There is a Spectre Haunting Ireland: Emigration

Photograph Source: William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland – CC BY-SA 2.0

The bargaining now underway between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the traditional parties of the right, plus the centre-left/centrist/neoliberal Greens, in Ireland’s Twenty-Six Counties has provoked once more in the youth the urge to emigrate.

In particular, the announcement that Mícheál Martin, leader of Fianna Fáil, will lead the state as Taoiseach until 2022 incited a wave of dejection.

On social media platforms people in their teens and twenties recoiled at the thought of Martin becoming Taoiseach.

This cohort – struggling students, vulnerable tenants, unemployed, precariously employed, and low-paid workers – recall Martin as responsible in bringing the state to economic ruin in 2008.

They also recollect, in a frequently visceral way, the impact of the austerity his party conjured up and presided over in the wake of that crash.

One Twitter user noted how “since the news of new government, all I’ve seen is young people discuss emigrating as soon as they graduate with their degree”.

Another remarked that their “unwilling emigration from Ireland to the US been retroactively justified with events like this that make me delighted I escaped the shit hole Ireland has become”.

An Bád Bán

The image of an bád bán (the white boat) of emigration stretches back in the popular imagination to at least the nineteenth century.

As Conamara writer Mícheál Ó Conghaile elucidated in a 2018 Irish Times piece:

An bád bán refers to a certain white passenger ship which brought the Irish emigrants abroad to Britain or the US, perhaps the Nianda Dane which sailed from Cobh.

From this the phrase “thug sé an bád bán air féin” [he took the white boat on himself] came into the [Irish] language. Most of the currachs and small boats people used when fishing or working were black, but the big white boat was a symbol of emigration.

Thus, as it did at various points throughout Irish history, but most recently between 2008-2016 when around 400,000 emigrated, the bád bán looms in the collective mind once again.

Emigration from Ireland is primarily economic, but it is also cultural. This culture is woven into the fabric of Irish society and is given succour by networks of chain migration.

Family, friends, and distant relations, already established in communities throughout the globe, relate stories of success and a better life – frequently filtered through the often-distorted lens of social media – and offer vital support to the emigrant upon arrival in the host country.

Cultural nationalist organisations like the Gaelic Athletic Association are now global in scope. The Irish bars found in almost every city in Europe and North America offer familiar points of contact and solace for those in exile.

These institutions – though, in their own way, benevolent – facilitate the flight of the Irish from their homeland.

Present Day Economy

The political and ruling classes are completely aware of, and comfortable with, this culture of mass emigration.

At the height of the recession in 2012, then Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, brought upon himself the wrath of families scarred by emigration. He claimed young people left Ireland’s shore for “lifestyle reasons”.

Recent OECD research has shown the Irish state to have the highest proportion of its “native-born population” living abroad out of all 37 countries in the organisation, ranging from 17.5% to 20%.

The prevalence of this culture suits the Irish comprador class who play on what they term the “strength of the Irish diaspora”.

In tandem with this imagined ethnic bond with those of Irish extraction in different parts of the globe, but particularly in the US, runs the Irish state’s status as a tax haven.

The diaspora is utilised as an additional form of leverage in attracting multinationals, tourism, and other forms of external “investment” under the auspices of the Industrial Development Authority and the tourism body, Fáilte Ireland.

Safety Valve of Emigration

Yet, emigration suits the Irish élite in a much more malignant way. It is almost a cliché by now to refer to the “social safety-valve” engendered by emigration from Ireland.

The channelling away of discontented youth has insulated the ruling class from revolt for centuries. Historically, most rebellions in Ireland, as indeed globally, have been driven by the young.

Key figures in the United Irish Rebellions of 1798 and 1803 such as Wolfe Tone (35), Henry Joy McCracken (30), Robert Emmet (25) were quite, or very, young when they met their demise for their revolutionary activism. Likewise, the Young Ireland (the clue’s in the name!) Rising of 1848 and the Fenian movement of the 1860s.

Later on, the upheaval of the 1916-23 period was characterised as much by intergenerational conflict between younger, more radical republicans and older conservative nationalists, as it was by a discrepancy in the methods each deployed to end British rule in Ireland.

Arguably, the most successful rebellions coincided with periods of restricted emigration. The agrarian rebellion of Captain Rock between 1821-24, when emigration was curtailed by the British government, severely tested the ability of the state to control vast swathes of the country.

Several years later, in 1827, all restrictions on leaving Ireland were lifted. In the subsequent decade 400,000 emigrated to North America.

