The Story of the Irish Diaspora Wherever Green Is Worn

Philadelphia - Mary Logue Campbelll Magee and her children in 1895.

By Tim Pat Coogan, Contributor
December / January 2002

The Irish Diaspora is the outworking of two forms of colonialism, those of Mother England and Mother Church. I have been interested since boyhood in what was then known not as the Diaspora, but as emigration. Like nearly every other Irish person of my generation, some of my closest relatives were forced into unwilling emigration. I have always lived near Dun Laoghaire, where “the mailboat” left for Holyhead, in Wales, and the sight of the shabby, set-faced horde pouring down Marine Road and on to those uncomfortable, vomit-producing ferries for dead-end jobs, punctuated by pub and prejudice, was one of the haunting memories of childhood. Nobody talked about those people, nobody did anything for them. Theirs was a fate that did not speak its name – except, from time to time, when drunkenness or fighting caught the attention of the papers. As I grew older and traveled, my imagination was seized by the extent of Irish emigration. As Mary Robinson never tired of pointing out, 70 million people on the planet are entitled to call themselves Irish.

Much of the Irish Diaspora’s view of itself and of its nationality is colored by the happenings in Northern Ireland. many ideas of Irish Identity have been formed by, with, or from Britain. Particularly in England, so much of the good or bad the Irish do is viewed, often unconsciously, against an horrific historical backdrop. In America, much of the consciousness of being Irish was awakened by the Troubles. The same is true, although with less political effect, of the Irish in other parts of the globe.

Abroad, the history of Irish emigration is one of the success stories of the world. Dispossessed and ravaged by war, famine and a century of economic decline, the Irish nevertheless managed to battle their way to pinnacles of political and economic success, epitomized by the entry to the White House of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the descendant of a Famine emigrant from Co. Wexford. Success was not achieved without great suffering and loss, both in terms of life and human happiness. At home, the performance of the so-called Celtic Tiger has resulted in a situation where there is net immigration into Ireland and Irish officials go abroad seeking to persuade Irish emigrants, or their descendants, to return to Ireland to take up the increasing number of jobs available. The next census is expected to show a small but significant increase in the population of the Irish Republic – literally a historic turnaround.

<em>Fairbanks, Alaska - Irishmen at the Labourors Union Hall in 1975.</em>

Fairbanks, Alaska – Irishmen at the Labourors Union Hall in 1975.

Sadly, however, economic and political conditions in Northern Ireland have dictated that the troubled six northeastern counties of contention are still hemorrhaging their best asset – their young people. Young Protestants in particular are taking the emigrant route…

Today the results of the great scattering of the centuries are chiefly located in North America and in the United Kingdom. From the 1920s onward, Britain became the prime destination for Irish emigrants.. Perhaps as many as eight out of ten Irish people who left the country in the immediate post-Second Word War years headed for the UK. However, very sizable proportions of the Irish of Irish descendants can be found in the populations of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, largely as a result of 19th and 20th century emigration. Of course, pockets of the Irish can also be found anywhere that man has inhabited the globe – there is still a significant Irish population in Argentina, for example.

However, in general, the pattern of Irish emigration was laid down in the 16th century. The Irish had been emigrating to England from the time of the Norman dislocations, nearly four centuries earlier, since the influence of an English pope and his English advisors first introduced a military and political aspect to the manner in which the Christian inhabitants of the two islands worshipped the same God.

The British began passing laws to contain Irish “vagrants” shortly after the Normans arrived in Ireland in the 12th century. The irritation of the British with “the Irish question” had begun. As it began, so it would continue. The larger island never saw the problem o the Irish within its shores as having anything to do with the fact that it had invaded the smaller isle.

When invasion began in earnest under Elizabeth I, and the Anglican Reformation was superimposed on Ireland, Catholic Irish emigration may be said to have begun in a major way. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were four separate waves of emigration stemming from wars in Ireland.

In the 1580s, the Munster Chieftains set sail for Spain and Portugal. Because the Navigation Acts and the Penal Laws crippled seafaring enterprise, as they did land-based commerce, Ireland failed to become regarded as a maritime country, but these emigrants made a particular impact on the Spanish navy.

The success of the conquest in 1603 made for a further outpoutring from Ireland, to Spain and Brittany. Cromwell’s wars drove regiments and their camp followers to France and Spain in 1652 and 1653, and Cromwell transported several thousand from Ireland to the West Indies and to Virginia. Later in the 17th century, after the Protestant victory which resulted in the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, the celebrated flight of the “Wild Geese” took place. In this exodus, well in excess of 20,000 men set sail for the regiments of Catholic France accompanied by their wives and children.

From this time, Irish Brigades operated not only in France but also for the Catholic powers of Spain and Austria, Even the Russians were eager to recruit Irish soldiers. Along with the military emigration, a certain mercantile tradition grew up, as the Irish established communities in the ports of Western Europe. The influence of some of these merchants, some of whom became known as “wine geese,” is indicated even today by businesses such as the brandy-producing firm of Hennessy, founded by an Irish emigrant from Cork in the 18th century, Richard Hennessy.

The 18th century also saw the beginning of the Irish presence in a substantial way in Canada and in America. The first waves of emigrants were largely composed of Ulster Presbyterians, who left for a combination of reasons: rising rents, falling trade in the linen industry and discrimination against them by the Anglicans, Presbyterians Ulstermen and their families established the Scots/Irish tradition in America.

<em>Backyard playground used by Irish immigrant children, Boston, 1912.</em>

Backyard playground used by Irish immigrant children, Boston, 1912.

Then the great cataclysm of the Famine occurred in the 1840s.

A huge shoaling outward of panic-stricken people occurred and Ireland suffered a physical and psychological shock from which it is probably true to sat That the country and its people are only recovering in our time. A million died and probably as many as 2.5 million people left Ireland in the decade 1845-1855.

Emigration became the Irish leitmotiv. It is calculated that from 1855 to the outbreak of the first World War in1914, over and above the Famine departures, a further four million left Ireland. Their impact on the world was so colossal that in America, for example, it is estimated that some 38 million of the 43 million who at census time gave their ethnic origin as Irish, are of Catholic origin. This sector, the green tradition, succeeded in launching the contemporary Irish Peace Provcess.

The coming of native government to a part of Ireland in 1921did little to stem the flow of emigration. Over a million left the country in the years 1951-1961, for example. When modern Ireland gained its independence in the early 1920s, the 26 counties, economically speaking, consisted of little more than Guinness’s Brewery and a large farm…

The unacknowledged reality of the State was that is subsisted largely because the safety valve of emigration drew off the social upheaval…In his seven years in office, Sean Lemass revolutionized the Irish Government… and introduced two new departures… Firstly he set Ireland on the path to Europe… Then he tackled the Irish educational system, which, at the time, was very much an instrument for the perpetuation of Roman Catholic clerical power…

Against a background of such colossal upheaval [over the succeeding decades] the stereotype of the Irish emigrant began to change from that of a young laborer with no skills save the strength of his arm, and the weakness such as homesickness, the bottle and mental illness, to someone with a university-level qualification, a bent for one of the newer sciences, a knowledge of the US and European job markets, and consequentially, increased confidence and psychological strength…

Compared with the shabby days of emigration and unemployment in the boyhood, the transformation is immense. Of course problems remain. Ireland still needs to have a care for her less fortunate; for some, the boom has come too late. To be yesterday’s man is one thing. To be yesterday’s broken, aging, unemployed emigrant is tragic. ♦


Excerpted from Wherever Green Is Worn bty Tim Pat Coogan. Published by St. Martins Press.

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