The Irish diaspora is one of the largest in the world. Ireland itself has a very small population of 4.8 million. More than double this number has emigrated from Ireland since the 18th Century due to a wealth of different factors. North America and especially the United States was the main destination. 36 million Americans claim to be of Irish descent, although these claims are difficult to verify. It is known that nearly 5 million left Ireland for the United States during the height of Irish emigration in the mid-19th Century while large numbers also settled in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
It is impossible to talk about Irish immigration overseas without mentioning the Great Famine of the 1840’s. This was the single biggest motivating factor behind Irish emigration. Between 1841 and 1851, the Irish population declined by 2 million due to deaths from the famine or mass emigration.
The famine eviscerated Ireland’s potato production, which was both the country’s most significant source of food and income. As a result, mass starvation and economic devastation befell the country. There were other factors during this period as well, with labour-intensive jobs emerging in the United Kingdom as well being a major prompt for mass emigration. The Great Famine and its immense impact on welfare in Ireland was nonetheless an indisputable driving force behind the mass exodus that befell the country in the 19th Century. So devastating was the impact of the Great Famine that Ireland’s population continued to decline well into the 20th Century.
The main destination of Irish immigration was undoubtedly the United States, which in modern times, has a significant, albeit heavily assimilated Irish population. Irish immigration to the United States predated the Great Famine. During the 18th Century, it was believed that over 250,000 Irish settlers arrived in the United States. The vast majority of these were of the Protestant minority in Ireland. Despite this, there was a Catholic minority, which settled in regions such as Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The Catholic and Protestant Irish populations were very much separated and settled in different parts of the country. Irish settlers continued to arrive in the United States to fill labour shortages and deficiencies, particularly in the areas of canal building and lumbering. The Great Irish Famine saw a major increase to an already-significant immigration rate to the United States. Unlike previous Irish waves of immigration, which mainly settled in rural communities to suit their lifestyles and vocations, this new, massive wave instead opted to settle in large cities.
This facilitated an easier ability to established communities, a desire birthed by the sheer distress they had endured during the famine. It was also influenced by the considerable poverty sustained by the Irish as a result of the famine, preventing them from travelling further than the coastal cities. As a result, cities in the Eastern Seaboard such as New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Baltimore all became major hubs.
A large number of Irish immigrants were enticed by the prospect of making fortunes during the country’s westward expansion, although this paled in comparison to those who settled in major cities. A notable example of this is the construction of Kansas City, a project that heavily relied upon Irish labour. The Irish population of the United States remains one of the most significant ethnic populations in the country in modern times and aspects of the country’s culture have left a significant imprint.
While the community has heavily assimilated into the United States and is no longer confined to enclaves, there is a strong sense of pride and heritage amongst Irish Americans. St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are widespread throughout the country and there is a pervasive sense of camaraderie, borne out of the distressing conditions behind the Irish mass emigration. Furthermore, the Irish diaspora was the first major wave of immigrants to arrive in the United States and influenced this population movement for many years to come.
Canada’s Irish population, while comparatively much smaller than that of the United States, was nonetheless formed under similar circumstances. Prior to the Great Famine, a large number of Irish settlers arrived in Newfoundland, particularly from the Waterford region. For the bulk of the 19th Century, Canada’s immigrants were predominantly Irish. Following the Great Famine, a large number of Irish Catholics settled in Canada, particularly in the French-speaking province of Quebec (which was the main port of entry). Unlike the United States, wherein the Irish population was predominantly clustered in major cities, Irish Canadians were evenly divided between urban and rural areas.
Preceding Irish immigration to the New World was a destination far closer to home. The United Kingdom and Ireland have long had an acrimonious relationship. Due to the close proximity between the two islands, Irish immigration throughout the United Kingdom has occurred for several centuries, stretching back well into the Medieval period. Irish immigration continued for centuries, but as with elsewhere, reached its apex during the 19th Century following the Great Famine. The poorest of Irish immigrants could not afford journeys far overseas to the United States or Canada and instead settled in the United Kingdom, particularly in major urban centres such as Liverpool, Manchester and London. While the population has been generally well-assimilated, enclaves exist in Northwest London such as Kilburn and Cricklewood, to such an extent that Kilburn is sometimes nicknamed ‘County Kilburn’. Shepherd’s Bush and Archway are also major Irish centres.
Irish immigration to Australia and New Zealand was also considerable during the 19th Century. Australia in particularly has a long history of Irish immigration dating back to the country’s early days as a British penal colony. Some of the earliest settlers in Australia were Irish prisoners of war from the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Between 1791 and 1867, over 40,000 Irish convicts were sent to Australia. In addition to this, a number of Irish immigrants settled in Australia willingly during the 19th Century and comprised a significant number of the country’s population. There is a sense of solidarity between Irish Australians and Aboriginal Australians, due to their shared oppression under the British. Ned Kelly, Australia’s most infamous folk hero, was an early Irish-Australian who embodied the cultural proxy war between Ireland and Britain that was acted out in Australia. Irish Catholics remain the country’s largest minority and played an instrumental role in forming Australia’s national identity. In nearby New Zealand, there is also a large Irish population, the culture of which has had a significant influence on the country.
The Irish diaspora, mainly found in anglophile countries, is a complex contradiction. It is both one of the most unified diasporas in the world due to the difficult circumstances behind its exile yet also one of the most well-assimilated populations in its various new homes. It is defined by a sense of camaraderie and unity, the likes of which are rare.
Main image: Irish immigrants in Kansas City, Missouri, c. 1909.