Ireland’s FAMINE-ERA emigration compared to modern times

Ireland and emigration go hand in hand, yet a lot has changed over the years, so let’s look at emigration during the famine era compared to modern times.

Ireland's Famine-Era Emigration compared to modern times.

Wherever you go, you will always find an homage to Ireland, whether it be an Irish pub, an Irish name, a local with Irish heritage, or a flying tricolour.

Due to Ireland’s long history of emigration, the Irish diaspora can be found far and wide, most notably in places like Australia, the UK, and the USA. These days, emigration is still alive and well, albeit for very different reasons.

So, with that in mind, this article will explore Ireland’s famine-era emigration compared to modern times to see how times and circumstances have changed.

Ireland’s history of emigration – an overview

Picture of immigrants on a queue. Used to explain Ireland's Famine-Era Emigration compared to modern times.

Emigration from Ireland was most notable during the famine era, which occurred during the mid-19th century.

During this tragic period, between 1841 and 1900, a staggering six million people (about twice the population of Arkansas) fled Ireland in search of better conditions.

By 1901, the population had been cut in half, and those who were left behind perished from starvation or endured terrible living conditions. Of the countries the Irish emigrated to, it is estimated that nearly two million emigrated to the USA.

Others crossed the pond to the UK or went further afield to Australia and New Zealand.

During this period, many towns and villages, specifically in rural Ireland, were abandoned, the ruins of which can still be seen today. Yet, compared to modern-day emigration, this was not a choice for many.

Emigration to other countries meant a few things to the Irish people, including the opportunity to support and improve their lives and earn money to send home to their loved ones.

Interestingly, many people paid for their fares, with Canada and the USA being the cheapest at 55/70 shillings per person, making these popular destinations.

During this time, circumstances were dire, and many people had no choice but to up and leave their loved ones and homeland. However, how does this compare to modern-day emigration?

How times have changed – famine era versus modern-day emigration

Picture of a hand stamping a passport.

In Ireland, times have changed dramatically, with a booming economy, increasing job opportunities, and a much better standard of living – yet many people still choose to emigrate.

During the famine, people had no choice but to leave Ireland if they could afford it to survive and make a better life for themselves. Life in Ireland during this period was grim, hopeless, and without opportunities, which drove people to build lives elsewhere.

To do this, people could only travel by boat, either in standard class or by steerage, with the latter being the cheapest and most common option.

Steerage passengers were in crowded conditions at risk of disease, and it is estimated that 40% of steerage passengers perished on these renowned coffin ships either en route or on arrival. It is a much different scenario compared to today’s travel options.

Over the years, Ireland has seen a considerable change in emigration and immigration driven by its overall economic situation.

The 1990s saw massive prosperity, with migrant workers coming to Ireland from abroad to seek opportunities, while Irish nationals found a great reason to return home.

Yet, once the recession hit in 2008, people started to consider other options for job opportunities and a better standard of living.

It is estimated that 295,000 people left Ireland between 2008 and 2015, yet their situation was not as dire as the famine era when emigrants were at risk of disease or death.

Modern-day emigration saw skilled workers securing jobs abroad, allowing them to build a better life, while the transport options available were much more affordable, varied, and efficient.

With various flights, working visa options, and countries to choose from, Irish people had a more comprehensive range of options to secure a better life, unlike in the famine-era days.

Modern-day emigration – an ongoing trend

The front of an Irish passport against a white background.
Credit: Flickr / Allan LEONARD

Today, emigration is still alive and well, not only because Irish people now have the chance to live and work abroad in many countries worldwide but because Ireland’s cost of living has soared.

With rising prices, many Irish people have chosen to move abroad, where house prices are lower, wages are higher, and the cost of living is balanced. Yet today, this is a choice that many decide to make.

When living abroad, it is much easier to keep in touch with family members and to return to Ireland for visits since transport is much more accessible and affordable.

Unlike the famine era, there is no risk of disease or death when choosing to emigrate from Ireland, modes of transport are readily available, and Irish people have the luxury of deciding where they would like to build a new life.

Overall, while there are some similarities regarding people seeking better opportunities, it is clear that the circumstances are much different in modern times compared to Ireland’s tragic past.

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