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Ireland's Diaspora

What is 'Diaspora'

'Diaspora' (from the Greek word 'to scatter') is defined as any group migration or flight from a country or region; or any group that has been dispersed outside its traditional homeland.

The term 'Irish diaspora' appears in a 1954 book 'The Vanishing Irish', but it was not until the 1990's - mainly thanks to President Mary Robinson - that the phrase came to be more widely used to describe Irish emigrants and their descendants around the world. In her 1995 address to the Joint Houses of the Oireachtas, 'Cherishing the Irish Disapora', Ms Robinson reached out to the "70 million people worldwide who can claim Irish descent". She went on to say that "The men and women of our diaspora represent not simply a series of departures and losses. They remain, even while absent, a precious reflection of our own growth and change, a precious reminder of the many strands of identity which compose our story".

Irish Emigrants

Emigration has been a constant theme in the development of the Irish Nation and has touched the lives of people in every part of Ireland. The economic and social prosperity of the country has been affected positively, through monies sent home from abroad, and negatively, through the loss of so many talented young Irish people. A great debt is owed to all Irish emigrants who have contributed so much to the growth of the country of their birth.

Irish emigrants have also had an enormous impact on the development of the countries in which they settled. Through work and social integration, they have brought great credit to themselves and have enhanced the reputation of their homeland in almost every corner of the globe.

Irish Diaspora Worldwide

Estimating the size of the Irish diaspora worldwide is a difficult task and it is not easy to decipher how the much-repeated figure of 70 million, of Irish descent, is arrived at.

People are often descended from a multiplicity of ethnic origins, so should we identify one predominant origin, or count them all? When a person has mixed ancestry, how does one decide which one matters most?

Many census results, such as the US one, leave it to the individual to say how they view their own identity. Therefore, the estimated figure of 70 million Irish worldwide draws from this data and it is not always easy to understand what calculation was used to arrive at this claimed diaspora population.

In 2002 the Department of Foreign Affairs published the Report of the Task Force on Policy Regarding Emigrants - an interesting document providing a snapshot of the Irish worldwide.

Where did the majority of Irish people go?

The United States of America was the most popular destination in the 19th century and Irish migration there reached a peak of 1.8 million in 1891. By 1951 the number of Irish in Britain overtook the US figure and by 1981 there were four times as many there as in the USA.

There have been major fluctuations in the figures since 1981 - there was a renewed increase in Irish migrations to the US during the 1980s (some of which was undocumented), a drop in the numbers going to Britain and a rise in numbers going to other EU countries. There were also high rates of return and an overall fall in absolute numbers of emigrants.

With improvements in Ireland's economic success and a fall in Irish birthrates (since the 1980s) the 'bad old days' of high emigration are fast becoming part of Irish history. Nowadays less than 18,000 Irish people leave each year and many of these will return to Ireland again.


United States (census 2000)




New Zealand

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