An analysis of Irish emigration and population trends by the Irish Business Analytics contingent – Ursula Mulholland & Gráinne McDonagh.

Irish people in the world: 6 million on the island of Ireland, 40 million in the US and 100 million in the world
We had heard this statistic several times over the last couple of years and never thought it could be true. However, following Ursula’s recent summer travels and Gráinne’s sabbatical we started to wonder if it could be right. Being Irish, it all starts in the pub…

No matter where you are in the world an Irish pub is rarely far away. This summer Ursula found one of the least Irish pubs ever in San Jose, Costa Rica – and in New York, Kuala Lumpur and Auckland we found the real deal packed with Irish customers and bar tenders. So how are there enough Irish people to frequent and staff them when Ireland has such a relatively small population?

The clue might be the fact that out of the 14 people in Ursula’s tour group in Costa Rica, three were born in Ireland, another had an Irish parent yet only one of the four still lived on the island of Ireland. Guinness is not our only famous export; Ireland has been “exporting” its people for years!
To estimate the number of Irish people in the world, we need to define what we mean by this. There are several different categories:

  • those born on the island of Ireland and holding an Irish passport
  • those born to at least one Irish parent and holding an Irish passport
  • those who claim their primary heritage as being Irish known as the Irish Diaspora
  • finally, those who claim to be Irish through a vague connection of their dog’s great-great-great-grandparents (Though it swings both ways – see Republic of Ireland football team’s use of the granny rule!). 

Historical Population Trends

Since Irish people have emigrated in such large numbers over such a long period of time, we need to look back over history and consider the migration patterns of the country. The point in time that many consider to be the greatest influence on emigration from Ireland is the time of the famine in the late 1840s, however, even before this time Ireland had a higher than normal migration per population. This was heightened by the famine and then for the rest of the 19th Century emigration rates remained high. In 1891 at least 45% of Irish born people were living in the USA, Canada, Australia or the UK. The population of the island continued to decline until the 1960s despite high birth rates. Emigration was the main driver for population decreases in this time. Some key dates are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Historical trends of Irish population (1841-2011 – some gaps) and migration (1881-2001)

  1. The Irish Famine (1845-1850) led to a dramatic population drop (20-25%) with approx. 1 million dying and 1 million emigrating in less than a decade.
  2. In 1910, there were more people in New York City of Irish heritage than there were residents of Dublin.
  3. The lowest population level in a census for the area now called Northern Ireland was in 1891
  4. For Ireland it took until 1961 to see a turning point in population trends
  5. The island’s population of 6.4m is becoming more diverse. In the 2011 census 20% of residents of Ireland were not Irish-born.
  6. A recent prediction estimated that the island of Ireland’s population could reach pre-famine levels by 2046.  

Current Population Trends

As Irish emigrant communities have become integrated into the society in their chosen countries it has become more difficult to estimate the number of Irish people. For example, it might surprise you to know that in Britain a three-generation Irish community could number 6 million. Some other interesting facts about Irish exports (yes Guinness and people!) are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Facts about Irish exports
Ireland is famous for its warm welcome and recent figures suggest that every year there are approximately 1.6 visitors to Ireland for every resident, compared to 1.2 visitors/resident for France (the country with the greatest number of tourists annually) and 0.5 visitors/resident for the UK. This year Ireland is hoping to boost those figures by hosting a series of events to welcome home its diaspora (The Gathering), an estimated 94 million (100 million minus the 6 million on the island!)

In the spirit of business analytics we have run the numbers to see what would happen if all 94 million non-resident “Irish” people came home this year. Let’s assume that they spread their stays evenly, stayed for one week and shared a twin/double room. With a whopping 658m hotel bed-nights occupied during the year, an additional 1.8m hotel beds would be needed! So our famed hospitality may be called on to host some long-lost family and friends, an average of 54 visitors per household over the year….that’s a lot of Guinness!

Historical Trends
Population trends in Ireland and Northern Ireland
Net Migration Ireland
Net Migration Northern Ireland
Current trends & interesting facts
US presidents with Irish links
US census
Australian census
Canadian ethnicity stats
Northern Ireland census
Scottish census
Irish migration to Scotland – source 1
Irish migration to Scotland – source 2England & Wales census
Guinness Nigeria
Irish hotel and visitors
2013 Top Visitor Countries