FACT SHEET #2: The Emigrant contribution to Ireland

For over 200 years Irish citizens have been forced into economic, political and social exile and the Irish State has historically used this emigration lever as a solution to its economic woes.  As the UCC Émigré program notes, “In the 1950s, approximately half a million left the Irish Republic. Considering the country’s population than stood at less than 3 million, to lose approximately 16% of your population – most of whom were very young and left to gain employment abroad – in one decade was astonishing”   https://www.ucc.ie/en/emigre/history/

Little consideration was given the plight of those forced to leave the country until recently and to make matters worse the Irish government continues to discriminate against its emigrant population by denying them the right to vote. This is a case a geographical gerrymandering that reduces these Irish citizens to second class status. Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland and abroad have no representation in the Dail or the Seanad. Yet despite the fact the Irish State has turned it back on its emigrants they have time and time again come to Ireland’s aid and saved the Nation.              

  • The Irish Famine; In an unprecedented move the U.S. Congress allowed a former American warship the U.S.S. Jamestown to be converted into a famine relief ship that sailed to Queenstown/ Cobh) in 1847 captained by Captain Robert Forbes of Boston.  Countless other relief ships would follow. The American response to the Irish Famine created a blueprint for American humanization relief for decades to come. “Voyage of Mercy” written by Stephen Puleo describes the journey. 
  • Emigrants in America led by Fenian leaders John Devoy and Jeramiah O’Donovan Rossa sustained the Irish Independence movement for over 50 years. The funeral of Jeramiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915 attended by 50,000 people in Dublin was seen as a prelude to the 1916 Revolution. The graveside oration, given by Patrick Pearse is considered one of the great speeches of the Irish independence movemen
  • Sam McGuire born in County Cork, immigrated to London where he became an outstanding “footballer and played in three All-Ireland Finals, in 1900, 1901 and 1903, captaining the London (Hibernians)” according to the GAA. McGuire was also a key member of the IRB and in 1909, recruited Michael Collins to the republican movement. Collins had also emigrated from Cork to London and worked for ten years as a postal clerk. Collins joined other London Volunteers who returned to Dublin in February 1916 to participate in the Easter Rising. 
  • The Kimmage Brigade: One of the first Volunteer units to enter the GPO was made up of emigrants from Liverpool, London, Manchester and Glasgow who came to Dublin to fight in the Rising. Over sixty members of the GPO garrison were emigrants. Michael Collins, a London Volunteer, was a member of the Kimmage Brigade along with Joe O’Reilly who would become Collin’s most trusted aide. 
  • Seamus Robinson was one of 16 volunteers from Glasgow who fought in the GPO. He was later commander of the South Tipperary Brigade in the War of Independence and a member of the Soloheadbeg Ambush in 1919. He was elected to Dáil Éireann in 1921 and served 8 years in the Seanad. John, Patrick and George King were three brothers who fought in the Rising as members of the Liverpool Volunteer Unit
  • Margaret Skinnider joined Cumann na MBan in Glasgow, Scotland and took an active part in the 1916 Rising serving as a messenger and sniper. Skinnider was one of a small group of women who participated in the Rising and an early champion of women’s rights. She was a member of the Irish National Teachers Organization and became its President in 1956. She is one of only three women buried in the Republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery, 
  • In the run up to the Rising and in the War for Independence Volunteer Units in Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and London were critical in providing weapons, ammunition and intelligence to carry on the fight. Irish merchant seamen in Liverpool and Manchester transported weapons to Dublin as well as from New York City.
  • Manchester Volunteers provided the safe house for Eamon De Valera after his escape from Lincoln Prison in 1919. A book entitled the Hidden Heroes of Easter Week explains the untold story of the 14 Manchester Volunteers who fought in the GPO including Liam Parr and Larry Ryan.
  • Eamon De Valera’s eighteen month visit to the United States from June 1919 to December 1920 raised a total of $5.5 million dollars, the modern equivalent of $55 million. Over 300,000 Irish Americans subscribed to the Bond Certificate floated in January 1920 and immense rallies were held in Boston and New York City.
  • Emigrants Remittances Saved Ireland According to Evan Comerford in his essay written for www.citizneshippapers.ie: “Between 1854 and 1923 monetary aid to Ireland was in the region of $5 million annually. In today’s money it’s estimated that at least £4.9 (GBP) billion was sent back to Ireland from emigrants in North America between 1848 and 1900. Even during the 1950s, emigrant remittances continued to make up a staggering 3% of total national income in Ireland. A total of £4.8 billion was sent back by Irish emigrants in the UK between 1940 and 1970.

