Push and pull
People emigrate because they feel 'pushed' out by conditions at home or 'pulled' by attractions abroad. Because Irish emigration is unique in the proportion of women involved, historians try to find out the factors which motivated them and have made several suggestions.
- Panic flight from destitution and fear of destitution, especially during the Great Famine.
- Women's opportunities for marriage were limited in the post-famine period because now only one son could inherit the farm and bring in a wife. The other sons and daughters had to leave or remain unmarried when farmers stopped sub-dividing their holdings. The inheriting son's wife brought a dowry to compensate one or more of those who left or to compensate the older couple for their loss of control over the farm.
- Labouring people lost out in the shift from tillage to livestock in the second half of the nineteenth century. Insecurity delayed or prevented them from marrying.
- Marriage was considered the most respectable option for women but at this time more people remained celibate (unmarried) and the average age at which people married rose.
- Women's opportunities for paid employment were extremely limited. Manufacturing employment in Ireland was completely inadequate to absorb the 'surplus' sons and daughters in a country whose fertility rates were amongst the highest in Europe. Unmarried women who stayed in Ireland had little option but to remain dependant on their relatives.
- The decline in domestic industry deprived women of a traditional source of income. Few women could now earn a living by working in the home.
- People felt sure of employment and security in Britain and the US.
- They had relatives or friends there already who described their lives abroad and often sent fares to help younger siblings to join them, thus setting up 'chain emigration.'
- Many women spent several years in domestic service in the US to save money for a dowry in order to marry well at home or to marry the man of their choice.
- Women went to 'find a job and found a family.'
- A spirit of restlessness and adventure drove many to escape from a rural life they saw as dull and hopeless to a city life that might offer more variety and prospects. The cinema is said to have lured many abroad in the twentieth century.
- Assisted passage enticed some. Landlords and Poor Law Unions sometimes paid people to leave the country and there was a demand abroad for English-speaking labour.
Whatever the Irish women leaving the old homeland wanted in their New World, various governments all over the English-speaking world wanted them for purposes of their own. Central among these were production and reproduction - the very functions that had been ascribed to women in the traditional Irish marriage. In addition, many governments had a secondary use for Irish women, namely that they were supposed to civilize the male population, or at least quiet it down.
D.H. Akenson, The Irish Diaspora, Belfast, 1996, p.174
Five young people about to
emigrate from Corca Dhuibhne
Economic pressure as imagined by
Sean Keating (1889-1978)
Crawford Gallery, Cork
- Rank the 'push' factors in order of importance, in your opinion. Give reasons for the two factors you considered most important.
- Rank the 'pull' factors in order of importance, in your opinion. Give reasons for the two factors you considered most important.
- Can you suggest other factors pushing or pulling Irish people towards emigration?
- Imagine an Irish woman in the nineteenth century who is being 'pushed' towards emigration. Give her a name and describe her situation.
- Imagine an Irish woman in the nineteenth century who is being 'pulled' towards emigration. Give her a name and describe her hopes and ambitions.