Irish Emigration in the 1950s

08 Apr 2010

On October 21st, Mr. Lemass declared in the Dail that the whole objective of the Government’s economic and social policy was to create such conditions in this country as would lead to the stopping of emigration. This statement is a measure of the gravity of our emigration problem. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that, at present, emigration is quite the gravest social problem which with the country is faced.1

The above quote, written by Michael Connolly in December of 1951, depicts the sobering concerns that Irish citizens had about mass emigration. However, population issues have plagued the Emerald Island in the past. Ireland had been struggling to maintain its population levels for nearly seventy years prior under a complex range of challenges. The 1950’s, however, was a new era—the second World War was over and a substantial international community had formed. Ireland, unfortunately, did not benefit significantly in the 1950’s, if at all, and emigration persisted throughout the remainder of the decade. Ireland’s economy in the 1950’s remained largely stagnant in comparison to the more prospering economies in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the United States. It is during this time that emigration continued to beset Ireland, whose citizens had become disaffected with their government and believed they could pursue happiness elsewhere. There is considerable dissent among historians and social scientists as to the primary reason for emigration after World War II. Some attribute mass migration to the poor economic conditions and lack of technological progress. Others are not convinced that the economy is the main cause, and suggest that the Irish attitude is to blame. This essay explores a variety of opinions and statistics in an attempt to answer the question, “Why did so many people emigrate from Ireland in the 1950’s?”

The total population of Ireland declined by 4.9% between 1951 and 1961 despite having a comparatively high birthrate. An analysis of migration trends reveals that almost all of the depopulation took place in rural areas2. This was particularly disturbing because Ireland’s economy was still heavily dependent on agriculture at the time. Many children of small farmers found they had no choice but to move to larger, more populated cities and towns in order to find meaningful employment. Young people who were already residing in cities had left the country altogether to find work abroad². A depreciating younger workforce only created additional strain to the Irish economy. This is the pattern of migration that has been the status quo for years. John Kelleher, a journalist, describes the Irish emigration problem as a “self-operating social mechanism, governed by its own laws and not amenable to any of the usual remedies3.” Those Irish nationals who had left Ireland commonly settled in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the northeastern region of the United States.
After World War II, Ireland’s government spending increased extensively, especially on the country’s infrastructure and social services. New schools, hospitals, and homes were built, and government provided assistance were enhanced. It would be natural to assume that Irish citizens were in good spirits, but this was not the case. In 1950, net emigration reached 40,000 and the apparent economic progress was short-lived³. The nation fell into a deep recession in 1951. The resulting emigration over the next seven years was double that of the entire period since Ireland declared independence4.
On the surface, it may appear that the economy is at fault for Ireland’s long standing social problem. However, further introspection reveals that there are other root causes. An article written in the Furrow in 1952 by Timothy Manning states that the English language, the love of liberty, and the Christian faith played a large role in why Irish emigrants left for the United States5. This view is not shared by all, however. An analyst, C.F Carter, exclaims that the lack of competent management and technological progress is a legitimate reason why people are leaving their home country. Carter suggests that significant capital can be attained by simply working hard, along with market research and development of technical skills6. He continues in detail:</p>

I doubt if Irish workers are naturally particularly idle; but I think that their work is often managed so that they waste their time. Bad management and technical backwardness seem to me to be the essential troubles6.

Carter states that Ireland’s attitude needs to change, and that it should welcome foreign businesses and learn from their methodology. He argues that the disdain towards foreign industry, and the United Kingdom in particular, is only perpetuating the poor economic cycle, contributing to emigration6. Carter contends that if Irish businesses adopted foreign business models, it could turn the economy around and halt emigration.

John Kelleher paints a slightly different perspective on emigration—that emigration and the economy are independent of each other. His article titled “Ireland…Where Does She Stand?”, written in April of 1957, is quite pessimistic and discontented. Kelleher asserts that:</p>

The people emigrate because they do not like what they are offered and because they do not expect to be offered anything else. They go out too, in a pretty sour frame of mind, as is evidenced by persistent reports from England that between 60 and 80 percent of new Irish immigrants cease to communicate as Catholics within one year of their arrival. That also is a comment on what they leave behind.3

Kelleher’s disheartening rant continues on to state that the emigrants were offered and subsequently rejected the idea of paternalism and that there is a “desire to escape those of their neighbors, probably a majority, who have no great complaints against things as they are and who neither desire nor will assist substantial change.” He suggests that the Church leaders and politicians simply accept emigration as an insolvable problem. Instead, the Irish government and religious authorities have the responsibility to educate and train their citizens so when they do vacate the country, they will be able to compete with Englishmen and Americans abroad3. Kelleher concludes that if an adequate education system is established in Ireland, the young generation may decide to stay, but in a way that would horrify the ‘fatherly rulers’.

Although Kelleher provides an intriguing and sensational context of the Irish emigration problem, his views are in the minority. A vast number of authors lay blame to the sluggish economy, lack of social amenities, and increased opportunities abroad. Cornelius Lucy was a fervent believer in Irish agricultural production7. In his own words:</p>

Without a radical change in public policy, there can be no stopping emigration, or rather depopulation, for we have passed the stage of simple emigration. The present policy is to look for population increase through the development of industry. That policy stands condemned by its results. To me, the neglect of agriculture for industry in recent decades is not only economically indefensible but has proved demographically disastrous as well7.

This is a very powerful sentiment by Cornelius that reflects many people’s opinions that agriculture was still very much the driving force behind Ireland’s economy in the 1950’s. The “Report on Emigration and Population Problems” by the Irish government in 1954 was uncharacteristically blunt and accurate. It cites that a variety of factors had contributed to the emigration issue. One reason often glossed over by journalists, but nevertheless just as significant is “Emigration of some members of the family has almost become part of the established custom of the people in certain areas—a part of the generally accepted pattern of life8.” Emigration had become a psychological problem.

The problem of Irish emigration in the 1950’s cannot be explained by any one issue by itself. The truth is, it is an amalgamation of all the concerns illustrated by the authors represented in this essay. Opportunities in England and the United States, a sagging economy and education system, and a pessimistic attitude towards progress in Ireland have all contributed to mass emigration. People had been leaving Ireland long before the 1950’s. It had become the norm. However, in subsequent years, Ireland has seemingly mitigated or reversed the trends of emigration. Foreign industry and immigration are at the forefront of Irish economic discussions in present time. However, Ireland’s population levels need to be closely monitored in the years ahead, as their history has proved those levels are tenuous at best.Bibliography</p>

C.F. Carter, Hugh Beaver, Patrick Lynch, and C.A. Smith, ‘The Irish Economy Viewed from Without’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 46, no. 182 (Summer, 1957), pp. 137-149.

Cornelius Lucy, ‘The Problem of Emigration’, University Review 1, no. 12 (Spring, 1957), pp. 3-10.

James Johnson, ‘Population Changes in Ireland’, The Geographic Journal 129, no. 2 (Jun. 1963), pp. 167-174.

John Kelleher, ‘Ireland…Where Does She Stand?’, Foreign Affairs 35, no. 3 (Apr. 1957), pp. 485-495.

Kieran Kennedy, Thomas Giblin and Deirdre McHugh, The Economic Development of Ireland in the Twentieth Century, (New York, 1988).

Michael Connelly, ‘Rural Depopulation’, The Irish Monthly 79, no. 942 (Dec. 1951), pp. 514-517.

‘Report on Emigration and Population Problems’,, accessed 26 February, 2010.

Timothy Manning, ‘Currents of Irish Influence in the United States’, The Furrow 3, no. 12 (Dec. 1952), pp. 627-638.