The same decade, not uncoincidentally, also witnessed the maintenance of a cosy alliance between Daniel O’Connell and the English Whigs. This had the effect of diverting the revolutionary potential of the peasantry into a blind faith in O’Connellite electoralism.

20th century

Though falling far short of the ambitions of the “revolutionary generation” of the 1890s, the period 1916-23 and the Black and Tan War can perhaps be counted among the most “successful” of Irish rebellions in that it achieved a form of autonomy for Twenty-Six Counties in Ireland.

The recently deceased authority on the history of Irish emigration, David Fitzpatrick, has postulated that the restrictions and difficulties in emigrating presented by World War One (1914-18), led to a building up of pressure in Ireland that erupted in its wake.

Emigration resumed once the war ended. But the usual release valve, created by the steady departure of Ireland’s young demographic, had not been open.

For this, and a myriad of other reasons, Ireland witnessed a series of seismic events: the Sinn Féin wins in the by-elections of 1917; the Anti-Conscription Campaign of 1918; the general election Sinn Féin victory, also of 1918, and the beginning of the Black and Tan War early in 1919.

However, the Civil War of 1922-23, described by some as a counter-revolution pushed through by church, state, and bourgeoisie, put paid to any dreams of far-reaching change. As Gavin Foster, author of The Irish Civil War and Society: Politics, Class and Conflict, has documented:

In July 1923, roughly two months after the IRA abandoned its armed campaign against the Free State, Éamon de Valera issued a defiant statement on behalf of the anti-treaty cause. ‘There will be no “Wild Geese”… this time’, he vowed.

‘The soldiers of the Republic have been ordered to live and die in Ireland, and they will obey. Living or dead, we mean to establish the right of Irish Republicans to live and work openly for the complete liberation of our country.’

Despite De Valera’s bold assertion, many found the climate in 1920s Ireland intolerable and were cast into exile like generations of revolutionaries before them. Ironically, and hypocritically, De Valera later oversaw the deportation in 1933 of communist Jimmy Gralton.

Covid-19 and emigration

Given the context of centuries of emigration it is understandable that the (un)natural reflex of Ireland’s youth is to emigrate. Who can blame them?

When faced with an ever-rising cost of living, pathetic public services and the apparently insurmountable inertia of the capitalist state, emigration allows them some agency in their lives.

But the situation brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic will not allow for ease of emigration as in the past. Some states have suspended immigration programmes, while others have placed stringent measures in place at their borders.

Emigrating to traditional centres of Irish immigration like England, with the Tories in charge and the country about to crash out of the EU, may not seem as attractive as before.

With the lockdown in the Twenty-Six Counties of Ireland being lifted amid a mixture of relief, trepidation and euphoria, sight is being lost of the reality that a second wave of Covid-19 will most likely hit again at some point.

This week the R number (the rate at which the virus reproduces) increased considerably in Germany to 2.88, meaning it is quite a bit above the relatively safe level of 1. Germany had been far more efficient in dealing with the initial outbreak than either jurisdiction in Ireland.

Clearly, until a vaccine or anti-viral treatment is found for Covid-19, the ability previously enjoyed by emigrants of easily travelling home by air for Christmases and other occasions will be severely curtailed.

There is, of course, no guarantee the youth of Ireland, with the option of emigrating temporarily less feasible, will direct their frustrations at those deserving of it; the government and the capitalist class. Addiction, mental health issues, consumerism, and individualism may continue to dominate.

Vast swathes of society are far less politicised than they were during the abovementioned periods of upheaval.


Yet, there have also been massive social movements which culminated in success in the last five years alone: marriage equality (2015), anti-water privatisation (2016) and abortion rights (2018).

The election earlier this year also heralded a “vote for change”. Though ill-defined, this sentiment, if harnessed correctly by radical forces instead of being driven down parliamentary and clientelist paths, could prove decisive.

Unlike previous waves of recession/emigration which occurred once a generation (for example, the 1950s and 1980s), the last crisis and wave post-2008 is still fresh in the mind of many as we stare into yet another new phase.

It is worth mentioning here, as a final positive note, the last time the Irish collective memory recalled such injustice this vividly was the year 1879.

That year, the popular memory of the Great Famine of 1845-50 and the threat of famine once more ignited the Land War of 1879-82. That period of struggle signalled the beginning of the end of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and the feudal-type land system it upheld.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted how “life is flux” – a concept more commonly understood as “the only constant in life is change”. The despondent youth who took to social media last week, faced as they are with a seemingly immutable situation, might do well to ponder on his words.


Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His most recent publication, Rathcoole and the United Irish Rebellions, 1798-1803, charts the emergence of radical Irish republican thought, and consequent military action, in his hometown.