Where Have All the Irish Gone?

Looking for a story about Ireland in time for St. Patrick’s Day? According to research by a Yale University economist, the population of Ireland fell precipitously in the years before the first World War – and never rebounded. This sharp decline in population was separate from the losses attributed to the potato famine, and its causes are harder to puzzle out.

Between 1851 and 1914, Ireland endured “the largest and most sustained drop in population in modern European history,” argues Associate Professor Timothy W. Guinnane in his new book, “The Vanishing Irish” Princeton University Press 1997 . “This is especially dramatic in the absence of any overt crisis like a war or epidemic.”

In 1845, before the Great Famine, Ireland’s population stood at 8 million. The next census, compiled in 1851, after the famine, counted 6.5 million people – a loss of 1.5 million people to starvation and emigration. Then, between 1851 and 1911, with neither famine nor war nor disease to explain it, the population continued to fall dramatically, going down to 4 million – a loss of another 2.5 million people. The population of the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland continued to decline right up until 1961, and then began a modest increase. The population of the six counties of Northern Ireland saw slow growth during those same years, except for a small decline in the 1970s. According to a recent census, the population of the entire island today stands at only 4.5 million.

Guinnane attributes these numbers to low rates of fertility coupled with high emigration, chiefly to the United States. He finds that “Ireland’s population is incredibly sensitive to economic situations,” leading to mass migrations out of the country and delayed marriages or lifelong celibacy when times are tough.

To arrange an interview with Guinnane for St. Patrick’s Day or earlier, call Gila Reinstein in the Office of Public Affairs, 203 432-1325.

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Gila Reinstein: gila.reinstein@yale.edu, 203-432-1325