Thursday, January 26, 2012

What if the Irish had not been able to emigrate?

I was chatting online with an Indian friend yesterday about the role of Irish people in the histories of surprising countries: Chile, Papua New Guinea, Argentina and so on. Then our conversation went like this:

R: pretty interesting that there are far more irish people outside ireland than in ireland itself

Shane: big time, yes
the two-step plan back in the 19th century
Step 1: Leave these sorrowful shores
Step 2: Mate repeatedly!

R: what would have happened to ireland though without these mass immigrations?

Shane: hmm
massive population growth
more famine
i guess
lots of fighting with british
general chaos and poverty

R: hmm

Hmm indeed. This got me immediately thinking about modern migration controls.

Emigration played a deeply significant role in Irish history, so important and traumatic that we were generally taught about it in terms of the Irish families losing their sons and daughters to the US and Britain. This was a powerful narrative here in Ireland, especially in the rural west where I grew up, and it informed even fiction, like the Brian Friel play Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), which I studied in school. That play depicts a young man in a small western town, weighing up his love for his home and for his uptight, silent father, with his frustration at the economic and cultural stagnation:
I’ve stuck around this hole far too long. I’m telling you, it’s a bloody quagmire, a backwater, a dead-end! And everybody in it goes crazy sooner or later! Everybody!
Millions of Irish people fled the country, mostly to the US, Britain, and Australia. The population of Ireland, which had been rising fast in the 19th century, collapsed during the Great Famine of the 1840s and continued to sink from mass-emigration for well over a century. This is how Ireland's population would look in time:
The fall, after the famine, was mainly affected by the vast scale of emigration. I told my Indian friend that when I was growing up we could expect every child in the local school would have cousins in the US. The American branch of the family was a near-total phenomenon.

The emigration drained the countryside of houses, emptying villages, leaving the land dotted with crumbling stone cottages, which I explored and played in when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s.
So, again, where on earth would all those people have gone if the US and Britain had sealed their borders to the Irish? Would there have been another catastrophic famine after a few years as the population recovered after the 1840s? My friend pointed out that Britain has far higher population density as Ireland, but Ireland was deeply underindustrialised, its Catholic population still recovering from a long period of sectarian persecution in which Catholics had been forbidden to educate their children. Could Ireland's cities have absorbed millions of desperate peasants? How would the country have developed without the millions of diaspora sending dollars and shillings to the desperate Irish family back home?

And if British and American sealed borders really would have sunk Ireland into a deeper demographic and economic disaster, what does it tell us about our responsibilities to poor migrants in developing countries today?

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