers Union of America with Mike Quill.  Mike Quill was heavily entrenched in Irish nationalism. His work in the New York subway system unionization was influenced by the famed Dublin union leader Jim Larkin, as well as James Connolly, and Patrick Pearse. He also utilized resources provided by the American Communist Party.

According to my Uncle John, our family historian, my great-grandfather spent lots of time with Mike Quill. He worked in subways his entire life and definitely partook in many actions related to the building up of the union. My uncle also mentioned how his father, my grandfather, was very close with Mike Quill’s son, John Daniel Quill.  John Daniel owned a luncheonette in Rockaway, New York. This was a hot bed for Irish culture, and for union activity. This is an example of the way in which Irish neighborhoods set up systems to build up from the inside out. Everyone helps each other so the community can grow as a whole. My grandfather chose to stay out of unions and worked as a book-keeper and an off Broadway actor.

The tradition of Irish as unionized laborers has not stopped in my family however; my Uncle John has been very active in the plumbers union of New York for as long as I can remember, and now his oldest son is working in a plumbers union in Portland, Oregon.

Life for my great-grandfather, James Gordon Feeney, lived a rough life. His original plan was to come over for a year and work and save money, then return back to Ireland and do better at supporting the family and farm with his savings from working in America. He worked 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. There was no medical coverage back then. My uncle recounted how there was a sign in the shop that said, ‘If you’re not there on Sunday, don’t bother coming in on Monday.’ Sadly for my great-granddad he moved to Queens and struggled to adjust to the larger streets there. In the Upper West Side the streets are big enough for just two cars, and sometimes only one. In Queens, where he lived, there is a boulevard, Queens Boulevard, that is three lanes on each side. My great-grandfather got hit by a car while crossing this very large street. He ended up spending all of his savings on medical bills after that and eventually had to retire.

As far as his life in Ireland before he left, James Feeney was born in the small, sea-side town of Easky. His family had a farm about five miles from the shore where they grew potatoes and other vegetables. They also had a small amount of livestock which included geese, sheep, and chickens. He married my great-grandmother in Ireland. She was basically the girl from the farm next to his. They moved into a house that was right beside his farm after they got married. That house was there until just a couple of years ago. The house where my great-grandmother was born is still there, it is now used as a barn. James Feeney was not a highly political person. He was 16 when Easter 1916 happened. There is no account of him having any involvement in any violence, political or otherwise. However, his wife once witnessed a gun battle that happened during the Irish Civil War. There is suspicion of political involvement due to the fact that there are papers from the American Bureau of Justice which basically said that he was cleared to enter the country. We are not sure if those were standard or if he was just being considered as a possible rebel.

Both James and his wife came from big families. He was one of 10 and he was the only son that survived. James and his wife went on to have five kids, 2 boys and 3 girls. One of the boys went on to be a priest and the other was my grandfather. Their lives were not the best. James’s wife experienced a lot of homesickness and depression while here. They were always working and poor. Life was a struggle, but the work they laid down helped to make their kids lives easier, and then my grandfather did the same, and now both my parents are doing the same for me. It is truly a narrative of perseverance through adversity in order to bring yourself from the worst to the best.

Before moving on to contemporary emigration, I would like to take a look at a story written before Independence in Ireland. It is titled “Eveline” and it is by James Joyce. It is included in his short story collection, Dubliners. The story is about the way in which one girl gets a chance to leave but is too paralyzed by her sense of duty in Ireland to get on the boat with the man who promises her a better life in Buenos Aires. The end of the story is gripping and sad, all at once. Here are the final few paragraphs:

“She stood among the swaying crowd in the station at the North Wall. He held her hand and she knew that he was speaking to her, saying something about the passage over and over again. The station was full of soldiers with brown baggages. Through the wide doors of the sheds she caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes. She answered nothing. She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist. If she went, tomorrow she would be on the sea with Frank, steaming towards Buenos Ayres. Their passage had been booked. Could she still draw back after all he had done for her? Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer.

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:


All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.


No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.

“Eveline! Evvy!”

He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.”

