The Vanishing Irish: Ireland’s population from the Great Famine to the Great War

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1997), The Famine, Volume 5

Many countries today face, or will soon face, one of two population problems. Some countries’ populations are growing so rapidly that sheer numbers will endanger their ability to provide schooling, employment, and basic social amenities to their people. Other countries face a situation nearly the opposite. Their population growth is very slow, or in some cases, numbers are declining. Ireland faced both of these problems during the nineteenth century: in the decades prior to the Great Famine of the 1840s, Ireland’s population grew at then-unprecedented rates, while for over a century after, the population shrank continuously. By 1911 there were in Ireland about half as many people as in 1841. Less than half of the total depopulation can be attributed to the Famine itself. The rest reflects low birth-rates and high emigration rates.
Depopulation was not confined to Ireland in the late nineteenth century. Agricultural transformation at home and the pull of higher wages in cities and abroad reduced the rural population in several regions of Britain and other European countries. Ireland’s depopulation caused considerable comment, as observers saw in the loss of people the loss of national vitality. The anguish caused by declining numbers was aptly summarised in a collection of essays edited by John A. O’Brien some forty years ago. In  The Vanishing Irish: The Enigma of the Modern World, O’Brien and many of his contributors argued that Ireland’s depopulation was unprecedented, inexplicable, and certain to result in disaster. Underlying many essays in this collection is the strong if usually unstated assumption that there was something unique about Ireland’s population history, including the depopulation. This kind of thinking has recently been challenged by Ireland’s economic and demographic historians. Using new sources and methods, and by comparing Ireland carefully to other, similar European countries and regions, historians have come to view this depopulation as fascinating and unusual, but reflecting quite general forces at work across Europe at the time.

Causes of depopulation

Depopulation in Ireland was primarily a rural affair, as it was elsewhere in Europe. Ireland’s depopulation reflects a demographic regime that combined three elements, each of which was unusual but not unique in western Europe at the time: the decline of marriage, continued very large families for those who did marry, and heavy emigration. Post-Famine Irish marriage patterns were an extreme example of a long European tradition. For centuries young people in western Europe had delayed their marriages more than elsewhere, with women rarely marrying before their early twenties, and in most populations some 10 to 20 per cent of adults never married at all. (Demographers call never-married adults ‘celibates’, but the term does not necessarily imply sexual chastity. Religious celibates were only a small portion of never-married adults in Europe—Ireland included.) Marriage in post-Famine Ireland declined in popularity to the point where, in 1911, about one-quarter of all adults in their forties had never married. A second feature of Ireland’s distinctive demographic conditions reflects not change but a pace of change that was, relative to other European countries, very slow. Elsewhere in western Europe in the late nineteenth century, couples began the widespread adoption of contraception. By 1900, couples in countries like England or Germany were having only half as many children as those in their parents’ generation. Ireland’s fertility decline was by comparison late, and many Irish couples continued to have large families long after this practice was uncommon elsewhere in western Europe. (Another common element of demographic systems elsewhere, children borne to unwed mothers, was comparatively rare in Ireland.) Finally, emigration from Ireland increased during the Famine and remained extensive afterwards. The rate of emigration from Ireland was often higher than for any other European country during the second half of the nineteenth century. In sum, the fewer and fewer marriages in Ireland did not produce enough children to offset the numbers who chose to spend their lives overseas, resulting in an ever-smaller Irish population.
These trends sound exotic today, and by the standards of some of western Europe at the time they were odd indeed. But no individual element of this system was unique to the Irish. Ireland might have had more bachelors and spinsters than any other European country in 1900, but several countries were close behind, and in several European regions marriage was nearly as unpopular as it had become in Ireland. Ireland’s fertility transition was relatively late and half-hearted by the standards of England or Germany, but once again Ireland had company in its high fertility levels early in the twentieth century. Emigration was not restricted to Ireland, either. Millions left Germany during the middle of the nineteenth century, and later on Scandinavia and southern and eastern Europe experienced mass emigration.
Yet Ireland’s depopulation remains interesting even if not unique. First and most importantly, the decline of Irish population from over eight million to just over four million made for a very different country. Second, even if Ireland shared a particular population pattern with, say, Scotland, we still want to know why this trend emerged in Ireland. Finally, the combination of marriage, fertility, and emigration that characterised post-Famine Ireland was unique, or nearly so; other places had elements of the Irish demographic regime, but only the Irish combined those elements in just this way. Why Ireland’s depopulation took this form tells us much about Irish society and the rural economy in the period between the Great Famine and the Great War.


