Migration & the Diaspora of Ireland

”The term Irish diaspora is open to many interpretations. The diaspora, broadly interpreted, contains all those known to have Irish ancestors, i.e., over 100 million people, which is more than fifteen times the population of the island of Ireland, which was about 6.4 million in 2011. ”

The history of Irish migration is said to date back as far as the middle ages, however only traceable around the 1700’s. More Irish people live abroad than on the island itself. Throughout time Irish people have crossed the waters, to the UK, Scotland and England, and further afield, with the majority heading for (so called) America & Canada. The reasons for these migrations were varied however it is difficult to discuss Irish migration without the mention of An Gorta Mór; the (not so) Great Irish Famine. The largest wave of people who immigrated was during An Gorta Mór, 1845-1852 when it is estimated that 2 million Irish people (a quarter of the population) left for America.

It is estimated that over 6 million Irish people have emigrated to the US since 1820.

”Of all the emigrants to the US between 1851 and 1860, it is estimated that 81 per cent (990,000) were Irish. Today one sixth of US citizens (43 million) identify their national background as Irish”. Immigration did not stop after the famine. Yes, the potato crop may have started to produce again – and mortality rates certainly decreased. However, it has been a long road to recovering from the aftermath of firstly, the genocide disguised as a famine and secondly the oppression, starvation, displacement & colonisation of the island of Ireland which generated such difficulties to cause people to feel that they had no choice but to leave.

It didn’t end at the famine – many Irish men and women left Ireland in the 1950’s as response to the economic difficulties present at that time. In 2001 Census in Britain, approximately 850,000 people there were born in Ireland. Migration to England was without a doubt a place with the most discrimination and prejudice against the Irish. Many employers and businesses would display signs saying ”Irish need not apply”, ”No Irish”. And many of us would’ve heard the term, ”No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” which many Irish who lived in the UK in the 1900’s have reported to be a regular attitude and very openly displayed as such. People went to England to work, to rebuild the cities, roads and infrastructure after the wars. They often sent back money to their families who were struggling back home in Ireland.

For those who now find themselves on colonial land, i.e occupying Indigenous land in (so called) America and Canada, it can be a difficult disposition to find ones roots and grounding amongst the confusion of not being on one’s own ”ancestral land”. There can be shame over not feeling ”truly Irish”, (which can be enhanced by terms such as plastic Paddy, etc) and a yearning to connect with one’s true heritage and belonging. I speak to many of the diaspora who share they neither feel American nor fully Irish. Yet in their heart is a calling and resonance with the ways of their ancestors, and a sense of Irish identity in their bloodline somewhere not so long ago.

Leaving Home & The American Wake.

There was and is much pain still to be felt due to the many children of Éire who, in most cases, were forced to leave their beloved native land and people. The stories and pain of our departed Diaspora is held within our hearts, aswell as our many migration-themed songs. To leave for America albeit heavy-hearted, was to go towards a new and more hopeful horizon. People often left due to extreme poverty, and a lack of opportunities to do better for themselves here in Ireland. There was a very important custom called ”The American Wake”. An American Wake, like an Irish Wake (an all-night affair marked by sitting in community with the body of the deceased before burial) was often a time of somber mourning. It was uncertain to whether the migrants loved ones would ever see or hear from them again. Often they did not.

”The wake was usually held on the evening prior to the emigrant’s departure and the young emigrant would have spent the previous days visiting friends and family to inform them of their impending departure. All who were close were expected to attend the wake.”

Irish music – from shore to shore.

Music is without a doubt one of the things we (in Éire) are most famous for worldwide. It is the essence of who we are as a people – undeniably, we are an island of music. The music has gotten us through the darkest hours, within our songs & tunes we remember the stories of our people, and the soul of Ireland is expressed. Music was one thing we brought with us when we travelled across the water. Irish music is still huge in (so called) America and Canada today (aswell as the UK). Irish musicians often find themselves on American tours and do so very successfully, often more so even than when in Ireland (a bit of a pattern still repeating itself, aye?). Music has been something that has kept the link and connection with the diaspora across the water strong and maintained to this day. Music was something that kept people in touch with their roots, as the distinct sound of Ireland travelled with them – and home was wherever the music was played.

Many exceptionally talented Irish musicians migrated to America in the 1900’s, and with them they brought their gifts and the potential to pass on their repertoire to the next generation. Having said that, one of the precious gifts as a result of their journey across the seas, was the recordings that some of them took part in. Musicians like Michael Coleman, James Morrison, and the Flanagan brothers recorded and as a result preserved a huge repertoire of Irish music which at the time in Ireland wouldn’t have been possible to record in the same capacity, and may have otherwise been lost. In these times we have the opportunity to have a sense of that time, and a taste of the people of it – through the wonderful recordings of these virtuoso Irish musicians.

The below link is some brilliant footage of Irish musicians in America.


Perhaps music is a potential link which many of the diaspora search for – could it be a key in unlocking the ancestral memory, identity and belonging that many feel to be missing? I know it has certainly supported me in anchoring into community and a sense of cultural belonging. It helps me to understand the psyche of the people I hail from, through that which is reflected in their songs – be it their struggles, their pains, their joys, or cause for celebration. All equally as beautiful. There is so much held within the music, and when we listen, play or dance to it, something particularly special is activated within us. We connect with the lineage of music, throughout the generations. It is something that can be available to us anywhere, regardless of where we now find ourselves planted.

If you have a yearning to connect deeper with the origin of your people, with your roots and ancestors, as Irish (or Scots-Irish, or wherever ye may hail from) I encourage you to learn about, to the best of your ability, how you came to now be upon the land you reside. Track the migration patterns of your people, and how far back you may be removed from your ancestral land. Learn some of the cultural practices of your native land (if that resonates, and the internet is so full of resources). Learn your songs and stories, listen to the music, find a music session near you! I bet there’s a lot. Always do your best to acknowledge that you are on colonised land, and to honour the original peoples of the land you now call home. Become an ally to indigenous voices and liberation. We are in a time of remembering and restoring, and with that can come discomfort, and challenging emotions/confusion. The path of decolonisation is a long one, and requires many stages and steps towards freedom, sovereignty and peace for all. However, it’s a beautiful pathway home.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_diaspora
  2. https://www.museum.ie/en-IE/Collections-Research/Folklife-Collections/Folklife-Collections-List-(1)/Other/Emigration/Irish-Emigration-to-America
  3. https://www.irishcentral.com/culture/irish-term-american-wake
  4. https://www.vox.com/2015/3/17/8227175/st-patricks-irish-immigrant-history

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