Emigrant contributions didn’t stop a century ago:

  • James Joyce and Samuel Beckett would emigrate from Ireland and create new forms of literature which would lead them both to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Joyce would never return to Ireland after he left in 1904 yet made Dublin the epicenter of his great novel Ulysses. Beckett would live in Paris for the majority of his life and become part of the French Resistance in World War II.  
  • Jack Charlton and the Boys in Green: Ireland in the 1980’s was once again struggling economically forcing 200,000 citizens to emigrate. The appointment of Englishman Jack Charlton to be the Irish football manager in 1985 would lift the Nation both on and off the field. Charlton made effective use of the “granny rule” to recruit players from the English and Scottish football leagues who were born into Irish emigrant families such as Ray Houghton, Chris Morris and Mick McCarthy. These key players would enable Ireland to reach the European Championships 1988 and allowed Ireland to qualify for both the 1990 FIFA World Cup and the 1994 FIFA World Cup. Since then scores of players, born in England and Scotland, have used the granny rule to play for the Republic of Ireland 
  • Niall O’Dowd came to America in 1978 and helped to organize Irish Americans for Clinton in 1991. As publisher of the Irish Voice and Irish America magazine, Dowd was one of the key Irish American leaders who persuaded President Bill Clinton to become involved in ending the Troubles For his services he was presented the President’s Distinguished Service Medal by President O’Higgins in 2020. 
  •    In response to the Great Recession the Irish government would organize four Global Irish Economic Forums and create a Global Irish Network made up of business leaders of the broad Irish diaspora from forty nations to help Ireland through the economic crisis. Yet this initial effort to reach out to these business leaders has since dissipated.   
  •   Billy Lawless left Galway for Chicago in 1998 and created a successful restaurant business and became a leader in immigration reform. Billy was chosen to introduce President Obama when the President announced his DACA immigration reform plan.  Billy was appointed to the Seanad in 2016 by then Taoiseach Edna Kenny becoming the first Senator to represent emigrants and the wider Diaspora. Billy received the President’s Distinguished Service Award in 2021.  
  •   The GAA is one of the great global institutions of the Irish Nation. In 2021, Larry McCarthy became the first emigrant in the history of the GAA to become its Uachtarán. A native of Bishopstown, Cork McCarthy moved to the US in 1985 where he became a member of the Sligo Gaelic football club in New York and went on to become Secretary to the New York GAA Board from 2003-2009 and then New York GAA Chairman from 2009-2011. He is an Associate Professor of Sports Management at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. 
  • As a result of the financial crisis in 2008, hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens emigrated, 70% of whom were in their 20s.  Many of these young emigrants were in the forefront of efforts to pass the same sex-marriage referendum and Repeal the 8th Amendment. They would successfully organize two @HometoVote social media campaigns to encourage emigrants to return to Ireland to vote in the upcoming referendums. The London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign of over 1,000 women was particularly effective. 

Ireland must give Irish emigrants the recognition they well deserve as founders of the Republic and recognize the crucial role they continue to play in sustaining Ireland’s economic and political interests globally. 

America’s opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol and efforts to protect the Good Friday Agreement is a powerful example of how their soft power is helpful in advancing Irish interests. America’s unyielding stance on Brexit and the GFA is a direct result of Irish America mobilizing and working with President Biden and the U.S. Congress in a bipartisan fashion to prevent a hard border and protect the peace process.  

We encourage the political leaders of all parties to end their century-old political ambivalence toward Irish citizens living outside the state. The hundreds of thousands of young people who left Ireland in recent years and those about to leave are an immense source of creativity, energy and good ideas. Why exclude and deny them their voting rights when so many want and will return home to Ireland?  

Irish politics needs to move from the local and the parochial to a new, richer and deeper understanding of what it means to be a citizen in a more inclusive modern Irish Nation. We believe Ireland will be a more equal and democratic nation if all citizens, regardless of where they live, are allowed to vote for the President of our country. 

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