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?”
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.
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’.
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.
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’, http://www.novelguide.com/a/discover/eich_02/eich_02_00567.html, accessed 26 February, 2010.
Timothy Manning, ‘Currents of Irish Influence in the United States’, The Furrow 3, no. 12 (Dec. 1952), pp. 627-638.