From this passage we can see how Eveline is literally stuck in this situation. She cannot let go of the iron railing and follow this man onto the boat. She is devastated by the prospect of leaving her life in Ireland behind. She is paralyzed by the fact that there is so much she would be leaving behind. However, in typical fashion of James Joyce, there is an underlying joke here. Eveline is the name of the main character from  a Victorian era French pornographic novel. Also, it is widely known within Ireland that going to Buenos Aires is a euphemism for going into prostitution. So the readership in Dublin would have gotten this silly joke and would have believed Eveline made the right choice in staying. However, it is important to understand how this speaks to the larger topic of emigration; Joyce is presenting women’s chances abroad as having minimal opportunity in anything besides the world’s oldest profession. He is also explicating the fact that women would be dependent on men when going abroad. He is showing how there is a lack of opportunity abroad and an excess of adherence to duty at home. It is a strange dichotomy that really leaves women with no opportunity to better themselves. Joyce himself was an emigrant out of Ireland, opting to live in Trieste for the latter portions of his life. He found it absolutely necessary to leave Ireland and he brought his new bride with him. There are always strange dichotomies within such a drastic decision. In this story we get a sense of how the culture at home affects the way in which one views the possibility of leaving. This is definitely an experience which many Irish people dealt with often, considering the fact that at least one quarter of the rural population must deal with at least one family member leaving.

Contemporary Emigration

While you might expect that those who emigrate are those who are poor, under educated, and of a lower class generally, however, it is more common for those with an education to go abroad. Most of the people leaving do so on short term work or study visas, but many intend on staying longer than the visa allows.

In a report put together by the Irish Research Council in cooperation with the Department of Geography and the Institute for the Social Sciences in the 21st Century at University College Cork titled “Irish Emigration in an Age of Austerity”, three scholars, Irial Glynn, Tomas Kelly, and Piaras MacEinri use statistical research and anecdotal evidence to provide a comprehensive account of what emigration is like in today’s Ireland.  For the purpose of this project, I will be pulling their statistics and conclusions and filling in with my own personal experiences with emigrants while I was abroad and in New York.

Emigrants all have different stories. Each one has their own unique reasons for leaving. However, there are some statistics which are representative of the larger picture of emigration, and they aren’t all as typical as one might expect. For starters, 47% of today’s emigrants were employed in full-time jobs before leaving. Just under 40% of these emigrants left because they wanted to travel and to experience another culture. These were often people with qualifications that other countries coveted, such as IT skills or health professionals.

Underemployment is a motivating factor for some, with 13% of emigrants working in part-time jobs before their departures. Most were recent graduates seeking better prospects. Almost 23% of those leaving were unemployed before departing.

The vast majority, over 70%, of emigrants are aged in their twenties when they depart. There is roughly equal divide between the 20-24 and 25-29 age cohorts. Over 15% of emigrants are aged in their thirties, with approximately twice as many in the first half of their thirties.

The UK and Australia are the two most popular destinations for Irish emigrants. Canada is becoming an increasingly important destination as well.  Emigration effects the rural parts of Ireland more than urban areas. At least one household in four in the most rural areas has been directly affected by the emigration of at least one member since 2006.

According to the report on emigration, emigrants gave an average rating of 5.5 out of ten for their quality of life at home before departure, and then gave an average rating for life abroad at a 7.9 out of ten. Clearly most emigrants find going abroad to be an enriching experience.

With that said, I would now like to share some personal stories from my experience with Irish emigrants in America. I have met a good handful and all of them treat me as if I am also Irish just based on my red hair and freckles. I often talk to them about their lives, and in general I have found that most emigrants were working at home and not feeling very fulfilled. They found an opportunity to come to the states and many thought it would only be a year or so, and many never go back to Ireland. Some had no choice; their parents brought them over at a young age and they look upon America as their home, not as Ireland. I have met a couple of Irish who decided to come back after spending time abroad. One man that I met spent six years working on the horse and carriage rides in Central Park. He told me that he came back because of the woman he loved. It’s a very sweet story when you think about it. A few immigrants I have met in America told me that they stayed here because they met their husband here.

Considering that the majority of those who emigrate nowadays are people in their twenties, I would like to share a story of a woman I met in New York City. I was walking around with this project bubbling in my brain and I decided to stop into the first Irish bar that I saw. I wandered in and asked the lady behind the counter if any of the employees were from Ireland. She gladly answered yes in an Irish accent.