Ireland’s marriage patterns have invited considerable comment but less systematic research. Two kinds of explanations enjoy some currency among scholars. The first argues that marriage declined in the decades after the Famine because people felt their incomes were less and less able to support the expense of marriage and children. This Malthusian interpretation owes much to the research of Professor Kenneth H. Connell, late of the Queens University in Belfast, who was an early and influential historian of Irish population. He argued that Irish farming families became increasingly unwilling to subdivide their farms or to provide dowries for more than one daughter, leaving many of their children to choose between emigration and a life of permanent celibacy in Ireland. There is a basic problem with this reasoning: average incomes in Ireland increased considerably in the decades after the Famine, until by 1914 the average rural person was much better-off than his grandparents had ever dreamed of. According to the Malthusian logic, this increase in incomes should have produced an increase in marriage rates.


A second style of explanation stresses a combination of cultural and psychological barriers to marriage. There are many styles to this explanation, and some doubtless contain a germ of truth. One version says that dutiful sons and daughters who delayed their own marriages to care for aged parents might have found themselves too old to make a comfortable marriage once their own filial obligations were past. This is a central theme in literary works such as Patrick Kavanagh’s poem The Great Hunger, where the farmer’s son Maguire remains ‘faithful’ to his mother until he is sixty-five years old. However fair as a characterisation of some individual cases, this kind of explanation begs the question of why such decisions were made more by Irish than by English people, and why they became more common in the late nineteenth century. Others have claimed that the Catholic Church discouraged marriage through various overt and subtle means. This claim is harder to credit. The Church encourages lay marriage, and the one-quarter of Irish people who were Protestant had very similar marriage patterns. In any case, Irish historians have usually stressed the Church’s role in providing solace for those left alone because of Irish marriage patterns, rather than seeing the Church as a cause of those marriage patterns. Another style of psychological explanation of Irish marriage patterns claims to find in Irish families and culture a pathological attitude towards sex and sexual intimacy, leading to a fear of the opposite sex and of marriage. These arguments are not just insulting to Irish people, they overlook important historical facts: every bachelor or spinster in Ireland had a counterpart in other European countries, both in the nineteenth century and earlier, and a great number of counterparts in the other peasant regions of Europe. If Irish people were emotionally diseased, they had a great deal of company elsewhere. More importantly, we are trying to explain a change in marriage patterns, and nobody has put for a convincing story about changes in filial piety or sexual repression.


So why did so many Irish people live out their days without marrying? My own view starts by looking more closely at those who did not marry. Emigration’s effects show up in many subtle ways in Irish history, and they play an unappreciated role in this context. People who lived out their days without marrying in Ireland had chosen not only to remain single, but to remain in Ireland. In fact, Ireland’s bachelors and spinsters in 1911 were a small minority of the total cohort into which they were born. To understand why Ireland had so many bachelors and spinsters, we have to explain not just why many Irish people decided not to marry, but why so many people remained in rural Ireland even knowing they were unlikely ever to marry there. (If we believe Malthusian accounts, that is, we are left wondering why a man who felt too poor to marry and to raise a family in Ireland did not simply join his compatriots in the richer economies abroad.) Remaining in rural Ireland, even as a permanent bachelor or spinster, held both economic and non-economic attractions missing in earlier accounts. Letters and other accounts of emigrant life often stress the harshness and insecurity of life in an industrial city abroad, in contrast to the comforts of familiar life and kinship networks for those who remained. Just having land, even if it meant remaining alone, was a source of security in uncertain economic times. The decline in marriage also reflects changes in what it meant for young people to marry. Rural marriages by all accounts were primarily partnerships to raise children and to run households, instead of the sources of emotional intimacy we think of today. Changes in the rural economy in the post-Famine decades made it easier for country people to run their farms and to provide for their comforts in old age without marrying or having their own children. People became not poorer, as the Malthusian view would suggest, or afraid of the opposite sex, as psychological theories imply, but simply less willing to accept the burdens of marriage and a family because it was less important to satisfying the economic goals marriage had once served. Thus emigration became a less attractive alternative for those unlikely to marry in Ireland, and marriage became a less attractive alternative for those unwilling to emigrate. Put somewhat differently, most people who remained in Ireland probably did want to marry, under the right circumstances, but their notions of ‘the right circumstances’ became more narrowly defined, and they were increasingly willing to risk a situation—such as the fictional Maguire’s, who could not marry while his mother was alive—that would prevent them from marrying at all.


