Blog post

Witnesses to Irish emigration in the 20th century

Century of change and continuity

black and white photograph of a group of men on a quayside by a large ship
Adrian Murphy (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

As with so many countries, Ireland ended the 20th century a different country to how it began - it was a true century of change.

Throughout this time, migration was a constant part of Irish society, with several, specific and successive waves when significant proportions of its population moved abroad in search of new lives.

Through a number of collections shared on Europeana, as well as through stories shared during our Europeana Migration campaign, we can hear the memories and experiences of some of those that emigrated from Ireland in the 20th century.

Centuries of emigration

For centuries, Ireland's history has been shaped by migration - from Irish missionaries leaving the island to spread their religion as early as the 6th century, to those escaping the poverty and disease of the Irish Famine in the 1840s and 1850s.

Migration has become part of Ireland's culture, with those leaving most often moving to other English-speaking countries, like the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada.

In the 20th century, Ireland gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Throughout the decades following that 1921 milestone, there was always migration - but two decades, in particular, stand out.

Emigration waves in the 20th century

The 1950s saw Ireland's economy severely depressed.

Agriculture - where many were traditionally employed - was in decline, with the Irish government failing to encourage other industries to fill the gap. This led to high unemployment rates, with around half a million Irish people (from an overall population of around 3 million) emigrating throughout the decade. Many of these were young people from rural areas, aware that the only way to secure their future was to leave Ireland.

black and white photograph of two clergymen speaking with a group of other men
black and white photograph of a group of men holding an Irish flag on a quayside beside a large ship

During the 1960s and 1970s, emigration decreased somewhat, as Ireland's economy improved and the country joined the EEC in 1973. However, by the 1980s, emigration had once again increased. In this decade, the Irish (and global) economy contracted. As in the 1950s, many of those emigrating were young - but, in contrast to the earlier decade, many were educated and left Ireland in search of better opportunities.

Economic factors

In this interview, one woman describes her memories of emigrating to the United Kingdom and later to the United States. She describes leaving Ireland in the 1960s and 1990s due to economic reasons. The recordings stem from group interviews about memories from childhood and adolescence by the Irish Qualitative Data Archive.

This man describes his experiences as a twentysomething in the 1950s moving to Chicago. He worked there as a telephone salesperson.

In this story, shared at Europeana Migration collection day event at The Hunt Museum, Limerick, James describes his experiences in New York in the 1990s. He remembers the peculiar Irish emigration phenomen 'The American Wake': a name given to a party or ceremony that was organised when someone moved to the United States - a farewell commemoration.

Career opportunities

In this story, shared at an event at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, Orla describes her and her husband’s experiences emigrating to London in the 1970s for better career opportunities, along with the wedding gifts they brought with them - an object symbolising their migration.

colour photograph of two white bowl dishes, one with a floral pattern

In this interview, a woman describes her experiences as a missionary teaching at a boarding school in Nigeria in the 1960s.

When we think of career-driven migration, perhaps actors are not the first people that come to mind. This documentary explores the experiences of Irish actors working in London - both on stage and screen - in the early 1960s.

Irish nurses in the NHS

One of the most common emigration scenarios - for Irish women in particular - was to move to London to train and work as a nurse in the British National Health Service. In this interview - one of 100 recorded by University College Cork’s Irish Women at Work Oral History Project - Elizabeth describes her experiences in the 1940s and beyond.

In this story, Ann describes her time training as a nurse in London in the 1950s. She described how there were 14 nurses in her class, all from Ireland except for one student from the Caribbean.

This bronze name-tag belongs to Michael, who moved from a small country village in County Kilkenny to London in the late 1950s to train as a nurse.'London in the 1950s was quite an anonymous place which was, in a way, a welcome thing after my upbringing in rural Ireland where everybody was aware of everything going on in everybody's life', he says.

colour photograph of a brass identfication tag

Out in the world

Ireland in the 20th century was a conversative, Catholic country which did not treat its LGBTQ+ community well. They faced discrimination, violence, shame, silence and stigma.

Many LGBTQ+ people moved away from Ireland, in search of anonymity and more accepting societies and communities.

EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin is currently hosting the exhibition Out in the World, about the Irish LGBTQ+ diaspora. Learn more about this exhibition via the videos below.

A century of change and continuity

Emigration is a phenomenon that is never solved nor complete. The desire to live elsewhere - whether through necessity or choice - is ever-present.

Ireland in the 1990s and at the beginning of the 21st century became a country that saw more immigration than emigration. But during the late 2000s and early 2010s, due to economic recession, it once again faced a wave of emigration. In 2021, the nation commemorates a century of independence that was, in many ways, a century of change but from a migration point of view has seen the same pendulum going back and forth.

This blog is part of the Europeana XX. A Century of Change project which focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.

migration Ireland 20th century