A difficulty arises in measuring Irish emigration to Britain. Detailed shipping lists are not available because Ireland was part of the United Kingdom for most of the later modern period. However, the Irish were found all over Britain during the nineteenth century. For some it was their destination, for others a first stop on the way to America. Many never made that journey and remained in Britain.

About three per cent of people living in England and Wales in 1851 had been born in Ireland and the corresponding figure for Scotland was over seven per cent. Their presence frequently, but by no means always led to tension. They could be accused of bringing disease, of lowering wages, taking the jobs of the locals and breaking strikes. Many were victims of racism and religious bigotry. Some joined Irish nationalist movements while others were absorbed into English society.

Women went in increasing numbers after the Famine. As seasonal migrants they went from Donegal to ports in Scotland and England as 'gutters' in the herring industry. From Donegal and Mayo they went as 'tattie hokers' to the potato fields of Scotland and northern England. Sometimes they went with the local men, sometimes in gangs of women. Once there, they lived in primitive accommodation in 'bothies' where they often slept on bags of straw placed on seed boxes. One woman might be hired to cook for the rest of the gang. A Ballina man recalled his experiences in the mid twentieth century:

'Well, that way you had to sleep in there and all that was separating the women from the men was two blankets hanging across. ... Well, there was a woman then and you paid her so much a week. She'd have your potatoes boiling and everything ... '
Quoted in Anne O'Dowd, Spalpeens and tattie hokers, Dublin, 1991, p.200.

The decline of domestic industry in the west of Ireland caused many women to emigrate. The jute mills in Dundee absorbed some - 18.9% of the population there in 1851 were Irish, mostly female.

The Irish in Dundee were predominantly Catholic and female and worked successfully in the expanding jute mills in the city. There was an absence of a distinctive Irish ghetto and of the sectarian divisions that occurred in Glasgow. Dundee was a staunchly Liberal town with a proud belief in religious toleration.
Graham Davis, 'The Irish in Britain, 1815-1939' in Andy Bielenberg (ed.), The Irish diaspora, London, 2000, p.27.

The Quota Acts in 1921 and 1924 limited the numbers emigrating to the United States and less work was available there during the Depression in the 1930s. Britain now became the preferred destination. More women than men emigrated at this time, the majority single and aged 15-25, while men emigrating tended to be older.

Travel restrictions operated between Ireland and Britain during World War II but work was still available due to labour shortages in certain industries. An agreement was reached and about 100,000 Irish emigrated during the war - the majority male during this period. However, in the years 1946-1951, 1,365 women emigrated for every 1,000 men, the highest proportion ever.

Years Number of females who emigrated for every 1,000 males
1926-36 1,285
1936-46 671
1946-51 1,365

Irish women emigrated to Britain to nurse, teach, work in factories, work as domestic servants, and as bus-conductors. Trainee nurses in British hospitals enjoyed a less restricted regime - and therefore more freedom to enjoy social life - than those in religious-run training hospitals in Ireland and pay was better in England also. In 1951, 22.4 per cent of Irish women in Britain were in professions, mostly nursing.


  1. Why is it difficult to measure Irish emigration to the UK?
  2. What might be inferred from the account given by the Ballina man about conditions for women tattie hokers in the mid twentieth century?
  3. Why did Britain become the main destination for emigrants in the 1920s and 1930s?
  4. Suggest reasons why more women than men emigrated in the years 1946-51?
  5. Suggest reasons why so many women went to Britain to train as nurses.
  6. Discuss the benefits and limitations from a historical viewpoint of oral evidence such as that quoted by Anne O'Dowd above.


  1. Interview a woman who emigrated to Britain.
  2. Research emigration to Britain from your own area.
  3. Study the editorial from the Liverpool Mail of 30 Jan. 1847 in the Documents section.
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