Ireland’s late fertility decline has always had an obvious explanation—the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception. This argument once again overlooks the behaviour of Ireland’s Protestants. Careful comparison of the fertility of Catholic and Protestant couples in the early twentieth century has shown that while Catholic families were larger than Protestant, they were not much larger. In other words, even Ireland’s Protestants were, by European standards, reluctant to use contraception. (And to make a different comparison, in some other Catholic regions of Europe family sizes declined long before they did in Ireland.) Whatever the role of moral and cultural opposition to contraception among both Catholic and Protestant Irish people, it is worth noting that the economic forces encouraging smaller families elsewhere in Europe were not at work to the same degree in Ireland. Elsewhere, the increasing participation of women in the paid labour force encouraged smaller families. In Ireland paid work opportunities for rural women actually declined in the late nineteenth century. And elsewhere in Europe concerns over the cost of educating and establishing children led parents to have fewer of them. For Irish parents, especially those in poor rural areas, setting up a child cost little more than a ticket to America or Australia.
Historians have often pointed to the emotional cost and sense of cultural dislocation experienced by Ireland’s emigrants, but few have doubted that the vast majority left Ireland looking for better incomes elsewhere. Recently scholars have come to appreciate just how keenly young people in Ireland monitored the character of economic life abroad. Ireland’s post-Famine young people were, compared to other Europeans, unusually willing to pick up and leave home. Among major countries of emigration to the United States for example, a given difference between Irish and US wages would bring forth proportionally many more Irish emigrants than people from any other European country. Ireland had become a country where any improvement abroad or any economic crisis at home would quickly lead to a haemorrhage of her people.

Why Ireland’s population patterns?

Why were Irish demographic adjustments so unlike the adjustments underway in the major industrial countries of Europe? Some aspects of Irish demographic adjustment reflect historical facts that pre-date the Famine, and in some cases predate the nineteenth century. One was the nature of land-holding. Irish historians long stressed supposed defects in Ireland’s tenurial system as a reason for Irish poverty. The more important feature of Irish land tenure for demographic purposes was not the existence of landlords or the lack of leases, but the fact that most agriculturists in Ireland were peasants or relatively small farmers. The prevalence of these people among Ireland’s agrarian classes was only strengthened by the Famine and subsequent developments, as the cottiers and labourers who had been so important prior to the Famine virtually disappeared from the countryside. This is very different from England’s agrarian structure, where most agriculturists were landless labourers working for farmer-entrepreneurs. For those holding land or related to those holding land, virtually every demographic decision in Ireland reflected ties to land. Leaving Ireland meant settling claims to land, or cashing in one’s potential claim to the land. Marrying meant acquiring land, by inheritance or dowry.
A second historical fact that led to Ireland’s distinctive demographic adjustment was the Famine. By driving so many from Ireland in a short time, the Famine solidified an already-strong emigrant tradition. Young people growing up after the Famine could easily leave to join friends or relatives overseas. Thriving overseas Irish communities could finance emigration to a degree otherwise impossible in such a poor society. Once started, this emigration process meant that Ireland would remain a country of emigrants, as it has, and that virtually any economic crisis would lead to a heightened outflow. And that emigration would have profound effects on marriage and fertility, as we have already noted.
Is there no room in this view of post-Famine demographic adjustment for a distinctive Irish culture? My focus on economic change and on the institutions of land-holding and rural households does take the focus off some supposedly unique Hibernian attitudes and customs. This is only right; Ireland was not the only European country to have large numbers of bachelors and spinsters, or for that matter strong mother-son bonds, strong religious traditions, or any of the myriad other proposed explanations for Irish demographic patterns. But neither does clarifying the role of economic change necessarily leave us with a nineteenth-century Irish society identical to all others. Looking back at demographic change in the decades after the Famine suggests a more complicated process in which rural people adapted their behaviour in the face of economic pressures, and the new demographic patterns led to changes in attitudes that informed larger cultural changes. For example, children who grow up in a society where there are many single adults will think nothing ill of bachelors and spinsters, and perhaps be more likely to remain unmarried themselves. The demographic changes that swept Ireland between the Great Famine and the Great War reflected economic changes and specifically Irish responses to those changes. The result, over time, was a change in behaviours and attitudes that left lasting marks on Irish society.

Timothy W. Guinnane lectures in economics at Yale University.

Further reading:

T. Guinnane, The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914 (Princeton 1997).

D. Fitzpatrick, Irish Emigration, 1820-1921 (Dundalk 1984)

C. Ó Gráda, Ireland: A New Economic History 1780-1939 (Oxford 1994).

K.H. Connell, The Population of Ireland 1750-1845 (Oxford 1951).


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