This girl is named Grace Teeling. She is from Dublin and she had previously done a J1 visa where you are basically studying abroad in the United States. Now she was just over here working, trying to save some money and have some fun. She works at Wolfe Tone’s Irish Pub and Kitchen which is E 29th street between Park and Madison. While she couldn’t exactly remember what Wolfe Tone did, she did tell me a bit about her life as an emigrant. She told me how most people are expected to go abroad after University. She also mentioned how most people are looked upon with admiration, as if to say ‘atta boy’; however, all emigrants are dearly missed by their family and friends who stay in Ireland. It is not an easy decision. It tears you away from everything you have known for your whole life and you have to start up new. She told me a bit about her life: She is one of 6 kids, the youngest by ten years. She is going to school for business and would like to work in human resources or finance or something with people in business. She has one year of college left to finish and we wished each other the best of luck as we were in similar positions. Grace has one brother in Australia and her family works in hard labor and home making. After she is finished with school she plans on coming back to America.

Grace also told me about the community of emigrants in New York City. She mentioned how there was a Facebook group which linked together many of the Irish people visiting New York who were of a similar age. This page is used to plan outings, help people with lodging, and any other communication that is necessary between the young emigrants.

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From this series of analyses we can recognize that there is a complex history and culture related to the Irish diaspora. It is a continual process of people moving from Ireland all around the world. The reasons are different for every person and every story has its unique elements which only the individual who must deal with emigration can really grasp fully. However, from this study we can recognize that the people who emigrate are not always in need of jobs, they are not usually poor and uneducated, they are often people who want to get more worldly experience, people who are interested in experiencing different cultures, people who want to see what life outside of Ireland is like, and most importantly, they are all people with complex individual stories that cannot be generalized. Every single emigrant makes the decision to move based on a number of factors that are unique to them. Many do it because they have familial connections abroad and would like to get a taste of the life of another country, some need to find better opportunities in other countries because Ireland doesn’t have much to offer them, and many are even expected to go abroad if they just finished college and do not have a job lined up immediately. It is a way to get valuable experience for future career options. It is also very fun for many emigrants, they come to America or Canada to work, study, and have fun. It is not all so serious, like the times of necessity when people were being shipped out of Ireland because they had no job, no home, and only a workhouse to go into. We must remember that there is a long history of Irish emigration which is ongoing. It is particular to the culture of Ireland that they have been spread all around the world. There are Irish communities all over and if an Irish citizen wants to experience a new country, all they must do is find the places where Irish have settled and it is likely that they will find some opportunity.


Works Cited

Daly, Brendan. “Facts about Great Famine Emigration out of Ireland Revealed.” IrishCentral. 24 Mar. 2014. Web. 19 Aug. 2015.
Glynn, Irial. “Emigration Across the Atlantic: Irish, Italians and Swedes Compared, 1800–1950 — EGO.” EGO. Web. 19 Aug. 2015.
Glynn, Irial, Tomas Kelly, and Piaras MacEinri. “Irish Emigration in an Age of Austerity.” Web. 19 Aug. 2015.
Joyce, James. “Eveline.” Dubliners,. New York: Modern Library, 1926. Print.
Milner, Paul. “Irish Emigration to North America: Before, During, and After the Famine.” Web. 19 Aug. 2015.
Special thanks to John Feeney, Grace Teeling, and all the others who provided me with personal information on their experience with going abroad. I greatly appreciate all of the depth of information and experience that the locals of Ireland and the Irish-Americans I spoke to provided me. I hope to continue this conversation with as many Irish people as I can, as well as people from other countries. It is important to understand migration in order to get a better understanding of America, the nation of immigrants. I found this whole experience to be generally enlightening when it comes to the concept of emigration and the forces behind it. I have learned about the many different reasons why people come and go; also, I have come to understand the complexity of it all in a new light. Every single person must balance a bunch of factors to decide what life they want to live. Going abroad is a very big decision which doesn’t always pay off in the end, however, for many it was better than working a dead-end job in Ireland. When talking to any immigrants, I will now have a new found respect for the struggles which they have endured; I hope this study provides a reader with similar feelings.